A Short History of Approaches to Teaching Foreign Languages

This is how I understand it. Please correct me if I’m wrong. One of the old fashioned methods—the Grammar-Translation Method—was originally used for teaching Latin and Greek, both of them highly inflected languages. The idea was for students to learn some grammar and some vocabulary so they could read and translate into English a literary text written by one of the Classical authors and then go on to do the same for other such texts. At that time, knowing Latin and Greek was the hallmark of a cultured, highly educated European or American. Modern French and German were originally taught using the Grammar-Translation Method because it was felt that the goal was to be able to read French and German literature in the original. If a person wanted to learn to speak the language they could hire a tutor or go live, work or study for a while in the country where the language was spoken. A few people were auto-didacts, i.e., people who could teach themselves a language and how to communicate in it. Before World War II, universities in the western world taught all foreign languages more or less using the Grammar-Translation Method. During the war, American military personnel were taught phrases in French, German, Italian, etc., to help them function in European countries. I still have my uncle’s government issue French Phrase Book. After the war, it was felt for the first time that language learners should be taught to speak the language while learning to read and write it. To force instructors to give spoken language top priority, the Audio-Lingual Method or Aural-Oral Method of the 60’s was mandated for most American high schools. Although the totality of my high school French was traditionally taught, I learned German and Spanish with textbooks from the Holt, Rinehart and Winston aural-oral series such as Verstehen und Sprechen and Entender y Hablar. After I caught on that it was all memorization I aced every test and my high school GPA began to soar! I was such a fanatic that I bought personal copies of all my language textbooks at a local bookstore in San Pedro and also all the A-LM (Harcourt, Brace and World’s Audio-Lingual Materials) textbooks that they used in the Palos Verdes USD, and I still have all of them! When I got to UCLA the college versions of the Audio-Lingual method were being used in a few departments, but not in the Department of French. UCLA professors Oreste Pucciani and Jacqueline Hamel had written Langue et Langage, an all-French textbook based on the theories and practices of Pucciani’s high school French teacher Ferdinand de Sauzé, which had been dubbed the Direct Method. The Direct Method was in vogue at UCLA and at Cal and Stanford (Jian and Hester’s Découverte et Création) for decades. In Direct Method classes the instructor never uttered a word in English. English was totally banned from the classroom from day one. Students had to answer instructors’ questions in French and then go up and write their answers on the board. The textbooks were grammar driven and logically ordered so that students were always learning new grammar and vocabulary based on that of previous lessons. It worked for many students, but not all. Several of my fraternity brothers frequently asked me for help with grammar and vocab. Direct Method works for French because of the huge number of cognates French and English share. It is more of a challenge to teach the other Romance languages via DM. I have the German version, Deutsch durch Deutsch, but I don’t think it was a big seller. Even though English and German are both Germanic languages, the big words in German are usually opaque to English speakers. Compare the French word ‘conversation’ with the German equivalent ‘Unterhaltung’. I took a summer course at UCLA on teaching via the Direct Method and the instructor assured me that it was the best way to teach any of the world’s languages. I sensed that that was bogus right off. Just try explaining Japanese SOV syntax and turn-of-phrase to English speakers in Japanese with no recourse to English. What a waste of time! Right up until the 1980’s, American universities tried to get through all the verb tenses in European languages in the first year, which left little or no time for students to talk to one another in class. Oreste Pucciani once said something like “Oh, no. We don’t want them to talk to each other in class; they’ll teach each other their mistakes!” Those who wanted to speak the language were provided with an optional year of conversation classes they could take while continuing second-year study of the language. In the mid 1980’s the Communicative Approach of Tracy Terrell (UCSD), partially based on the theories of Stephen Krashen (USC), swept the nation. Students were expected to study grammar before coming to class so they could spend class time doing Activities. To keep students’ anxiety levels down, instruction began with a rather long Silent Period, during which students could absorb the language with their Affective Filters (or “guards”) down and mostly respond physically instead of verbally to the instructor and textbook (Total Physical Response or TPR). After the Silent Period students could speak, but their utterances were not to be corrected (at least directly) by the instructor. The goal was to get students to speak the language even if they weren’t sure their grammar was perfect. Communicative Approach textbooks contained a huge amount of vocabulary. Tracy Terrell’s reasoning was that since most students take only one year of a language, they cannot be expected to speak error free, and that exposing them to a lot of vocabulary would make it possible for them to understand the answers of native speakers. Some of my good students told me that they were frustrated because they were never quite sure what they were saying was correct and were therefore hesitant to speak. After a year or two of teaching via the Communicative Approach, I decided to do my own thing, and I got vastly better results. The current in-vogue approach seems to be Flipping the Classroom, which means that students learn on their own by studying grammar, vocabulary and culture online before coming to class and doing mostly group work during class time with the instructor acting largely as consultant. I have tried this student-centered approach in two community college classes. For Spanish 1 it seemed to work kind of OK, but I suspect it was because many of the students had already had a year or two of high school Spanish. Most of them did not prepare for class. In Italian 1 it was a train wreck for multiple reasons, and I made the decision to switch methods mid-semester. I, for one, do not appreciate being forced to use any methodology I determine will not bring superior results. We are not university Teaching Assistants who are required to use current departmental methodology to teach mostly highly motivated students. I think we need text- and maybe cyber- materials that will give us the freedom to best serve the needs of our CC students.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s