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A BRIEF HISTORY OF LANGUAGE TEACHING

 
 

 

    This chapter, in briefly reviewing the history of language teaching methods, provides a background for discussion of contemporary methods and suggests the issues we will refer to in analyzing these methods. From this historical perspective we are also able to see that the concerns that have prompted modern method innovations were similar to those that have always been at the center of discussions on how to teach foreign languages. Changes in language teaching methods throughout history have reflected recognition of changes in the kind of proficiency learners need, such as a move toward oral proficiency rather than reading comprehension as the goal of language study; they have also reflected changes in theories of the nature of language and of language learning. Kelly (1969) and Howatt (1984) have demonstrated that many current issues in language teaching are not particularly new. Today's controversies reflect contemporary responses to questions that have been asked often throughout the history of language teaching.

    It has been estimated that some sixty percent of today’s world population is multilingual. Both from a contemporary and a historical perspective, bilingualism or multilingualism is the norm rather than the exception. It is fair, then, to say that throughout history foreign language learning has always been an important practical concern. Whereas today English is the world's most widely studied foreign language, five hundred years ago, it was Latin, for it was the dominant language of education, commerce, religion, and government in the Western world. In the sixteenth century, however, French, Italian, and English gained in importance as a result of political changes in Europe, and Latin gradually became displaced as a language of spoken and written communication.

    As the status of Latin diminished from that of a living language to that of an "occasional" subject in the school curriculum, the study of Latin took on a different function. The study of classical Latin (the Latin in which the classical works of Virgil, Ovid, and Cicero were written) and an analysis of its grammar and rhetoric became the model for foreign language study from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Children entering  "grammar school” in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries in England were initially given a rigorous introduction to Latin grammar, which was taught through rote learning of grammar rules, study of declensions and conjugations, translation, and practice in writing sample sentences, sometimes with the use of paralled bilingual texts and dialogue (Kelly 1969;Howatt 1983) Once basic proficiency was established, students were introduced to the advanced study of grammar and  rhetoric. School learning must have been a deadening experience for children, for lapses in knowledge were often met with brutal punishment. There were occasional attempts to promote alternative approaches to education; Roger Ascham and Montaingne in the sixteenth century and Comenius and John Locke in the seventeenth century, for example, had made specifie proposals for curriculum reform and for changes in the way Latin was taught (Kelly 1969;Howatt 1984), but since Latin (and, to a lesser extent, Greek) had for so long been regarded as the classical and therefore most ideal form of language, it was not surprising that ideas about the role of language study in the curriculum reflected the long-established status is Latin.

    The decline of Latin also brought with it a new justification for teaching Latin.  Latin was said to develop intellectual abilities, and the study of Latin grammar became an end in itself.

   When once the Latin tongue had ceased to be a normal vehicle for communication, and was replaced as such by the vernacular languages, then it most speedily became a `mental gymnastic', the supremely `dead' language, a disciplined and systematic study of which was held to be indispensable as a basis for all forms of higher education.(V. Mallison, cited in Titone 1968:26)

    As "modern" languages began to enter the curriculum of European schools in the eighteenth century, they were taught using the same basic procedures that were used for teaching Latin. Textbooks consisted of statements of abstract grammar rules, lists of vocabulary, and sentences for translation. Speaking the foreign language was not the goal, and oral practice was limited to students reading alound the sentences they had translated. These sentences were constructed to illustrate the grammatical system of the language and consequently bore no relation to the language of real communication. Students labored over translating sentences like the following:

   The philosopher pulled the lower jaw of the hen.

   My sons have bought the mirrors of the Duke.

   The cat of my aunt is more treacherous than the dog of your uncle.

   By the nineteenth century, this approach based on the study of Latin had become the standard way of studying foreign languages in schools. A typical textbook in the mid-nineteenth century thus consisted of chapters or lessons organized around grammar points. Each grammar point was listed, rules on its use were explained, and it was illustrated by sample sentences.

    By late-nineteenth century, textbook compilers were mainly determined to codify the foreign language into frozen rules of morphology and syntax to be explained and eventually memorized. Oral work was reduced to an absolute minimum, while a handful of written exercises, constructed at random, came as a sort of appendix to the rules. Of the many books published during this period, those by Seidenstucker and Plotz were perhaps the most typical ...[Scidenstucker] reduced the material to disconnected sentences to illustrate specific necessary paradigms, the other giving French sentences for translation into German and German sentences for translation into French. The immediate aim was for the student to apply the given rules by means of appropriate exercises...In [Plotz's] textbooks, divided into the two parts described above, the sole form of instruction was mechanical translation.  Typical sentences were:" Thou hast a book. The house is beautiful. He has a kind dog. We have a bread [sic]. The door is black. He has a book and a dog. The horse of the father was kind."

