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Topic 1 – Didactic evolution of languages. current tendencies in the didactic of english as a foreign language. Communicative approaches

In this topic, I am going to review the history of language teaching methods, providing a background for discussion of contemporary methods. I am going to divide the topic into four sections. I will begin with a very brief introduction dealing with the origins of language teaching and establishing a difference between the concepts of method and approach. Then I will have a look at traditional teaching methods. In my third section I will deal with the new teaching methods. Finally, my last section will be devoted to the communicative approach to language teaching.

Changes in language teaching methods throughout history have reflected recognition of changes in the kind of proficiency learners need, such as a move towards oral proficiency rather than reading comprehension as the goal of language study. The contemporary attitude is flexible and utilitarian: it is recognised that there is more then one way to reach the goal of foreign language competence and that teachers need to be aware of a range of methods, in order to find the most appropriate to the learners’ needs and to the objectives of the course. It is often necessary to introduce an eclectic approach to meet the demands of particular teaching situations.

Nowadays, English is the world’s most widely studied foreign language, but 500 years ago it was Latin. In the 16th century, however, French, Italian and English also became important foreign languages. The study of classical Latin and an analysis of its grammar and rhetoric became the model for foreign language study from the 17th to the 19th centuries. As “modern” languages began to enter the curriculum of European schools in the 18th century, they were taught using the same basic procedures that were used for teaching Latin. This approach to foreign language teaching became known as the Grammar-Translation method, where from this point on I am going to analyse the most important foreign language teaching methods. This means that I am going to concentrate on the evolution of language teaching methods throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Before moving into my next section, I would like to establish a difference between the concepts of method and approach, which will be used throughout the topic. First of all, a method is a set of principles and procedures for teaching a language that are derived from a particular theory on the nature of language and language learning. This theory can be referred to as an approach. So we can define approach as a set of assumptions, beliefs and theories about the nature of language and language learning which operate as the theoretical foundations of a method.

After this introduction, I am going to move to my second section, in which I will analyse some of the traditional teaching methods.

1. The Grammar-Translation method. This method is derived from the traditional approach to the teaching of Latin and Greek, which was particularly influential in the 19th century. It is based on a meticulous analysis of the written language, in which translation exercises, reading comprehension and the written imitation of texts play a primary role, as the aim of learning a foreign language is being able to read its literature. Learning mainly involves the mastery of grammatical rules and memorisation of long lists of vocabulary, related to texts chosen for their prestigious content. Reading and writing are the major focus; little or no systematic attention is paid to speaking or listening. Accuracy is emphasised and grammar is taught deductively, that is, by presentation and study of grammar rules. The student’s native language is the medium of instruction.

Grammar-Translation dominated European and foreign language teaching from the 1840s to the 1940s, and somehow it continues to be used in some parts of the world today, but the majority of teachers recognise that this approach does little to meet the spoken language needs and interests of today’s language students. In the mid and late 19th century, opposition to the Grammar-Translation method gradually developed in several European countries, and this Reform movement laid the foundations for the development of new ways of teaching languages.

2. The Direct Method: Towards the mid-19th century, increased opportunities for communication among Europeans created a demand for oral proficiency in foreign languages that the Grammar-Translation method did not offer. Educators recognised the need for speaking proficiency rather than reading comprehension, grammar or literary appreciation as the goal for foreign language programmes. New approaches to language teaching were developed by individual language teaching specialists and together they became known as the Reform movement.

In general the reformers believed that the spoken language is primary, learners should hear the language first, grammar should be taught inductively and translation should be avoided. These ideas led to the development of what came to be known as the Direct Method. Another important aspect in the development of this method was the attempts to make second language learning more like first language learning.

The Direct Method is based on the active involvement of the learner in speaking and listening to the foreign language in realistic everyday situations. No use is made of the learners’ mother tongue. A great deal of emphasis is placed on good pronunciation. Formal grammatical rules and terminology are avoided. Grammar is taught inductively through experience in the language.

