By Declan Cooley

21 April 2015 - 10:53

The tourist has a task to accomplish, uses a model, and tries it out. Photo (c) John Fink, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'The tourist has a task to accomplish, uses a model, and tries it out.' Photo ©

John Fink, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

What is the best method for acquiring another language? Declan Cooley, CELTA trainer at the British Council in Poland, investigates.

One way to think about different approaches to learning a language is to look at two ends of the spectrum, i.e., two diametrically opposite ways to go about learning a language.

At one end of the spectrum, we have a tourist who wants to order a coffee in a country where she doesn’t speak the language. How can she order the drink without embarrassing herself or causing offense or confusion?

To find out what to do, she listens to other customers and tries to pick out the word for coffee. Initially, this foreign language sounds like a babbling stream of syllables with no discernible boundaries between words. However, after some time, one word seems to recur again and again at a moment where customers seem to be stating their order, and the tourist latches on to this word as being the word for ‘coffee’. She also notices a word that always follows it (never precedes it), which she interprets as a token or marker of politeness. She says the phrase to herself, rehearsing it so that it is right for her ‘performance’ in front of the server, and then approaches the counter, says the words in a slightly garbled way, possibly in the wrong order, tentatively with a smile, but meets with success: the coffee is ordered. The server might also provide a friendly correction of her pronunciation and word order, which our tourist can then repeat out loud or to herself.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have a literature-lover in his home country, who wants to learn a language by translating the front page of a newspaper. Knowing nothing of the language, he has a private teacher sit with him and translate the text word for word, sentence by sentence, while pointing out tense forms and parts of speech. As a result, he learns words such as ‘coffee’, among such other things as grammar.

What puts these approaches at opposite ends of the spectrum? Scott Thornbury, author of ‘An A-Z of ELT’, has spoken of how all so-called ‘methods’ need to answer the following nine fundamental questions about the process of language acquisition; and each answer needs to fall somewhere on the end of two opposites, given in brackets.

  1. What are the features of the language that the learner needs to concentrate on primarily (function or form)?
  2. How does learning happen mostly (via experience or analysis)?
  3. What is the main goal (communication or accuracy)?
  4. What is most important on the syllabus (skills or systems)?
  5. How should this syllabus be delivered (integrated or segregated)?
  6. What is more important in how the learner approaches the language (affective or cognitive)?
  7. What is the most prevalent teaching style (dialogic or transmissive)?
  8. How are predictable patterns of the language learned (inductive or deductive)?
  9. How much is the learner’s mother tongue necessary to help them to learn (monolingual or bilingual)?

The example of the café tourist showed an approach to learning that was more based on function (the need to order a coffee) as part of a real-life experience where she needed to communicate. Immersed in an second-language (L2) speaking environment, she concentrated her efforts on listening and speaking skills primarily. She took into account the emotions involved in the interaction, interpreted the language and modelled (copied) from a dialogue. In this way, she worked out the correct language, learned via the target language alone. She might also receive real-time corrections on her output from the server, which will improve her performance whenever she will repeat the task.

The literature-lover will focus on meaning, of course, but when he learns the rules, the most important thing will be the patterns in the sentences and the text. He can analyse these and possibly write similar examples to ensure he has understood the rule correctly. He will concentrate on labelling the parts of speech and the sentence elements such as subject, verb, and object. The focus is on learning the language as a separate subject during a certain time of the day. The learning involves a lot of ‘brain-crunching’ to understand the patterns, but his own personality and emotions do not really play a major part. Of course, his teacher is informing him as to what all the words mean, so he does not have to work out meanings for himself. Lastly, the learning is very much dependant on his mother tongue being used as the medium through which he learns the other language.

If we look back at the history of language-teaching in the UK, both of these approaches are present at its origins. The tourist’s approach is reflected in the earliest known manual for learning a language (for tourists going to France) which was written in 1396 by an unknown author, and consisted of typical dialogues one might hear in real life. There was no emphasis on grammar, since no description of French grammar for learners would be published until 1530: John Palsgrave’s book, helpfully written in English, aimed to help those who wanted to learn French. Later on, the first pedagogical grammar of English, 'for the benefit of all strangers', was penned by Ben Johnson in 1640.

The approach of the literature-lover has a long history from ancient times, eventually evolving into the grammar-translation method, which started in schools in Prussia in the 1780s. It included grammar rules, word lists to be memorised and translation exercises. The term ‘grammar-translation’ was actually a pejorative term used by critics of the approach, who wanted to point out the two things they most took issue with. And indeed, both school teachers and educational authorities did go overboard with the grammar and translation aspects of learning, resulting in course books stuffed with ever more tables of conjugations as the emphasis became accuracy for examination purposes.

In the mid 1800s, the private sector, perhaps capitalising on the increasing dissatisfaction with how state schools taught other languages, started flooding the market with books detailing new methods that promised quick results. This led to the rise of Berlitz in the late 1800s, which ushered in monolingual-only teaching, and a lesson shape very similar to the presentation-practice-production (PPP) approach to teaching languages.

Today, teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) incorporates these two extremes in some way. Task-based learning (TBL) is very much like the approach of the tourist: she has a task to accomplish, uses a model, and tries it out for herself to achieve a particular outcome. This is followed by feedback which helps her re-shape her output.

Dogme, which is a sort of offshoot of TBL, prefers that the students choose the task and topic themselves. Where it was developed, chiefly in Barcelona, the task was often a long, heated conversation and the topics those of everyday life.

The other extreme of a grammar-translation method still exists all around the world in many traditional teaching contexts.

English language teachers, sign up for our free online course Understanding Language, which started yesterday, 20 April 2015.

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