Upon taking the first steps in learning how to teach a second language, specifically English, it is immediately apparent that not only are there numerous teaching methods, approaches and functions but that many are likely to be familiar to the prospective teacher when recalling their own learning experiences, both good and bad. Investigation of the rationale behind each of them demonstrates that all have their merits (and demerits) although their best use in presenting a class will depend on the various other factors such as size and age range of students as well as their level of comprehension. Furthermore, the approach required for a group of small children will differ from that used for a group of business people, even if they both included proficient students, including the language and stimuli to introduce it.
Until approximately 100 years ago the prime method of teaching a foreign language was similar to that used in many other subjects. In effect students would learn by rote, learning and repeating words, phrases and grammatical constructs. Context and function were secondary in the same manner that the uses of mathematical functions were less important than unthinkingly reciting the times tables.
This ´grammar-translation´ approach, whilst suiting a particular type of mind, would clearly not be universally successful when attempting to teach a subject that required context, nuance and the ability not only to recite but to understand through listening, reading and writing, as well as speaking. This, along with experiments and technical investigation involved in areas such as mental health issues (particularly those that involved a deficiency in communication) led to the foundation of the direct, or natural, method. It has grown to become an extremely popular way of learning another language and takes as its base the manner in which the student acquired their first language. Indeed the fundamental difference in approach is such that more recent methods such as the so-called army method have been introduced to supplement it and fill in the grammatical structure gaps.
The function of the direct method is to focus the teaching on the target language with no interaction in the students´mother tongue. It requires well prepared activities that are, within an individual class, varied but in a manner that enables a thread to be seen throughout to provide a core lesson function. As previously stated, the attainment level of the students has to be considered to ensure the language is suitably pitched as does their age. Grading of speech is also important. Although it may appear to be a condescending observation, it is worth studying how a parent would pace and grade their language to a young child and compare it to how they then speak to an adult.
A further example would be to view a group of young children at, say, an intermediate level. One would have the same base method as that used for adults but with significant variances. To demonstrate the interpretation of similar methods but in different ways we can consider asking each group for a description of a horse. The group of children would respond that it is a large animal that is fun to ride. Small horses are called ponies and are different colours, often brown. They live in fields and eat hay but it is nice to give them cubes of sugar.
A group of biologists would provide a much more scientific response, referring to it perhaps as an odd-toed ungulate. Both definitions would be equally factual although if you were describing a horse to someone who was from another planet had never actually seen our animals they would have no more idea of what it looked like than if you were describing a bear. Is the horse large or small? It is large when compared to a cat but small when compared to an elephant. What does it mean to ride? What does ungulate mean?
What becomes apparent is that the foundation of the direct method, that of teaching students exclusively in the target language, brings with it challenges if there is no image that they can create in their minds. It is vital is contextualise the language, particularly when starting to learn as the brain will automatically default to the mother tongue unless there are clear visual and/or aural stimuli provided. Equally important is the need to create an environment that is calm and ideally not crowded with words and phrases from the students´ primary language. For example, a Spanish classroom surrounded with pictures accompanied with base words will not be ideal when getting the mindset into speaking English.
Having hopefully created the appropriate environment, what is required is suitable material pitched at the generic age and level of the students you are teaching. This can be extended further if a class is based at a company as examples can be used that link in to the business. For example, attending a fashion shop provides the opportunity to talk about contracts, types of clothing (and therefore numbers, colours, seasons, as well as clothes for parties or work). In this way grammar elements such as adjectives, pronouns etc. can be introduced without the student even realising it.
Similarly, a lesson with young children would involve more animated and shorter activities but would also brings aspects such as colour and number in to counting dogs, cats or similar. It is the same methodology applied to different homogeneous groups.
What is important with the direct method is to identify the pitfalls that are associated with it and try to overcome them within the class. It is said that it is not appropriate for large classes. This would be resolved by splitting the class into smaller groups when carrying out exercises, with close supervision from the teacher - i.e. not simply sitting in their chair but walking around to help and prompt.
It is also stated that it does not suit a person who is a comparatively slow learner. In fact from observation of group learning one often sees how the more advanced students will seek to aid those who might be struggling and of course it is always possible to place such a student in a lower level group if it is more appropriate.
