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Eureka: The evolution of language teaching
by Joseph Gatt
2018-01-04 07:26:53
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I just dropped out of a language teaching masters degree program (it was tuition free) and the main reason was there was no way for me to put forward my “rebellious” thoughts on the subject.

First, in classical language teaching theory, we tend to say that in the early days foreign language teachers used to grammar-translation method and the audiolingual method. Maybe some schools did, but here's a recap of history.

teach1_400In the old days, there were no tape recorders, books were printed in printing shops and foreign language books were rarely over 100 pages long. A lot of times, the foreign language books contained the alphabet (illiteracy was common in those days) then a list of phonics rules, the kind of rules language teachers spent hours focusing on, then the textbooks tended to finish with a small sample of the foreign language grammar and a few reading comprehension texts.

Let's put this concretely. If the foreign language taught was English you would have the ABCs, then phonics rules like the ph sound and the ch sound and how to pronounce the letter s depending on where the position of the consonant is, then you would have all the rules for vowels, as in ou is pronounced ow and au is pronounced aw and so on. Then you would get samples of English grammar, like the present tense, present perfect, present continuous etc. There were few drills, lots of explanations. At the school level languages were taught to the test, that is the main purpose of learning languages would be to test a student's ability to memorize phonics rules, and grammar rules.

In most textbooks you also had a little bit of reading comprehension, as in a text with someone introducing their family and perhaps a dialogue between two siblings. Your ability to memorize the dialogue was often tested. Then in some schools translation would be tested, but that was the exception rather than the norm. In other schools audioblingual methods were used, but that was the exception rather than the norm as well.

In today's world, people tend to argue that communicative language learning is the norm, that is the teacher sits with students and has them communicate in the target language, either through direct means by asking students questions or indirect means by having the students play roles. I taught several languages at some schools, and in most cases was the only teacher to use the communicative method. A lot of my colleagues still spent most of the class explaining grammar and phonics rules, and spent hours explaining vocabulary words. At least that's what I heard when I was in the hallways.

Now to the big omission in language teaching theory: cultural factors. In my experience, if you teach French to a group of Americans, you'll find this. First, your American students will be impressed by your ability to speak French. Second, they will want you to use the communicative method. Third, after a few weeks they might find the French language “illogical” as in why are nouns marked in the masculine or feminine.

Now let's assume you're teaching English to a group of French students. They might expect you to teach grammar, they might also expect you to insist on the correct uses of the language. They will expect to be corrected and will feel bad about making mistakes.

Now let's suppose you're teaching English to a group of Chinese students. They might expect the alphabet, phonics, grammar and any attempt at teaching them communication could be a waste of time. If you ask them to play roles, they might want to write down anything they will say and have you check it to make sure it's correct.

I know thousands of researchers have earned their bread arguing that the communicative method is better or that the engage, study and activate method is more efficient. But to me, and I know I'm being rebellious, language teaching theory should be at least 60 or 70 percent cultural. In Israel, you'll want a good sense of humor and lots of student participation. In South Korea, you'll want to have a suit on and do lots of activities that combine writing and speaking. In the Middle East, you can choose between the silent method if you're a native speaker and lots of grammar lectures if you're not a native speaker. In a lot of countries, language learners are not sure what it is they want to learn.

As for the methods, anyone who claims he or she has found the perfect method could be wasting your time and/or money. In my thousands of hours of language teaching experience, almost every class I had demanded a different method. The only thing they all had in common is they wanted clear rules when it came to grading. Clear rules for tests and grading is not necessarily something the students ask for, but it's something they never refuse. Another reason I dropped out of the language teaching masters' degree: professors did not seem to want to answer questions relating to what the scales were for grading. I didn't want to get screwed over again.

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