    This approach to foreign language teaching became known as the Grammar- Translation Method.

 

The Grammar-Translation Method

 

    As the name of some of its leading exponents suggest (Johann Seidenstucker, Karl Plotz, H. S. Ollendorf, and Johann Meidinger), Grammar Translation was the offspring of German scholarship, the object of which, according to one of its less charitable critics, was "to know everything about something rather than the thing itself"(W.H. D. Rouse, quoted in Kelly 1969:53). Grammar Translation was in fact first known in the United States as the Prussian Method.(A book by B. Sears, an American classics teacher, published in 1845 was entitled The Ciceronian or the Prussian Method of Teaching the Elements of  the Latin Language [Kelly 1969]. The principal characteristics of the Grammar-Translation Method were these:

1.The goal of foreign language study is to learn a language in order to read its literature or in order to benefit from the mental discipline and intellectual development that result from foreign-language study. Grammar Translation is a way of studying a language that approaches the language first through detailed analysis of its grammar rules, followed by application of this knowledge to the task of translating sentences and texts into and out of the target language. It hence views language learning as consisting of little more than memorizing rules and facts in order to understand and manipulate the morphology and syntax of the foreign language. "The first language is maintained as the reference system in the acquisition of the second language"(Stern 1983:455)

2.Reading and writing are the major focus; little or no systematic attention is paid to speaking or listening.

3.Vocabulary selection is based solely on the reading texts used, and words are taught through bilingual word lists, dictionary study, and memorization. In a typical Grammar- Translation text, the grammar rules are presented and illustrated, a list of vocabulary items is presented with their translation equivalents, and translation exercises are prescribed.

4.The sentence is the basic unit of teaching and language practice. Much of the lesson is devoted to translating sentences into and out of the target language, and it is this focus on the sentence that is a distinctive feature of the method.  Earlier approaches to foreign language study used grammar as an aid to the study of texts in a foreign language. But this was thought to be too difficult for students in secondary schools, and the focus on the sentence was an attempt to make language learning easier (see Howatt 1984:131)

5.Accuracy is emphasized. Students are expected to attain high standards in translation, because of "the high priority attached to meticulous standards of accuracy which, as well as having an intrinsic moral value, was a pre-requisite for passing the increasing number of formal written examination that grew up during the century."(Howatt 1984:132)

 6.Grammar is taught deductively--that is, by presentation and study of grammar rules, which are then practiced through translation exercises. In most Grammar-Translation texts, a syllabus was followed for the sequencing of grammar points throughout a text, and there was an attempt to teach grammar in an organized and systematic way.

7.The student's native language is the medium of instruction. It is used to explain new items and to enable comparisons to be made between the foreign language and the student's native language.

 

    Grammar Translation dominated European and foreign language teaching from the 1840 to the 1940's, and in modified form it continues to be widely used in some parts of the world today. At its best, as Howatt (1984) points out, it was not necessarily the horror that its critics depicted onstrate that the study of French or Herman was no less rigorous than the study of classical languages. This resulted in the type of Grammar-Translation courses remembered with distaste by thousands of school learners, for whom foreign language learning meant a tedious experience of memorizing endless lists of unusable grammar rules and vocabulary and attempting to produce perfect translations of stilted or literary prose.  Although the Grammar-Translation Method often creates frustration for students, it makes few demands on teachers. It is still used in situations where understanding literary texts is the primary focus of foreign language study and there is little need for a speaking knowledge of the language. Contemporary texts for the teaching of foreign languages at college level often reflect Grammar-Translation Method principles. These texts are frequently the products of people trained in literature rather than in language teaching or applied linguistics. Consequently, though it may be true to say that the Grammar Translation Method is still widely practiced, it has no advocates. It is a method for which there is no theory. There is no literature that offers a rationale or justification for it or that attempts to relate it to issues in linguistics, psychology, or educational theory.

    In the mid and late nineteenth century opposition to the Grammar Translation Method gradually developed in several European countries. This Reform Movement, as it was referred to, laid the foundations for the development of new ways of teaching languages and raised controversies that have continued to the present day.

