In this post, you’ll get a glimpse of the journey of language teaching over centuries. In the next post, you’ll learn in some depth how language learning and teaching has been conceived in different ways at different periods of time
A Broad Overview of Language Teaching
Languages have always existed in spoken and/or written modes. Formal language teaching has concerned itself at a given period with one or both modes. There is no language without its grammar and vocabulary. And the use or non-use of L1 in L2 learning is another aspect of language teaching. All these had their share in shaping language teaching.
Before this Century
In Ancient times, language learning was characterised by direct learning from native speakers and formal learning from bilingual manuals. Then came formal teaching of language kernels, namely vocabulary and grammar.
In the Middle Ages, teaching was formal through books and the vernaculars were slowly replacing Latin.
And Renaissance saw the vernaculars gaining ascendency as foreign languages. The formal approach was monolingual and oral through memorisation, imitation and repeated practice.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, a conflict is easily noticeable in the principles of language teaching. Translation was the principal technique; however, Montaigne believed in natural learning by direct exposure to the language in real situations.
The 19th century saw the culmination of what is known as Grammar-Translation Method and the beginnings of reform in language teaching. The focus was on the written mode and its understanding through grammatical rules and analysis and its mastery through translation. Gouin, perhaps the best known reformer, proposed alternative measures and reflected in them the way children used language. Sweet provided to language teaching what it had lacked all along—a theoretical base through incorporating truths from linguistics and psychology. He prescribed primacy of speech, accuracy in pronunciation, associating content with code.
The job of this century was to improve upon and refine the one that Sweet had taken up. Linguistics and psychology became the twin wheels of the language chariot. While Jesperson merely reflected the changing mood and trends of the times, Palmer made language teaching ‘scientific’ with selection, gradation and presentation of language items. The influence of linguistics and psychology can be seen in the insistence on ‘structure’ in situations, accuracy in oral and written production, habit formation. West, as a field practitioner, felt the need to develop reading more than anything else.
The role of these allied disciplines was more keenly felt in what came to be called the Audiolingual Method for it is a composition of structural linguistic theory, contrastive analysis and behaviourist psychology. Speech-based instruction for oral proficiency with accuracy was recommended, and to achieve this “recognition and discrimination ...followed by imitation, repetition and memorization” were to be the techniques. Code patterns through a variety of drills and substitutions were to be reinforced to saturation by eliciting only the correct response. The learner was just a passive receiver.
Such theoretical sense was seriously questioned by Cognitivists who claimed the learner to be an active and thinking participant in the learning process which was one of problem solving, gradual discovery and insight. Unlike the behaviourists, cognitivists believed that the learner learnt rather from knowing he was making mistakes than from not being allowed to make mistakes.
Control and direction of pedagogical practices through linguistic and psychological truths about language and learning continued. A set of psycholinguists influenced by Chomsky claimed that the language learner already has the rules at birth and the exposure to language data only confirms the rules that are genetically built into them.
Dodson’s bilingual method added a new dimension to principles of language teaching amidst these theoretical developments. It uses all the four skills simultaneously, aims to develop fluency in speech through pattern drills and hopes to achieve true bilingualism in the learner (by helping them to learn to ‘hop’ from one language to another) with judicious use of L1 restricted to the teacher only.
Old as new
L1 and L2
Monolingual or bilingual approach to teaching a foreign language dates back to ancient times. Formal teaching in periods I, II, IV and V used bilingual manuals, bilingual dictionaries and bilingual translations. Thus the need for L1 use in L2 learning was considered vital. Dodson’s method is only a rethinking and renaming of these early ideas. The monolingual approach initiated during Renaissance—“neither the teachers nor the textbooks made use of the learner’s mother tongue”—became the corner stone of what was known as the Direct Method in the 19th and the early part of this century. Palmer’s situational approach and the Audiolingual Method favoured monolingual approach though the latter did use contrastive analysis to identify and prevent learner errors. And West was not prejudiced against bilingual approach.
The two language modes
In Ancient times, middle ages, Renaissance, Montaigne, Locke, the written mode had always followed the spoken mode:
“This pattern of education continued...through bilingual manuals… at first orally... later
“...it was essentially oral approach, ... the learner...to go through conversation manuals..”
“... by direct approach to language spoken by native speakers”
“Locke ... began to emphasize the natural method...”
Situational Method and Audiolingual Method followed this principle. Learning primarily through written mode was recommended by Comenius: “language ... learned by practice...especially reading...”, by West who “maintained that reading should be given precedence...” and Jesperson said “ ... living language ...good reading selections.”
This is another essential language area that has engaged the attention of language teachers. It has had its place in language teaching:
(deductively) “serious attempt ... to ... grammatical structures...” (ancient times)
“through grammar exercises of various kinds...” (Middle Ages)
“...to such grammatical items as would cause difficulty “ (Ascham)
“grammatical rules and paradigms” (Plotz)
whereas Comenius “... abstract rules of grammar...” was for inductive method and Locke stressed usage as more important than grammar “...language created by ...the common usage...” Jesperson echoes Locke’s views: “...grammar ... subordinated ...to the understanding of the language in its totality.” Palmer like Sweet emphasized grammar learning through “...copious illustrative examples...” The Audiolingual Method was inductive in its approach while cognitive code-learning, deductive. And Hamilton avoided grammar completely.
Imitation, memorisation, repetitive practice as teaching techniques of the past are reflected in the present in Situational Language Teaching and the Audiolingual Methods through pattern drills and substitution tables. Translation was another technique that the past handed down to the present. Repetitive practice of the past reflects itself through Palmer as habit formation. Perception and cognition of the present was visualised in the past by Comenius and Locke: “to see, think and say”.
Principles of language teaching then has always been basically the same though they may be expressed in different terminologies. The only differences between the past and the present are in the treatment of language for teaching purposes: scientific and systematic and in the emphasis: learner and their interests as central rather than the teacher and their aims.