The History of Teaching English as a Foreign Language

Although the need to learn foreign languages is almost as old as human history itself, the origins of modern language education have their roots in the study and teaching of Latin. 500 years ago Latin was the dominant language of education, commerce, religion and government in much of the Western world.

However, by the end of the 16th century, French, Italian and English displaced Latin as the languages of spoken and written communication. The study of Latin diminished from the study of a living language to be used in the real world to a subject in the school curriculum. The decline brought about a new justification for its study. It was then claimed that its study developed intellectual abilities and the study of Latin grammar became an end in and of itself. “Grammar Schools” from the. The 16th to 18th centuries focused on teaching the grammatical aspects of Classical Latin. Advanced students continued grammar study with the addition of rhetoric.

The study of modern languages did not become part of the curriculum of European schools until the 18th century. Based on the purely academic study of Latin, students of modern languages did much of the same exercises, studying grammatical rules and translating abstract sentences. Oral work was minimal; instead students were required to memorise grammatical rules and apply these to decode written texts in the target language. This tradition-inspired method became known as the ‘Grammar-Translation Method’.

Innovation in foreign language teaching began in the 19th century and, very rapidly; in, the 20th century, leading to several different methodologies, sometimes conflicting, each trying to be a major improvement over the last or other contemporary methods. The earliest applied linguists, such as Henry Sweet (18451912), Otto Jespersen (1860-1943) and Harold Palmer (1877-1949) worked on setting principles and approaches based on linguistic and psychological theories, although they left many of the specific practical details for others to devise. Unfortunately, those looking at the history of foreign language education in the 20th century and the methods of teaching (such as those related below) might be tempted to think that it is a history of failure. Very few who study foreign languages in U.S. universities as a major manage to reach something called “minimum professional proficiency” and even the “reading knowledge” required for PhD degree is comparable only to what second-year language students read. In addition, very few American researchers can read and assess information written in languages other than English and even several famous linguists are monolingual.

However, anecdotal evidence for successful second or foreign language learning is easy to find, leading to a discrepancy between these cases and the failure of most language programs to help make second language acquisition research emotionally charged. Older methods and approaches such as the grammar-translation method or the direct method are disposed of and even ridiculed as newer methods and approaches are invented and promoted as the only and complete solution to the problem of the high failure rates of foreign language students. Most books on language teaching list the various methods that have been used in the past, often ending with the author’s new method. These new methods seem to be created full-blown from the authors’ minds, as they generally give no credence to what was done before and how it relates to the new method. For example, descriptive linguists seem to claim unhesitatingly that before their work, which lead to the audio-lingual method developed for the U.S. Army in World War IL there were no scientifically based language teaching methods. However, there is significant evidence to the contrary. It is also often inferred or even stated that older methods were completely ineffective or have died out completely when even the oldest methods are still used (e.g. the Berlitz version of the direct method. Much of the reason for this is that proponents of new methods have been so sure that their ideas are so new and so correct that they could not conceive that the older ones have enough validity to cause controversy and emphasis on new scientific advances has tended to blind researchers to precedents in older work.

The development of foreign language teaching is not linear. There have been two major branches in the field, empirical and theoretical, which have almost completely-separate histories, with each gaining ground over the other at one point in time or another. Examples of researchers on the empiricist side are Jespersen, Palmer, and Leonard Bloomfield who promote mimicry and memorization with pattern drills. These methods follow the basic empiricist position that language acquisition results from habits formed by conditioning and drilling. In its most extreme form, language learning is the same as any other learning in any other species, human language being essentially the same as communication behaviours seen in other species. On the other are Francois Gouin, M. D. Berlitz, and Elime de Sauze, whose rationalist theories of language acquisition dovetail with Linguistic work done by Noam Chomsky and others. These have led to a wider variety of teaching methods from grammar-translation to Gouin’s “series method” or the “direct methods” of Berlitz and de Sauze. With these methods, students generate original and meaningful sentences to gain a functional knowledge of the rules of grammar. This follows from the rationalist position that man is born to think and language use is a uniquely human trait impossible in other species. Given that human languages share many common traits, the idea is that humans share a universal grammar which is built into our brain structure. This allows us to create sentences that we have never heard before, but can still be immediately understood by anyone who understands the specific language being spoken. The rivalry between the two camps is intense, with little communication or cooperation between them.

Language education usually takes place at a language school. There are many methods of teaching languages. Some have fallen into relative obscurity and others are widely used; still others have a small following, but offer useful insights. While sometimes confused, the terms “approach”, “method” and “technique” are hierarchical concepts.

An approach is a set of correlative assumptions about the nature of language and language learning, but does not involve procedure or provide any details about how such assumptions should translate into the classroom setting. Such can be related to second language acquisition theory.

There are three principal views at this level:

  • The structural view treats language as a system of structurally related elements to code meaning (e.g. grammar).
  • The functional view sees language as a vehicle to express or accomplish a certain function, such as requesting something.
  • The interactive view sees language as a vehicle for the creation and maintenance of social relations, focusing on patterns of moves, acts, negotiation and interaction found in conversational exchanges. This view has been fairly dominant since the 1980s.

A method is a plan for presenting the language material to be learned and should be based upon a selected approach. In order for an approach to be translated into a method, an instructional system must be designed considering the objectives of the teaching/learning, how the content is to be selected and organized, the types of tasks to be performed, the roles of students and the roles of teachers. A technique is a very specific, concrete stratagem or trick designed to accomplish an immediate objective. Such are derived from the controlling method, and less-directly, with the approach.