 

 Language teaching innovations in the nineteenth century

  Toward the mid-nineteenth century several factors contributed to a questioning and rejection of the Grammar Translation Method. Increased opportunities for communication among Europeans created a demand for oral proficiency in foreign languages. Initially this created a market for conversation books, and phrase books intended for private study, but language-teaching specialists also turned their attention to the way modern languages were being taught in secondary schools.  Increasingly the public education system was seen to be failing in its responsibilities. In Germany, England, France, and other parts of Europe, new approaches to language teaching were developed by individual language teaching specialists, each with a specific method for reforming the teaching of modern languages. Some of these specialists, like C. Marcel, T. Prendergast, and F. Gouin, did not manage to achieve any lasting impact, though their ideas are of historical interest.

  The Frenchman C. Marcel (1793-1896) referred to child language learning as a model for language teaching, emphasized the importance of meaning in learning, proposed that reading be taught before other skills, and tried to locate language teaching within a broader educational framework. The Englishman T. Prendergast (1806-1886) was one of the first to record the observation that children use contextual and situational cues to interpret utterances and that they use memorized phrases and "routines" in speaking. He proposed the first "structural syllabus," advocating that learners be taught the most basic structural patterns occurring in the language. In this way he was anticipating an issue that was to be taken up in the 1920s and 1930s.The Frenchman F. Gouin (1831-1896) is perhaps the best known of these mid-nineteenth century reformers. Gouin developed an approach to teaching a foreign language based on his observations of children’s use of language. He believed that language learning was facilitated through using language to accomplish events consisting of a sequence of related actions. His method used situations and themes as ways of organizing and presenting oral language-- the famous Gouin "series," which includes sequences of sentences related to such activities as chopping wood and opening the door. Gouin established schools to teach according to his methods, and it was quite popular for a time. In the first lesson of a foreign langue the following series would be learned:

  I walk toward the door.         I walk.

  I draw near to the door.         I draw near.

  I draw nearer to the door.          I draw nearer.

  I get to the door.               I get to.`

  I stop at the door.              I stop.

  I stretch out my arm.            I stretch out.

  I take hold of the handle.        I take hold.

  I turn the handle.                I turn.

  I open the door.               I open.

  I pull the door.                  I pull.

  The door moves.              moves

  The door turns on its hinges.     turns

  The door turns and turns.        turns

  I open the door wide.           I open.

  I let go of the handle.           let go.

                                                  (Titone 1968:35)

    Gouin's emphasis on the need to present new teaching items in a context that makes their meaning clear, and the use of gesture and actions to convey the meanings of utterances, are practices that later became part of such approaches and methods as Situational Language Teaching and Total Physical Response.

    The work of individual language specialists like these reflects the changing climate of the times in which they worked. Educators recognized the need for speaking proficiency rather than reading comprehension, grammar, or literary appreciation as the goal for foreign language programs; there was an interest in how children learn languages, which  prompted  attempts  to develop teaching principles from observation of(or more typically, reflections about)child language learning. But the ideas and methods of Marcel, Prendergast, Gouin, and other innovators were developed outside the context of established circles of education and hence lacked the means for wider dissemination, acceptance, and implementation. They were writing at a time when there was not sufficient organizational structure in the language teaching profession (i.e., in the form of professional associations, journals, and conferences) to enable new ideas to develop into an educational movement. This began to change toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, when a more concerted effort arose in which the interests of reform-minded language teachers, and linguists, coincided. Teachers and linguists began to write about the need for new approaches to language teaching, and through their pamphlets, books, speeches, and articles, the foundation for more widespread pedagogical reforms was laid. This effort became known as the Reform Movement in language teaching.

 

The Reform Movement

    Language teaching specialists like Marcel, Prendergast, and Gouin had  done  much  to promote alternative approaches to language teaching, but their ideas failed  to  receive widespread support or attention. From the 1880s,however, practically minded linguists like Henry Sweet in England, Wilhelm Victor in Germany, and Paul Passy in France began to provide the intellectual leadership needed to give reformist ideas greater credibility and acceptance. The discipline of linguistics was revitalized. Phonetics--the scientific analysis and description of the sound systems of languages--was established, giving new insights into speech processes. Linguists emphasized that speech, rather than the written word, was the primary form of language. The International Phonetic Association was founded in 1886, and its International Phonetic Association (IPA) was designed to enable the sounds of any language to be accurately transcribed. One of the earliest goals of the association was to improve the teaching of modern languages. It advocated

  1.the study of the spoken language;

  2.phonetic training in order to establish good pronunciation habits;

  3.the use of conversation texts and dialogues to introduce conversational phrases and idioms;

  4.an inductive approach to the teaching of grammar;

  5.teaching new meanings through establishing associations within the target language rather than by establishing associations with the mother tongue.

