Methodology in Language Acquisition
The acquisition of a second or third language, as with education in general, has moved from the formal rote learning, memorization, teacher-directed approach of the past to the more contemporary, student-centered approach, whereby students have more input and control of their own learning. The acquiring of all new knowledge is dependent upon many factors, the most significant of these being teaching methodology and the students’ personal learning style. We also need to consider contributing factors such as the learning environment, students’ prior knowledge and cultural influences, to name a few. My experience across a wide range of teaching and learning situations, leads me to believe that we must take an adaptive approach as each situation is unique and requires a specific methodology or combination of approaches. All methodologies have their distinct advantages and disadvantages and we must always insure that we do not ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ but carefully extract the appropriate strategies from each to enhance our own personal teaching and learning environment. Therefore, it is vital that language teachers are familiar with and have experience in a variety of approaches to language acquisition in order to construct the most effective language learning environment.
The most popular method in the 19th Century was the Grammar-Translation Method which involves the learning of grammar rules, word lists and translation exercises but neglects the development of oral communicative language in context. Students develop an understanding of grammar rules that enhance their written language at the expense of learning to communicate effectively in the second language. Most interaction is initiated by the teacher and there is very little student—student interaction. The GTM is, therefore, not a popular method in our contemporary approach, but aspects of it could be useful in specific circumstances, such as, students studying essay writing for academic purposes, in preparation for commencing study in the target language at University or College. In this instance, a sound knowledge of grammatical rules is essential. The Communicative approach, or Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), where authentic texts and interactions link the target language to real life situations, the learning objective being communicative competence, is in stark contrast to GTM. The teacher is a facilitator of communication and his role is to activate communication between the teacher and student and also between students, therefore his role is less dominant than in the Grammar Translation Method, and some of other more obscure methods, such as the Callan Method, Suggestopedia, The Silent Way and the Audio-Lingual Approach. In the Communicative Language Approach, students develop strategies for understanding language as it is authentically used and all four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing, are included. Activities can be carried out pairs, small groups and whole group, with students actively negotiating meaning and becoming ‘responsible managers of their own learning.(1) Another approach that lends itself to our more contemporary student-centred learning, is the Direct Method. Although the Direct Method includes all four skills from the start, oral communication is foremost and the aim is for students to learn how to think in the target language and use of mother tongue is prohibited. The aim is to teach the target language in the same way the student learned their first language, by placing the emphases on speech and the objective is for students is to able to understand and converse in this language.
The choice of methodology is dependent upon the purpose of the second or third language acquisition. If the sole purpose of learning another language is for oral communication then the Direct Method, whereby spoken language is emphasized over written, and instruction is based on real life scenarios, could be consider appropriate, although with some adaptation of activities and strategies. The students play an active role in their own learning and the teachers’ role is one of facilitator or instructor. The Communicative Approach may also be considered and I adapted this method when teaching a group of specialist Doctors in Laos. At the start of the course I asked what they most wanted to achieve by participating in classes. They all expressed a desire for more effective communication, both oral and written, when dealing with English speaking patients, colleagues, staff and when participating in International Conferences. We had a text book, but together extracted topics and authentic material that they felt most valuable to them. However, if the student is acquiring the new language to communicate both orally and with written language for academic purposes, the methodology would change or be adapted. The teacher may find adapting some of the Grammar-Translation method, using a lexicon-grammatical and task based syllabus more effective, whereby the students learn grammar rules in order to translate from one language to another. The teacher is more of an authority and initiates or dictates the syllabus content and testing is in a written format. The roles of teacher and student are more defined. There are times also, when we need to adapt and modify our approach throughout the course as students’ needs change. This may happen when the teacher discovers a gap in learning or when there is a difference in levels of students within the class. Strategies and activities need to be carefully scaffolded to be inclusive of all students and aimed at developing confidence and self-esteem. The Direct Method lends itself to young learners, whereby pictures, games and role play, assist students in associating meaning and target language directly, without translation. Students in ESL/EAL classes in mainstream schools are taught predominantly by this method with very young students (kindergarten) relying solely on the immersion method. Sentence structures are used to practice vocabulary in meaningful context and grammar is usually taught inductively.
Students learn more effectively if teaching methods are matched to their preferred learning styles. What is a learning style? Ellis (1985) described a learning styles as the more or less consistent way in which a person perceives, conceptualizes, organizes and recalls information. (2)Learning styles are influenced by genetic make-up, previous learning experiences, culture and the society we live in. There are many ways of looking at learning styles, but the four basic modalities are visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and tactile. Visual learners are assisted by visual aids such as posters, flashcards, board games and graphic organizers. These are particularly useful for young learners. Auditory learners learn best through audio tapes, storytelling, chants, memorization and drills. These activities allow learners to work in small groups and pairs. Small group and partner activities are useful for classes where students are reluctant to participate and also give the teacher the opportunity to circulate and observe student participation. Role plays, board games, competitions and physical activities interspersed with quieter activities, provide for students, especially children, who have difficulty sitting quietly for long periods. With young learners, I usually start and finish the lesson with a short game or physical activity and sometimes insert a role play in the middle of the lesson, to cater for kinaesthetic and tactile learners. Games, demonstrations and presentations can also be used within all age groups and I have found, are enjoyed by students in both young learner and adult classes. Of course individual student learning style is not the only influence on success in second language acquisition. There are other things to be considered, such as the students’ previous educational experience and their degree of exposure and use of the second language. In some situations, students do not encounter the second language outside the classroom, so teachers need to develop strategies to counteract this. These strategies will vary depending on the student but a few I have used are eg. With teenagers, asking them to text each other in the second language, watching news in the second language and reporting back to the class. For adults, I have also corresponded via email or Facebook. These activities are of course, dependent upon the circumstances and resources available. Another important impact is the similarities and differences between the first and second language. The similarities provide ‘hooks’ for students to attach their learning to. Using cognates is an example of this. The learners’ age and attitude to learning the second language, the learners’ in-school and out-of-school environment and the students’ competence in their first language (including the level of literacy skills) can also impact upon choice of methodology.
When talking about learning language in context, James Halliday (3) draws our attention to both the cultural context and the context of situation, and we need to effectively incorporate both into our scaffolding of language lessons. The importance of appropriate lesson planning and preparation cannot be overestimated, with teachers often needing to consider all possible outcomes, particularly in the Communicative and Direct approaches, where students have a more active role in the lesson direction. The teacher needs to be familiar with and sensitive to their students’ individual circumstance and have an understanding of their needs. Learning takes place in an environment where students feel safe, nurtured and valued. In my personal approach I often make a mistake so that the students can correct me or so that they see that ‘to err is human’ and errors can be seen as just another tool for learning, especially when dealing with students whose cultural background dictates errors are unacceptable. This often brings a more relaxed and comfortable feeling into the class and learning becomes more of a partnership. As a teacher, I feel that emphasis ideally, should be concentrated on students self-correcting or using the information gap method with other students, to solve language difficulties and the teacher being last resource for correction. This way, students can work together to support each other in a non-threatening environment. As life-long learners we learn most through doing, by being active participants in our learning, so I prefer the Direct and Communicative Methods in my teaching, whilst also incorporating aspects of other methodologies so as to create a holistic approach. Above all, the acquisition of language should be an enjoyable and engaging experience.