Developing Linguistic Skill

Recently a friend commented to me that he didn’t feel like his Latin was improving. He reads regularly, speaks Latin with his students in class, and engages in at least weekly conversation. Here are just a few quick thoughts,┬áif you’re feeling the same frustration.

Plateaus are Normal

It’s entirely normal for learners to move through Novice level proficiency relatively quickly, and then level off at the Intermediate level. Don’t be surprised by this, just keep up your habits, and the growth will come gradually.

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

This one is a bit cliche, but true. First, we tend to be poor judges of our own proficiency. You are likely making progress that others recognize, but you cannot. Also, if you spend a lot of time talking with people whose proficiency is higher than yours, remember that they are also continuing to progress – you might be chasing a moving target.

Mental Representation is not the Same as Linguistic Skill

This is probably less obvious, and requires the most explanation. I won’t go in depth about the basic theories about Mental Representation – my own understanding of the concept stems from listening to Tea with BVP and talking with Justin of IndwellingLanguage and I suggest you check them both out (Justin’s article Teaching Latin to Humans includes a great primer on the concept). In short, Mental Representation is your brain’s understanding of a language, and Linguistic Skill is what you can do with the language.

Comprehensible Input (and lots of it!) is essential for developing MR. We tend to focus a lot on reading, because it’s a good way to get large quantities of input, and it seems to be the thing that most Latin teachers don’t do enough of. MR by itself won’t make you a better speaker, but you also can’t use language for which you don’t already have a well defined understanding. So, input has to come first.

Just like rock-climbing, playing the theremin, or riding a unicycle, if you want to get better at a skill, you have to practice it. If you already have a firmly established reading habit, try adding some kind of productive exercise to your routine. Keep a daily journal or a locus communis in Latin. Record yourself speaking in Latin, either just audio, or video. It doesn’t matter about what.

Serva Patientiam!

Most importantly, be patient with yourself. As long as you are working a little bit each day, to improve your proficiency, trust that you are making progress.

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