   Linguists too became interested in the controversies that emerged about the best way to teach foreign languages, and ideas were fiercely discussed and defended in books, articles, and pamphlets. Henry Sweet (1845-1912) argued that sound methodological principles should be based on a scientific analysis of language and a study of psychology. In his book The Practical Study of Languages (1899) he set forth principles for the development of teaching method. These included

  1.careful selection of what is to be taught;

  2.imposing limits on what is to be taught;

  3.arranging what is to be taught in terms of the four skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing;

  4.grading materials from simple to complex.

   In Germany the prominent scholar Wilhelm Victor (1850- 1918) used linguistic theory to justify his views on language teaching. He argued that training in phonetics would enable teachers to pronounce the language accurately. Speech patterns, rather than grammar, were the fundamental elements of language. In 1882 he published his views in an influential pamphlet, Language Teaching Must Start Afresh, in which he strongly criticized the inadequacies of Grammar Translation and stressed the value of training teachers in the new science of phonetics.   Victor, Sweet, and other reformers in the late nineteenth century shared many beliefs about the principles on which a new approach to teaching foreign languages should be based, although they often differed considerably in the specific procedures they advocated for teaching a language. In general the reformers believed that

  1.the spoken language is primary and that this should be reflected in an oral-based methodology;

  2.the findings of phonetics should be applied to teaching and to teacher training;

  3.learners should hear the language first before seeing it in written form;

  4.words should be presented in sentences, and sentences should be practiced in meaningful contexts and not be taught as isolated, disconnected elements;

  5.the rules of grammar should be taught only after the students have practiced the grammar points in context--that is, grammar should be taught inductively;

  6.translation should be avoided, although the mother tongue could be used in order to explain new words or to check comprehension.

  These principles provided the theoretical foundations for a principled approach to language teaching, one based on a scientific approach to the study of language and of language learning. They reflect the beginnings of the discipline of applied linguistics--that branch of language study concerned with the scientific study of second and foreign language teaching and learning. The writings of such scholars as Sweet, Victor, and Plassy provided suggestions on how these applied linguistic principles could best be put into practice. None of these proposals assumed the status of a method, however, in the sense of a widely recognized and uniformly implemented design for teaching a language. But parallel to the ideas put forward by members of the Reform Movement was an interest in developing principles for language teaching out of naturalistic principles of langue learning, such as are seen in first language acquisition. This led to what have been termed natural methods and ultimately led to the development of what came to be known as the Direct Method.

 

The Direct Method

  Gouin had been one of the first of the nineteenth-century reformers to attempt to build a methodology around observation of child language learning. Other reformers toward the end of the century likewise turned their attention to naturalistic principles of language learning, and for this reason they are sometimes referred to as advocates of a "natural" method. In fact at various times throughout the history of language teaching, attempts have been made to make second language learning more like first language learning. In the sixteenth century, for example, Montaigne described how he was entrusted to a guardian who addressed him explosively in Latin for the first years of his life, since Montaigne’s father wanted his son to speak Latin well. Among those who tried to apply natural principles to language classes in the nineteenth century was L. Sauveur (1826- 1907), who used intensive oral interaction in the target language. He opened a language school in Boston in the late 1860s,and his method soon became referred to as the Natural Method.

    Sauveur and other believers in the Natural Method argued that a foreign language could be taught if meaning was conveyed directly through demonstration and action. The German scholar F. Franke wrote on the psychological principles of direct association between forms and meanings in the target language (1884) and provided a theoretical justification for a monolingual approach to teaching.  According to Franke, a language could best be taught by using it actively in the classroom. Rather than using analytical procedures that focus on explanation of grammar rules in classroom teaching, teachers must encourage direct and spontaneous use of the foreign language in the classroom. Learners would then be able to induce rules of grammar. The teacher replaced the textbook in the early stages of learning. Speaking began with systematic attention to pronunciation, known words could be used to teach new vocabulary, using mime, demonstration, and pictures.

    These natural language learning principles provided the foundation for what came to be known as the Direct Method, which refers to the most widely known of the natural methods. Enthusiastic supporters of the Direct Method introduced it in France and Germany (it was officially approved in both countries at the turn of the century), and it became widely known in the United States through its use by Sauveur and Maximilian Berlitz in successful commercial language schools. (Berlitz, in fact, never used the term, he referred to the method used in his schools as the Berlitz Method.) In practice it stood for the following principles and procedures:

   1.Classroom instruction was conducted exclusively in the target language

   2.Only everyday vocabulary and sentences were taught.

   3.Oral communication skills were built up in a carefully graded progression organized around question-and-answer exchanges between teachers and students in small, intensive classes.

   4.Grammar was taught inductively.

   5.New teaching points were introduced orally.