The Direct method was quite successful in private language schools, but it was difficult to implement in public secondary school education, as it overemphasised and distorted the similarities between natural first language learning and classroom foreign language learning and failed to consider the practical realities of the classroom. Other criticisms to the Direct Method were that translation, which they excluded completely, can play a useful role in language teaching; the way vocabulary was taught was often inefficient and slow, and as far as grammar is concerned, the inductive method of learning can be extremely slow, uncertain and impractical. Therefore, by the 1920s, use of the Direct Method in non-commercial schools in Europe had declined. The Direct Method needed some modification to make it suitable for language teaching in school and this is what the exponents for the Oral or Audio-Lingual methods did, trying to avoid the extremes of the Direct Method, but keeping the emphasis on the oral approach to language learning.

3. The Audio-Lingual Method: This methodology emphasises the teaching of oral skills (listening and speaking) before reading and writing. The emphasis is on everyday spoken conversation, with particular attention being paid to natural pronunciation. This reform was supported in part by a theory of psychology known as “behaviourism” developed by B.I. Skinner. Language is seen as a process of habit formation: structural patterns in dialogues about everyday situations are imitated and drilled until the learner’s responses become automatic. Students are not necessarily expected to understand grammar and grammar rules. Presumably the student should, at some point, arrive at the stage at which the structures and phonological system have been established as habits and can focus on the message, allowing real communication in the target language.

Audiolingual practices have, in recent years, come under strong criticism from theoretical linguists and psychologists and, most importantly, from teachers and students who found the specific practices extremely boring. One of the first problems brought by this method was the insistence on the development of oral skills with no use of printed materials. Another problem was the fact that habit formation simply didn’t happen at such a fast rate. Real habits (subconscious language acquisition) take much longer to establish than it is possible with any series of drills. Moreover, inductive learning is not suited to all students. The reaction to this problem was to return to deductive learning. Still another criticism to the Audio-Lingual method was that students simply repeated the drills without understanding what they were saying, focusing neither on the meaning of the sentence nor on the new rules they contained. But the main criticism was that even if the message or rule involved is understood and paid attention to, such drills are not real communication since they transmit no real message.

4. The Basic English Method: Several years before the Second World War, a different method was developed by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards. They found that it was possible to classify 850 basic words in English which occur most frequently. This is what is known as basic English, and it would include common verbs, general nouns, certain adjectives and operational words such as prepositions. Basic English works mainly through paraphrases, for example “small tree” for “bush”.

English speakers claim that Basic English is confusing, restrictive and inaccurate. Besides, extra sets of words are needed for specific fields so the lists of vocabulary included wouldn’t be “basic” anymore. On the other hand, Romance language speakers find it hard to learn phrasal verbs like “go in” instead of “enter” which would be closer to their own speech pattern.

After having a look at traditional methods, I will deal with new teaching methods. Since the 1960s, several fresh approaches to foreign language learning have been devised, aiming to provide a radical alternative to traditional methods. Advances in the fields of psychology, anthropology and the social sciences influenced on the way in which foreign languages were taught. A greater understanding of how the mind works, of the importance of communication between humans and of the development of the personality led to various attempts to establish a humanistic approach in the teaching/learning process. If foreign language learning can be made more natural, and the learner made more receptive to the task, it is argued, more efficient learning will result. Examples of methods which are based on these ideals or incorporate these techniques are:

a) Suggestopedia: This is an approach based on the science of suggestion. Devised by a Bulgarian psychiatrist, it has mainly been applied in the field of adult foreign language teaching. This humanistic teaching method tries to make the learning as relaxed and comfortable as possible (ex. armchairs, soft music, pleasant colours, etc) and to make maximum use of the brain’s capacity to combine the conscious and the unconscious for learning. This method tries to develop a positive attitude towards learning.

b) The Silent Way: A method of language teaching in which the teacher remains as silent as possible and elicits responses from the learners by using charts, rods (coloured blocks of wood) and gestures. This method aims to provide an environment which keeps the amount of teaching to a minimum and encourages learners to develop their own ways of using the language elements introduced. The aim is to help the learners to become self-reliant to select their own sentences and be in control of them, with good intonation and rhythm. The teacher does not repeat the material or provide sentences for students to imitate, and no use is made of the learner’s language.

c) Community language learning: A method of language learning which relies upon the learners to provide their own syllabus. The main aim is to create strong personal links between the teacher/counsellor and the learners, and thus, eliminate whatever is found threatening in the foreign language learning situation. There is no prepared material. The learners form a circle and start a conversation in the target language. The group conversation is recorded and transcribed and is later analysed by the learners and the teacher. This analysis then provides the basis for the teaching of particular language points.

