Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Language learning methods

In my Methods and Materials class, we've been learning about all the major approaches to second language teaching, and how they related to contemporary theories of psychology or learning. Basically, every era that produces a method thinks it's The One...until they are overthrown a decade later by the next new thing.

Of peripheral interest is the fact that I can now look back on my own language-learning experiences and classify them into these methods, along with all the value judgments associated with them (some methods are very much frowned upon these days).

A quick primer:

The Grammar-Translation Method, aka The Classical Method. Language students sit in class and discuss L2 (the second language) almost exclusively in L1 (the native or common language). They read from L2 texts and translate them into L1. The written word is paramount and you can get out of a Grammar Translation class without ever having learned how to actually speak. The focus is on conjugation drills and the minutiae of grammar. This is how we learn dead languages, or languages we only need to do academic research.

The Direct Method, aka The Berlitz Method. I have a soft spot in my heart for this one. Basically some educators realized that sometimes it would be nice to, you know, communicate in a foreign language you've learned, and they came up with this approach. Berlitz has taken it mainstream. Check out their commercials here and here and here. Students of this method use only L2 in class and have to rely on the teacher's pantomime and use of real-life objects to convey the meaning of what is being taught. The Direct Method tries to skip over L1 and directly activate L2.

The Audiolingual Method, aka The Army Method. In the 1950s and 1960s, two things happened. First, Skinner's Behaviorist model of human learning, with all its repetition and imitation, became huge. Second, the United States decided it needed people to spy on the Russians and put military personnel through foreign language training using this method. The Audiolingual Method featured the teacher as the conductor of the class, and students repeated and mimicked and parroted canned phrases and dialogues until they could spit out gems like "I want a chicken salad sandwich" like a native. The problem is, we've since decided that that's not the best way to learn. Also, students of the Audiolingual Method are sometimes incapable of reorganizing their memorized, fluent-sounding phrases into more meaningful language, such as "I want a smoked turkey sandwich." They're stuck with chicken salad FOREVER.

Fast forward through The Silent Way, Community Language Learning, Desuggestopedia, and Total Physical Reponse.

The Communicative Approach. This is the current darling of the field of second language teaching. It values authentic language learning situations and contexts, and aims to prepare learners to function in real foreign-language situations. The Communicative Approach recognizes that there is more to language than just grammar, or just canned key phrases, and takes into account wider issues such as pragmatics and sociocultural considerations.

I'm pretty sure I learned Spanish and German via the Communicative Approach. The German textbook we used was called Kontakte, for crying out loud. I learned Russian in Russia and Arabic in Arabia, outside of a regular language classroom, so I can't say that instruction fell under any one method.

The biggest "what the heck?" moment for me when it comes to these methods is realizing, years after the fact, that I learned Japanese at the BYU using the horribly maligned Audiolingual Method. I have no idea how this managed to happen. I have dim memories of professors defending the textbook we used (Japanese: The Spoken Language) at the beginning of each semester, but at the time, I didn't realize why they were so defensive about it. Now, reflecting back on the language lab and the memorized dialogues, it's all clear: we were using an out-of-date method.

Still, I can't really pass judgment on the efficacy of the Audiolingual Method (or lack thereof) because my foundation of learning Japanese was four years in high school, where we used some kind of hybrid method created by the teacher. He seemed to draw from all areas of these methods and from all kinds of materials and I learned Japanese from him pretty dang well.

If you have studied a foreign language, what method did your teacher use, and how did it work for you?


Jessie said...

I took four years of French using what I now know is the "Classical Method." I love love loved French and was always top of the class, but even at the time I knew that I would never be able to communicate with an actual French person. I could conjugate like crazy, but didn't learn anything valuable in terms of sentence structure or conversational French, and was never comfortable with speaking anything other than memorized, parrotted phrases. And don't even get me started on the "slang" she taught us. Zut, alors!

Bridget said...

I think there is something so beautiful about the Classical Method. I realize it doesn't help us communicate but sometimes it is really good exercise for the brain to conjugate and figure out how the pieces of language work together.

breanne said...

What is "The Silent Way"? Now my curiosity is piqued. I learned Biblical Hebrew the classical way (which was great, because it's a dead language), Modern Hebrew through the Direct Method (which I think works great as long as it is in conjunction with something in English, like a textbook with English definitions--I can't tell you how long it took me to learn the word for "education" in Hebrew actually meant education. From my teacher's explanation, the definition I wrote down was "the teaching of ethics and morality to children in a classroom setting." I was way off), Chinese through the Communicative Approach (in the MTC), and Arabic with a mixture of all 4 of those you listed and I'm sure a few others.

Jill said...

I think that Total Physical Response is sooooo annoying. I think I learned Spanish in high school with the Classical Method. It didn't really enable me to speak well, but as soon as I started living in countries and having to speak it, I had a really good grammatical foundation and was able to incorporate it.

Bridget said...

TPR and the Silent Way really annoy me. I could hardly sit through the time we spent in class discussing those methods. The Silent Way especially is like some horrible, elaborate game of charades that never ends. Shudder.

Breanne, I wonder if anyone has ever studied the methods used in the MTC. I think my HS Japanese teacher taught us the way he was taught in the MTC and it really clicked with me. Does anyone who reads this blog speak Japanese? Did you learn it the Base way or the...other way?

