How has language teaching changed?

Learn languages December 18, 2014

If you haven’t stepped into a language classroom in the last fifteen years, you may be surprised to learn just how different the experience has become. Apart from the blackboards turning white (and now computerized), and beyond the digital tools that are becoming a more common sight in schools, something more fundamental has evolved in the way that languages are taught.

Old-school language teaching by rote

For years, language teachers found ways to make a naturally exciting topic into a deathly dull one. Language teaching for most of the 20th Century was heavily influenced by the ‘grammar-translation’ of the 19th Century, which involved learning a new word or grammatical structure, translating it into your native language and memorizing it.

Teaching was based on a strict syllabus of what educators considered to be important, whether it was relevant to students’ needs or not. This led many people to think they were bad at languages.

Techniques gradually adapted to be more situational, so grammar and vocabulary would be taught in contexts in which you might realistically use it. But the emphasis was still very much on reading, repeating and memorizing.

The development of the communicative approach in the last decades of the 20th Century marked a major change in how languages were taught. The idea of “communicative competence” – i.e. being able to successfully communicate – replaced grammatical accuracy as the main goal of language teaching.

students world map

The communicative approach

The new approach was based on how we learn our first language, as opposed to how we might learn the multiplication tables. The result was a much more relaxed classroom environment, and exercises targeted to students’ needs. Of course it took a long time for this new approach to filter through to practising teachers, most of whom had been trained in the old techniques and were unwilling or unable to adapt.

Dave Briggs, head of teacher training at British Study Centres, says that, ‘the communicative approach facilitates immediate spoken practice in the classroom which improves confidence and memorisation,’ which in turn gives leaners motivation to study more. And motivation is absolutely central to successful learning.

At the heart of many communication-based exercises is the idea of the “information gap”: we often communicate to receive information that we don’t possess, so scenarios are designed where students are given different information and have to converse with each other to find out what the other knows.

But the communicative approach has also evolved over the years, and Dave points to ‘a more lexical approach’ in modern teaching, with an increased focus on collocations: blocks of language that come up regularly in everyday life. Research suggests that we find these collocations easier to remember than individual words or rules.

Language teaching today

The ideas that came with the communicative approach are still dominant in language teaching today, for example a focus on the needs of each group of students, as opposed to using a rigid syllabus based on grammar, and the popularity of information gap exercises.

Although great teaching comes first and foremost from a great teacher, technology is making a big difference in modern classrooms. A huge variety of tools and exercises are available to teachers.

Dave from British Study Centres identifies the smartphone as a potential tool for the classroom, as the current generation of learners are fluent users of the devices. Apps such as Memrise and Anki make the “hard” work of memorization into a game, and can be an excellent additions to traditional classroom study.

Major changes such as the communicative approach take time to filter into the classroom, but this is now the dominant technique in language teaching in language schools, and especially among teachers of English.

You can find out more about our own language teacher training programmes here.

Learning in immersion is still the most effective way

The communicative approach stresses the ideas of relevance and enjoyment. At ESL, we firmly believe that the most effective way to learn a language is through quality tuition in an immersion environment. This means that the input you get in the classroom becomes immediately relevant for your everyday life, as you explore a destination of your choice.

So if you had a bad experience of being lectured to by a disinterested language teacher back when you were a student, perhaps it’s time you gave language learning another try. You may just be a better language learner than you thought!

Have you experienced modern, communicative language teaching? How was the experience?*

By Océane Tache

What do you think?