Viviana Vazquez Amado

My teaching approach


Approaches to language learning: Why keep it communicative

By Viviana Vázquez


Language has been a matter of concern for centuries. Plato, in his Cratylus, discusses the fact of whether language is natural or just a mere convention. Although the dialogue does not give a straight forward answer, there is no doubt that language is convention i.e. a kind of implicit contract among speakers of different languages. Many centuries later, Saussure is going to say that language is as important as to give shape to thought. The limits of language have also been studied, for example, by Wittgenstein. The latter was interested in discussing that we live in a linguistic world, we only know what we can name. We believe this is of paramount importance because when we learn a new language, we are enlarging our knowledge of the world. So far, we are in the realm of linguistics, a good introduction to a part of it: applied linguistics, the part of this discipline that studies how languages are learned and which is constantly being updated so as to know what is better for a language learner, how a teacher can approach the material to be taught; in a few words, applied linguistics focuses on an ever more effective way of teaching and, thus of learning. Pragmatics, another part of linguistics, is also worth mentioning: it studies the behavior of the speakers, how languages are learned and what are the different purposes of language: what we can do with language, including, of course, the context. This essay will explore the different approaches to language learning throughout time, but we believe this has been a necessary introduction because the importance of language is so great that philosophy is no longer interested in truth, its main problem is language, its rules, its misunderstandings, etc. This change in the object of study is known as the linguistic turn.

We think that now we are ready to discuss the possible solutions given to language learning in different periods of time.

The first method we will discuss, contrast and compare with others is the grammar-translation method. The name is quite clarifying but we can say that this method is based on translating whole texts word for word and memorizing grammar structures and long lists of vocabulary. It sounds horrifying but it makes sense: it was derived from the classical method of teaching Greek and Latin. The goal was to translate masterpieces or the classics. Modern languages were just beginning to be considered and the classics were models to be followed. Back in the 19th century, the belief was that the true mental discipline was achieved in this way, and modern languages did not contribute to that great effort. In this method, students are passive receivers of knowledge, the teacher is not a simple facilitator but the source of all the knowledge not to be questioned, just learnt. The main skills pactised were, evidently, reading and writing with a complete disregard of speaking. Thus, the scope of the method was very limited and the class was given in the native language. Today, this method is still applied to learn Greek and Latin at schools or universities, but as it is so unnatural and the exact translation is impossible, it is rare to find it nowadays applied to modern languages. There is, however, one good thing to say: if students, after experiencing such a great exposure to grammar could go one step further and practise listening and speaking, we could have a perfect combination of  accuracy and fluency, but this seldom happens.

There was, then, the development of the audio-lingual method. It has some changes compared to the grammar translation method, but still based on behaviourism: the notion that psychological process can be changed by changing behavior patterns. In this method, there is a lot of drilling for reinforcement and no vocabulary was taught. The teacher was a model students were meant to imitate. There is a strong concern for memorizing forms, and students had little control of their own output because the teacher was expecting a particular response. We are, at this point, still far from the communicative approach. But things began to change with what was known as Direct method or Natural approach. This method was an answer to the dissatisfaction with the grammar translation method. The way was being paved for the communicative approach. What was good about this method? In the first place, the learning conditions were similar to the ones used in the natural acquisition of the mother tongue. Grammar was taught inductively i.e. students were guided to make out the rule out of an example. Secondly, listening comprehension was introduced and eighty percent of the class was dedicated to speaking. There was also question making and the classes followed an order that can be briefly explained as follows:


Show      Say         Try (students´attempts)     Correction   Repetition (20 times approx.)


And last but not least, the idea of mental “saturation” was considered. At that point, the teacher was supposed to stop teaching and go to revision. This method, we believe, was a turning point and as from there the teaching of modern languages would change forever.

There was after this the silent way. The learner was somehow autonomous because the teacher was just a monitor, thus the role of the students was active. Great attention was given to pronunciation, there was no translation and everything was taught in a meaningful context. As the name suggests, the teacher was mainly silent, in this way the focus was on students´ speech, the response was supposed to be elicited, and students were encouraged to correct themselves, for example the teacher would mouth words or use gestures i.e the teacher was silent but always active. The most interesting thing about this method is that it was a discovery learning, there was plenty of trial and error and students drew on all their knowledge, not only linguistic.

Another interesting method was developed from the silent way: suggestopedia. The success of this method was strongly related to believing in the method, having an optimistic approach to language. We believe that the most important element introduced by this method was the idea of lowering the affective filter: psychological negative ideas both at a conscious or unconscious level were left aside. There was a “desuggestive” process: without pressure, liberation of any negative idea of possible failure, students would succeed.

Finally, we will consider the Total Physical Response. We believe this method works with children because it implied commands that required a physical movement. The game Simon says or the song Head and Shoulders or Touch something red…are typical of this method. For adults, it seems a bit awkward because it might work with kinesthetic learners (usually children) but it represents a real challenge for shy people.

To conclude, we can say that every method has its weak and strong point. We can see them as a stair case where each step has led to an improved, better version of the previous method. We personally think that it is important to give communicative classes, where the students are the centre and the final goal is communication i.e students should be able to convey their message, explain their ideas, be able to interact in a foreign environment. For all this, grammar must be considered as one, and only one, part of the class, whereas speaking should take eighty percent of the class. The role of the teacher, from our point of view, is that of a guide or facilitator helping the students not to get lost amidst huge aspects of learning a language. At one point, students will ask themselves: what is this teacher doing? Why is she saying what she says? Why is there an order in the class? The answers to these questions are hypotheses that are needed in any learning process: it is very difficult to learn new concepts, or words or any other type of information if we have not, first, developed the possible uses, ways and objectives of the course. In a few words, teachers should encourage students, inductively, to reflect on their learning process, the students must get rid of that old-fashioned passive role where the teacher would spoon-feed them. We need student- centered classes, students must be as active as the teacher. Furthermore, the teacher should consider how are emotions affecting the students: are they shy? Do they believe they are going to fail? , in this way she would be able to lower the affective filter and relaxed students always learn better. Also, we strongly believe in visual aids to learn vocabulary and avoid, by all means, translation, as regards correction, peer correction is the one we prefer.


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