In any teaching environment there will be strong and weak personalities - those who speak more and can, without being checked, take over a class. It is important to ensure that all people are brought in to the conversation or discussion. Relating a given activity to something closer to the group´s heart can help develop a topic. An example is the Donald Trump exercise. It is unlikely that you will find many people who do not have the commonly held belief that he is not a good president, that the world is a less safe place. However, if there is general agreement and the vocabulary is being grasped, it is possible to develop the topic by asking about the president in Spain. It is likely that you will get a more varied and perhaps provocative response that will engender discussion. As with the initial theme it is important that the teacher ensures that everyone has their say.
There is of course no completely right or wrong method of teaching. It is important, when considering the earlier traditional methods, to acknowledge that they worked; that people were able to learn to speak foreign languages fluently 100 years ago. However, the direct method comes a lot closer to providing the opportunity to acquire the building blocks to speak another language by using the same tools that children subconsciously used when starting to learn their first language. It is, however, necessary to acknowledge that the method is not 100% foolproof and to fill in the gaps. In this way the comparative lack of grammar based training can be compensated by using gestures to show past and future or by demonstrating that an exercise or topic used language in, for example, a particular tense. Most importantly, the direct method is more inclusive than the grammar based teaching as it focuses on the two main skills that everyone sets out to acquire, those of speaking and listening.
A class should not be ´off the peg´ but one that is tailored to the individual needs of the group you are going to teach. By doing so you bring in what is perhaps the most important element of successful teaching, that of rapport.Whether presenting an exercise for the first or tenth time it must be fresh, animated and dynamic and have at least a thread that relates to the group. Indeed such animation and dynamism, coupled with preparation, empathy and a desire to engage directly with your students will make learning a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
When considering the future of teaching English as a foreign language it is important to distinguish between
the methodology and the tools used to provide that learning. When looking back, we can see that there have been several platforms created, either at a functional or a technological level. The desired outcome remains the same and will continue to do so, that of imparting the knowledge and building blocks to acquire the ability to speak a second language. However this is approached, a student will still need to absorb the vocabulary and grammatical structures to converse, whether consciously or not.
Whatever political or economic instabilities may arise, English as the common language will remain the fundamental method enabling two or more non-English speaking countries to communicate. However, with the expansion of the global economy comes the need to factor in the variances of English as spoken in countries far away from the so-called motherland. English as spoken in America, Australia, former British colonies (such as India) will all lead to the necessity to incorporate such variations into teaching. The assumption that British English will fulfill everyone´s needs is already as outmoded as the idea that the only English one should hear was the queen´s English 30 years ago.
In terms of how the learning is brought to a student, this will follow the advent of new technologies in the field of communication. Technology does not normally advance in a linear fashion; it is more often a leap followed by a plateau as the world catches up with the latest advance. It is important not to jump on every bandwagon; 3D technology has had limited appeal across many educational and recreational boundaries so the idea that a 3D virtual teacher may be able to appear on a piece of hardware in the home may be possible but not viable.
If the desire of students is to communicate, the best method of teaching is exactly that. Speech is associated with gesture, nuance and inflection and regardless of what vehicle comes along to facilitate access to language, there will never be any substitute for direct interaction with a teacher. Many years ago the advent of cassette tapes (and then CDs) brought about the ability for people to purchase complete courses of language study in their home and beyond - many a fellow commuter would have been seen silently mumbling ´dos cervezas por favor´ on the train in an attempt to learn a complete vocabulary in the same way that people were convinced until recently that by putting a tape on repeat whilst you slept would embed the language at a subconscious level and make you fluent. Of course it did not; it simply meant you did not sleep properly.
In conclusion, the learning of language will always be subject to the whims of those wishing to seek short cuts, instant fixes and the ability to absorb whilst putting in no effort at all but it has been proven since time immemorial that the best way to communicate is to do exactly that - whether it is face to face, via a webcam or by wearing the latest gadget to enable us to see and hear someone who is not with us. Mobile phones are simply last century´s house phones that we can take with us; texts are 19th century letters that no longer require a carrier pigeon and WhatsApp merely enables us to have a video conversation rather than a purely verbal one with the added benefit of eliminating the need to send photos of grandchildren through the post but giving instant imagery. As teachers we may use a new platform as a method but we will still remain the single most essential vehicle of imparting knowledge in any subject but most importantly that of non-native language learning.