TEFL History (in brief)

The bibliography at the back of the book I am currently reading is more like a telephone directory.  It’s really impressive!  And when bookshop browsing, one of my favourite occupations, and my eyes fall upon an interesting cover, one of the first places I look in deciding whether or not to buy the book is the bibliography, for it gives an indication of the depth and scope of background research.  But I’m not fooled neither.  It’s also academic name-dropping.  Slip a few names into brackets in the text, then reference them at the back of the book and it adds weight to your book’s credentials. 

So, when I mention  A P R Howatt and  H G Widdowson,  who wrote ‘A History of English Language Teaching’, likewise, don’t be fooled.  I am not ‘au fait’ with that particular  ‘oeuvre’, although I gather it’s the text book on the subject to have.  No, I simply read a review of the work on the internet (by Dimitrios Thanasoulas) through which I learnt a few interesting things, such as:

–  We do have a TEFL ‘Adam’.  His name was Gabriel Meurier – a Frenchman, who lived at a time (15th century) when French Huguenot protestants were being prosecuted and escaping to England.   On arrival,  Gabriel Meurier helped them learn English.

–  We also have a St.James’ bible of TEFL known as ‘Lily’s Grammar’ which, remarkably, stayed in vogue from 1509 to the nineteenth century.  ‘Headway’ has still got a few years to go to beat that record!

–  The method of Language teaching during this early period was based on ‘double manuals translation’.   No doubt, these were like our bilingual books of today.  I’ve tried using these to improve my French, but I can’t help slipping back to the English side.  The books of yesteryear also contained points on grammar, vocabulary list and pronunciation, including the infamous ‘ship’ or ‘sheep’ minimal pair.

– Then came ‘The Classical Method’.  This lasted for three centuries (17th – 19th) during which time Latin and Greek were pushed down the throats of young scholars.  Apparently it promoted ‘intellectuality’.   Of ‘vital importance’ in learning these languages were rules on grammar and syntax, the ‘rote memorisation of vocabulary’ and ‘translation of literary texts’.

[Reading about these vocabulary lists and rules of syntax one is reminded of the nineteenth century naturalist/taxonomist Carolus Linneaus who did so much in classifying plant and animal species.  It was ‘the thing to do’ at that time when naming and categorizing was possessing, understanding and controlling.  Perhaps it’s human instinct:  A natural process of ‘figuring out’ the world we live in.  Hence, naturally, it was applied early on to language learning.]

–  Next, this Frenchman ‘Francois Gouin’ came along and severely struggled with learning German.  Even though he memorized thousands of words, learnt by heart the rules of grammar, and translated various texts, he still he couldn’t hold a conversation in that language.  And to make matters worse, he then noticed that his three year old German nephew, who had recently moved to France, had picked up French almost overnight and was beginning to chatter away to all and sundry like a right washerwomen.  How come?  Well, Gouin was determined to find out.  So he observed his nephew’s linguistic progress and prowess, and then declared that he learnt by ‘transforming perceptions into conceptions and using language to represent these conceptions’ – from which grand pronouncement he created  ‘The Series Method’.

e.g.  I hold my beer glass – I raise my beer glass – I drink my beer – I belch.

Well, Monsieur Gouin really started the ball rolling with this theory and language teachers everywhere took note.  So, considering it’s importance, let’s assess what he meant:  In determining how his nephew learnt French so quickly, Guoin saw language as being used for its symbolic value. In other words – learn which symbols fit with which perceptions and you’re off.  Furthermore, give language a functional use relevant to the culture in which it’s embedded and you’re flying.

This all seems rather obvious, now, for how do you repair a car using a knitting pattern?  You don’t.  You need the car repair manual.  But in those days scholars kept hold of their own conceptions (knitting patterns) in order to examine other cultures (cars).  Cross-cultural studies had not yet come into being.

– It was Maximilian Berlitz (1852-1921), however, that really kick-started language learning along this new route by refining it’s process. Consequently, spontaneous communication became the key, using everyday vocabulary and little teaching of grammar.  And, as is well known, the Berlitz method took off,  for it worked, and second language acquisition became a world-wide possibility.   Berlitz schools are still going strong over one hundred years later.

– But the story does not end there.  For like the story of anthropology, language teaching developed through many twists and turns, and the next ‘method’ to arrive on the scene was the ‘audiolingual method’;  otherwise known as the ‘army method’.  This involved the disciplined and repetitive drilling of set phrases in order to learn structural patterns.  It also relied heavily on audio/visual aids to reinforce correct pronunciation with teachers instantly correcting any bad pronunciation.   One recalls Skinner’s behaviouralism and Pavlov’s dogs, which were not so far removed.

– Of course, when the free-living 1960s kicked in, such military methods took a beating and Skinner was kicked out.  Noam Chomsky then became the big name.   It was he who led the linguistic uprising against behaviouralism’s strait-jacket and encouraged language learning through creativity and ‘meaningful’ practice.  This was: ‘The Chomskian revolution’.  Sure, he believed in language ‘rules’.  He even suggested that some humankind ‘universals’ were lodged in the brain’s ‘deep structure’ to provide basic building blocks of such rules, which he he strongly advocated exploring.  That way, learners could make sense of new language patterns and make the ‘transformation’ between their mother-tongues and the new target language.  Hence,  Chomsky advocated a return to the studying of syntax;  albeit in a more discursive mold.

–  The 1970s then ushered in numerous ‘Designer methods’, such as ‘the silent way’ with ‘silent teachers’ encouraging students to sort it all out themselves.  Huh, what do we get paid for, hey ?  Then there was ‘suggestopedia’ which relied on the ‘superlearning powers’ of the brain.  Trigger these off, so the theory went, by subjecting students to ‘suggestive music’ whilst they chilled out on comfy bean bags, and a new language could be learnt in jiffy.  Like ‘the silent way’, this approach didn’t get many adherents:  I mean, there’s being hippy and there’s being  hippy.   Come on, man, get real!

–  Since the 1970s there has been a great deal of reasearch into teaching techniques.  The review I read on the net cited in particular O’Malley and Chamot’s (1990) ‘ten commandments’ for learners which were intended to encourage learner autonomy and discourage ‘spoon-feeding’.   Absolutely, I agree.   Nevertheless, rather than ‘throwing out the teacher with the bath water’ and reverting to the ‘silent way’, teachers remained present to direct and encourage communication.  Thus communicative language learning remains at the forefront of language teaching strategies.

– The 1990s built upon this learner-centred, needs-analysis based approach.  Consequently functional language teaching came into vogue.  Teachers became ‘facilitators’ and a more interactive ‘TTT’  style  (test-teach-test) replaced the more instructive ‘PPP’ style (presentation-practice-production).

– It is suggested that the way forward into the 21st century is by tie-ing all previous approaches together.   Each method can be useful in the right circumstance – even chilling out on cushions!   Thus ‘variety’ or  ‘blended learning’ are today’s key expressions and to achieve this goal teachers are more and more ‘researchers of appropriate teaching materials’; ‘innovators of new materials/activities’ and ‘designers of teaching environments’ (my italics).  Above all, teaching must occur in environments conducive to students’ enjoyment.  Lessons must be fun, interesting and useful to maintain their motivation.

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