Sarah Familia said...

I loved, loved, loved learning Latin via grammar-translation, but mostly because I'm just a grammar geek.

Spanish I learned via lots of passive input as a kid, and then from my native companions on the mission. But they laughed at me because I spoke in Book-of-Mormon-Spanish.

I am not sure how well I ever really learned Arabic, but I definitely found classes taught via the communicative approach to be more effective than grammar-translation, even though I find Arabic grammar endlessly fascinating and beautiful. Ancient Hebrew via grammar-translation wasn't that hard to piggyback onto my Arabic knowledge.

I moved to Italy knowing zero Italian, but my Spanish morphed into Italian pretty quickly. So personally, I think the most effective language-learning method is situationally-induced desperation.

Señora H-B said...

My Latin was, not surprisingly, taught via grammar-translation. I remember thinking that I should feel a little naughty for loving the rote translations and conjugations the way that I did, having just taken multiple language acquisition courses. I still can't bring myself to throw out my notebooks and flash cards because I just enjoyed it so much.

I learned some Italian as a small child (though I have no recollection of it). As a grad student, I learned it through grammar-translation. I took it to fulfill my readings for graduate students requirement. The grammar wonk in me (don't tell the functional linguist in me...) still loves this method.

I learned what little Quechua I know through the audiolingual method. I could ask you how to buy potatoes, but couldn't tell you what particle meant what to save my life.

Spanish is my primary L2. I began learning it audiolingually. I still remember my first dialog, actually (Hola Felipe, que tal? Muy bien, Esteban, y tu?). I have absolutely zero recollection of the basic classes I took at BYU. I think they were communicative, but I don't know. My parents moved to Peru before I served my mission in Chile, so my language acquisition became much more immersive. I do remember getting very into grammar as a missionary; someone sent me a pretty serious grammar reference that I still use today.

As a Spanish language instructor, I use the communicative method for lower-level classes. I still like to throw in a little grammar-translation for good measure, though. I'm not convinced that it's not a good way to really get into and understand grammar. I think that content is key and I really wish my department's curriculum better incorporated it at the beginning levels. They're also missing general awareness raising about cross-cultural differences for issues of pragmatics. Someday, I'll be in charge of the world and then we'll do it right....

Señora H-B said...

Yikes. That was an epic comment. Sorry about that!

Kathy Haynie said...

I began learning Spanish in junior high school (what "middle school" was called in the 60s) with the audiolingual method. I can still recite portions of the first "dialogue" we had to memorize. (Estoy bien, pero Luisa tiene catarro. Que lastima, lo siento. Ojala que se mejore pronto.) Even as 7th graders, we went to an elaborate lab 2x per week, with earphones and microphones and tape recorders so we could hear the language and parrot it back. Good times for the folks supplying all those materials! That method of instruction, plus a little more classic verb instruction (hablo - hablas - habla - hablamos - hablan) lasted through high school. It actually wasn't a terrible mix. The audiolingual practice worked on speaking skills and pronunciation, and the classic method meant that I understood how some of the structures, especially verbs, worked.

I didn't take college-level Spanish for another 15 years. When I did, I still remembered basic pronunciation and verb charts, which were useful. My instruction at the college level (1990-94) was all classical method, but we were expected to spend a term studying in a country where the target language was spoken. Since I was a mom with 5 kids at the time, I was allowed to substitute 3 weeks of intense immersion language study at a school in Costa Rica where I lived in a homestay. It was awesome.

I taught high school Spanish for 5 years after I finished college, and made 2 more immersion-study trips during that time. Even now, haven't taught Spanish for the last 10+ years and don't practice it nearly as often as I should, I can carry on conversations, read most things I encounter, and have a generally good grasp of grammar and vocabulary.

I guess I'm a good example for the value in a mix of approaches. I do NOT value TPS, although my husband (also a high school Spanish teacher) loves the TPR-S method, which incorporates repetition and stories. He uses it to augment the textbook, which is an user-unfriendly mix of communicative and classic.

Sorry, this is kinda long...but you asked...

breanne said...

What an interesting discussion. I'm still waiting to hear if anyone has done a study about languages at the MTC, which would be fascinating.

I am currently taking an Arabic class in Jerusalem through an organization called Polis, which offers modern Hebrew and Arabic but mostly teaches dead languages. But get this--they teach all their languages (including Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Koine Greek, and Latin) using the same complete immersion method! As I learned Biblical Hebrew totally through the grammar/translation method in English, this was stunning to me. I have yet to attend one of their ancient language classes, but I've never heard of full-immersion dead language courses besides these ones. Has anyone else seen a phenomenon like this?

Leonard Vice said...

With regards to regulatory services, I doubt some of their learning methods in a way that they do not seem to provide it well - that was before not until they were able to see what i the real need and wants of people and the community when it comes to learning.

Anonymous said...

God blessed me with the opportunity to learn some French and Hebrew in the silent way taught by Dr. Gattegno himself and Italian by one of his close associates. It was brilliant and wonderful. I have, unfortunately, witnessed attempts to use the silent way that, indeed, are horrific charades.


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