All these methods are based on “learner-centred approaches”, rather than on a fixed syllabus and the dictation of the teacher. Such approaches would ideally involve the learners in decisions about what and how they learn and would require the teacher to be an organiser and guider rather that an instructor. However, none of these methods can be said to have achieved great success.

Many complex factors have contributed in recent years to what can fairly be called the “communicative revolution” in the teaching/learning of foreign languages. In my last section I am going to deal with the communicative approach to language teaching. A concern has developed to make foreign language teaching “communicative”. In communicative approaches, the emphasis tends to be on the use of language itself. It is important to focus on the learner’s knowledge of the functions of language, and on their ability to select appropriate kinds of language for use in specific situations. These are some of the characteristics of the communicative approach:

· Learner-centred teaching: the learners take on more active roles in the classroom and the teacher plays the part of “facilitator” or “resource person”. Pair or group work, role play and games are sorts of activities which help reduce the dominant role of the teacher in the class. Teachers have to cater for the specific needs of the group as a whole, but at the same time, making sure that individual aspirations are given due attention. On the other hand, they must pay attention to meaning and form simultaneously.

· More emphasis is being put on the correlation of linguistics forms to situational settings and the cultural environment in general. Notional or functional syllabuses are often used. They provide a major alternative to the emphasis of formal language teaching. Here the content of a course is organised in terms of the meaning that learners require in order to communicate in particular functional contexts. Major communicative notions include the linguistic expression of time, duration, frequency, sequence, quantity, location and motion. Major communicative functions include evaluations, persuasion, emotional expression and the establishing of social relations.

· More emphasis is put on the use of language than on the analysis of its structure; on the internalization of rules which generate sentences than on the mechanical memorization of endless and often meaningless lists of phrases and structures.

· The achievement of spontaneous communication and fluency becomes the main objective, even at the expense of grammatical correctness and accuracy. Errors and mistakes are considered as a normal part of the learning process.

· The traditional presentation of language, that is, catalogues of words, phrases and sentences, is rejected in favour of the introduction of larger chunks of language. In other words, both teachers and learners are encouraged to use genuine language in meaningful situations, which implies operating with units of meaning above the phrase or sentence level.

· Emphasis is often given to oral comprehension and production in contrast to the often exclusive attention to written skills found in more traditional methods.

· The need for increased attention to the teaching of lexis to avoid the frequent phenomenon of a structurally competent but communicatively incompetent student. E.g. Have you fire = Are you a match’s owner?

The ability to manipulate the structures of a language correctly is only a part of what it is involved in learning a language. There is “something else”, the ability to be appropriate, to know the right thing to say at the right time. In Hyme’s words,”there are rules of use without which the rules of grammar would be useless”.

· Methodology: Classroom practice should correspond as closely as possible to real life use of language. It is important to make sure that there are communication gaps in situations in which the learners are asked to perform, that is to say, the disparity in knowledge and experience that exists between people involved in communication with each other. Much of the interaction between the teacher and the learner in the classroom is extremely artificial because there is no “communication gap” between the participants.

· Authentic material: There is nothing wrong in itself with creating special texts for specific purposes. Scripted material is useful for presenting specific language items economically and effectively. However, authentic material gives students a taste of “real” language” in use, and provides them with valid linguistic data for their unconscious acquisition processes to work on.

Communicative methods have attracted universal interest and have influenced the practice of modern foreign language teaching. However, there has also been a critical reaction and both linguists and teachers are still trying to find the ideal methodology in foreign language teaching and learning.

To sum up, I would like to say that the theories of learning and teaching languages I have mentioned here must lead us to the conclusion that a sensible methodological approach to the teaching of languages should take into account both input practice and communicative output. While students need a lot of input, and while there must be an emphasis on communicative activities which improve the students’ ability to communicate, there is also place for controlled presentation of input and semi-controlled practice. What is required in the classroom is a balanced approach of input and output. This balance is the essential ingredient of the methodology, both for pedagogical reasons and for our student’s continuing interests in foreign language learning.