   6.Concrete vocabulary was taught through demonstration, objects, and pictures abstract vocabulary was taught by association of ideas.

   7.Both speech and listening comprehension were taught.

   8.Correct pronunciation and grammar were emphasized.

 

    These principles are seen in the following guidelines for teaching oral language, which are still followed in contemporary Berlitz schools.

 

   Never translate: demonstrate

   Never explain: act

   Never make a speech: ask questions

   Never imitate mistakes: correct

   Never speak with single words: use sentences

   Never speak too much: make students speak much

   Never use the book: use your lesson plan

   Never jump around: follow you plan

   Never go too fast: keep the pace of the student

   Never speak too slowly: speak normally

   Never speak too quickly: speak naturally

   Never speak too loudly: speak naturally

   Never be impatient: take it easy

                          (cited in Titone 1968:100-1)

 

    The Direct Method was quite successful in private language schools, such as those of the Berlitz chain, where paying clients has high motivation and the use of native-speaking teachers was the norm. But despite pressure from proponents of the method, it was difficult to implement in public secondary school education.  It overemphasized and distorted the similarities between naturalistic first language learning and classroom foreign language learning and failed to consider the practical realities of the classroom. In addition, it lacked a rigorous basis in applied linguistic theory, and for this reason it was often criticized by the more academically based proponents of the Reform Movement. The Direct Method represented the product of enlightened amateurism. It was perceived to have several drawbacks. First, it required teachers who were native speakers or who had native like fluency in the foreign language. It was largely dependent on the teacher's skill, rather than on a textbook, and not all teachers were proficient enough in the foreign language to adhere to the principles of the method. Critics pointed out that strict adherence to Direct Method principles was often counterproductive, since teachers were required to go to great lengths to avoid using the native tongue, when sometimes a simple brief explanation in the student's native tongue would have been a more efficient route to comprehension.

    The Harvard psychologist Roger Brown has documented similar problems with strict Direct Method techniques. He described his frustration in observing a teacher performing verbal gymnastics in an attempt to convey the meaning of Japanese words, when translation would have been a much more efficient technique to use (Brown 1973:5).

   By the 1920s,use of the Direct Method in noncommercial schools in Europe had consequently declined. In France and Germany it was gradually modified into versions that combined some Direct Method techniques with more controlled grammar - based activities. The European popularity of the Direct Method in the early part of the twentieth century caused foreign language specialists in the United States to attempt to have it implemented in American schools and colleges, although they decided to move with caution. A study begun in 1923 on the state of foreign language teaching concluded that no single method could guarantee successful results. The goal of trying to teach conversation skills was considered impractical in view of the restricted time available for foreign language teaching in schools, the limited skills of teachers, and the perceived irrelevance of conversation skills in a foreign language for the average American college student. The study-- published as the Coleman Report--advocated that a more reasonable goal for a foreign language course would be a reading knowledge of a foreign language, achieved through the gradual introduction of words and grammatical structures in simple reading texts. The main result of this recommendation was that reading became the goal of most foreign language programs in the United States (Coleman 1929). The emphasis on reading continued to characterize foreign language teaching in the United States until World War II.

   Although the Direct Method enjoyed popularity in Europe, not everyone had embraced it enthusiastically. The British applied linguist Henry Sweet had recognized its limitations. It offered innovations at the level of teaching procedures but lacked a thorough methodological basis.

   Its main focus was on the exclusive use of the target language in the classroom, but it failed to address many issues that Sweet thought more basic. Sweet and other applied linguists argued for the development of sound methodological principles that could serve as the basis for teaching techniques proposed earlier by the Reform Movement and so laid the foundations for what developed into the British approach to teaching English as a foreign language. Subsequent developments led to Audio-lingualism in the United States and the Oral Approach or Situational Language Teaching in British.

    What became of the concept of method as foreign language teaching emerged as a significant educational issue in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? We have seen from this historical survey some of the questions that prompted innovations and new directions in language teaching in the past:

 1.What should the goals of language teaching be? Should a language course try to teach conversational proficiency, reading, translation or some other skill?

 2.What is the basic nature of language, and how will this affect teaching method?

 3.What are the principles for the selection of language content in    language teaching?

 4.What principles of organization, sequencing, and presentation best facilitate learning?

 5.What should the role of the native language be?

 6.What processes do learners use in mastering a language, and can these be incorporated into a method?

 7.What teaching techniques and activities work best and under what circumstances?

 

  Particular methods differ in the way they address these issues. But in order to understand the fundamental nature of methods in language teaching, it is necessary to conceive the notion of method more systematically.

 


 

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