Our experiences of language learning are invariably shaped by how we have been taught. In this blog post, I will introduce various methods for language teaching that have been used through the ages. Do you recognize the one your teachers have (predominantly) used?
The grammar translation method: If your language learning has followed this method, your learning would have involved learning lots of target language rules. You would then have applied these rules to translating texts from the target language into your native language and vice versa. You would have given very few opportunities to actually speak and listen to the target language.
The audiolingual method: If you were taught using this method, you would have learned the target language in the same work a mouse learns to associate spinning a wheel in a cage with getting food. It is based on the theories of behaviourism, meaning that the goal was for you to speak the language at an unconscious level. Your learning would have involved lots of grammar and vocabulary drills, repeating particular patterns. Discussions of grammar would therefore have been kept very brief, and the use of the native language in the classroom would have been minimal.
Communicative language teaching: This method aims to make language learning purposeful and to teach language for use in realistic communicative settings. Your classes would have involved lots of communication in the target language, often through role plays, partner work and group work. Although communicative language teaching can involve a focus on grammar, your teaching would probably have focused more on making you a fluent speaker. Grammar might have been practiced, but rarely in isolation from real communicative settings.
Do you recognize the method you have followed? When I learned English (mostly in the late 80s and the early 90s), the method used by my teachers was a combination of grammar-translation and communicative language teaching. There was lots of focus on grammar (I still have no problems of converting a sentence such as ‘Jim is repairing a car’ into a present perfect conditional, passive voice – ‘The car may have been repaired by Jim’), often practiced through translation. There was also ‘communication’, but often only for the purpose of practicing grammatical structures. In fact, when I first went to live in an English speaking country, speaking English utterly perplexed me. On the other hand, I passed a grammar test with flying colours many years after last having a proper English lesson.
Whatever method you have used, it will have shaped your experiences of learning a foreign language, for the better or for the worse. If you want to try your hand and another language, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have the same experience. Before you embark on a course, just ask you teacher or the institution where you will be learning how you will be taught, or ask to do a trial lesson to see whether the method suits you and your needs.
Unfortunately – but this is personal opinion – most British secondary schools generally follow the communicative approach with no emphasis on grammar at all. This means mainly that learners learn to repeat set phrases, without any idea on how to break them down and manipulate them. I believe this has de-motivated a generation of language learners.
So go ahead, get you head out of the sand and try again! This blog is there to help you on your way!