Language learning methods

Yesterday I came across an interesting article entitled “On the mortality of language learning methods” which discusses how methods for learning foreign languages appear, prosper, disappear, and then reappear.

Over the past century many different methods or approaches have been applied to the teaching and learning of foreign languages. Since the 1960s, for example there has been a shift from approaches that concentrate on learning grammar, vocabulary and on translation, to approaches the emphasise communication, especially speaking. The same thing also happened in the second half of the 19th century.

Much research has been undertaken into language learning and teaching, but as far as I can discover, no single approach or method has been found to work significantly better than any other, in spite of claims to the contrary by the inventors, founders and promoters of particular methods and approaches. Moreover, each new development in technology, whether it be the phonograph, radio, television, computer or internet, is expected to transform the way people learn languages. However this doesn’t necessarily happen.

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

11 Responses to Language learning methods

  1. Ryan says:

    I have to say, I really hate the modern de-emphasis on translation that the Russian textbook Golosa takes. You get maybe 3 short texts at the end of every chapter (which were always my favorite part of each lesson). After a year of Latin with Wheelock and a term of Old Church Slavonic with Lunt, I really do have to say that intensive translation really works for me. The article’s author really does a good job of underscoring that successful language learning methods, for large classes at least, need a lot of different ways to get at the same stuff.

  2. Florestan says:

    Small correction:
    “Plus ça change, plus *c’est* la même chose”

    Originally a quote from Alphonse Karr’s “Les Guêpes”, but the expression is more well-known in English-speaking countries than it is in France, for some reason!

  3. Dennis King says:

    recte: *c’est* la même…

  4. JoeInAtlanta says:

    I really dislike the emphasis of so many “newer” courses on conversation at the expense of the fundamentals.

    For example, if I don’t learn all of the conjugations for a verb at the same time (or, at least, all of the conjugations in the same tense), I remain acutely aware that I’m missing something, and find myself dwelling on it at the expense of my studies.

    Also, I’ve seen language courses that de-emphasize writing, especially in languages with non-Latin scripts. But I cannot imagine having studied Arabic independent of its writing. And when I begin Chinese, I know that writing it will be just as important a goal to me as speaking it.

  5. Alex Semakin says:

    I’m doing an MA TESOL Course at Uni Manchester (online) and one of the interesting discoveries I have made is that we are actually living in a post-method era, so methods as such are our of fashion, and the debate which method/approach is the best is obsolete. Even if EFL/ESL course writers continue to emphasize communication at the expense of formal knowledge, the academia are emphasizing the dominance of teaching context over methodology. S.Bach termed it Context Approach (which is not really an approach in the old sense of the word), and N.S. Prabhu coined the term ‘sense of plausibility’ which basically means the teacher’s educated instinct for what is the best approach given the student’s goals, circumstances, etc, i.e. what is likely to ‘work’ in the given teaching context. Interestingly, the name of one of the MA program’s courses ‘Approaches, Methods and Techniques in Language Teaching’ has recently been changed to ‘Beyond Approaches, Methods and Techniques in Language Teaching’.

    It seems that it’s up to the teacher to find the right combination of different materials to cater for a particular student or class, rather than rely on one coursebook to satisfy everyone’s needs. From the learner’s point of view, if you are studying independently, it’s also a matter of selecting what works best for you personally (maybe after consulting with a tutor). There are still lots of grammar exercise books around, though I can’t be sure about every language.

  6. Andrew says:

    I think the student should use whatever method works best for them, and I think that will vary from student to student with no one single “best” method. I have personally found the formal study of grammar to be of little to no help when it comes to learning how to actually USE (speak/read/write) a foreign language. Your results may differ. Whatever works, use it.

    That is all, and yes it really is that simple. Carry on.


  7. michael farris says:

    I’m skeptical about anything from the ESL establishment since as far as I can tell, it’s mostly built around keeping paying students in the system for as long as possible. That is, the student that meets their goals and becomes independent is out of the system and no longer paying. A set of non-goals with undefined methodology fits in well with that.

    I’d look instead at systems that have a fixed deadline for preparing students for specific tasks (that are outside the program). There is or used to be a center in Poland charged with taking young adult learners with no Polish and getting them up to speed to follow university classes within one academic year. I really doubt if they had no methodology. It might not have been much fun, but it worked.

    A colleague who attended a seminar on multi-lingual people who deal with three or more languages on a daily basis said they all reported the same tactic when confronted with a new language: Get a surface understanding of the whole of the grammar as quickly as possible and then go back and work on different parts of the language.

  8. Abbie says:

    I have personally found the formal study of grammar to be of little to no help when it comes to learning how to actually USE (speak/read/write) a foreign language. Your results may differ. Whatever works, use it.

    This is how I see it. Grammar “rules” are really just abstractions based on observation; they have nothing to do with how our brains actually use language. So learning them isn’t very helpful.

  9. michael farris says:

    Abbie, so English learning Japanese person own word order using can? They why “rules” learn should?

  10. bronz says:

    I think michael brings up a good point with his example here. The more different a foreign language is from the learner’s native or fluent languages, the more relevant study of the grammar becomes towards gaining any actual fluency. It’s not necessary strictly speaking, but it’s likely to help speed up the learning process quite significantly. It’s not just word order; other things like cases, noun classes, agglutination, how a language categorizes its tenses, there are a plethora of things that make languages quite different from each other morphosyntactically, and that could make learning much harder or slower for some people if they were not given some formal training in the grammar of the language to start off as a basis.

  11. renato says:

    The best method is when you get the better of each existing good method, and put all this parts into one, creating your own method of learn language. In others way, we will always be discussing this problem all over the world without a conclusion.