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LANGUAGE TEACHING Short form LT. In principle, instruction in any LANGUAGE, under any conditions, formal or informal; in practice, as the term is commonly used among language teachers and applied linguists, instruction in a second or foreign language within a system of education, such as the institutionalized teaching of FRENCH in Britain and English in France. More specifically, the teaching of a MOTHER TONGUE, home language, or national language may be referred to as L1 teaching (where L1 means first language) and the teaching of one or more other languages as L2 teaching (where L2 means second language).

L1 and L2 teaching

By and large, L1 teaching is that part of general education which deals with the transmission of a society's written culture and STANDARD speech (which may or may not involve training in an approved accent). It usually includes instruction in aspects of a particular literature, and it has traditionally included explicit instruction in GRAMMAR, SPELLING, PUNCTUATION, and COMPOSITION, matters that are currently controversial. L2 teaching for many centuries centred on acquiring a classical language, in Europe especially LATIN, sometimes GREEK or HEBREW, and elsewhere such languages as classical ARABIC, Mandarin Chinese (see CHINA), and SANSKRIT. In Britain, the teaching of a second vernacular (nonforeign) language has taken place, on a limited scale and mainly since the 19c, in Scotland and Wales, usually for those who have already had GAELIC or WELSH as their mother tongues, their general education proceeding in English as a second language which more often than not becomes their primary medium. Because there has been no significant other VERNACULAR in England since NORMAN FRENCH in the 14c, L2 teaching in that country has generally been concerned with ‘foreign’ languages. The most powerful L2 tradition in England, and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, has usually been the teaching of French.

The literary method

Throughout Western history, LITERACY and EDUCATION have run together. Only in the 20c has the technology of audio-recording allowed conversation to become an object of study. This change, along with a broad acceptance of democratic ideals in education as well as in politics, has made possible a vernacular rather than a classical education, or one that judiciously draws on both. For many centuries, language teaching in the European (‘monastery’) tradition of Christianity meant the teaching of the languages of religion, literature, and scholarship: Latin and to a limited extent Greek. In addition, in the Middle Ages in England, children of the aristocracy were taught Norman French, while English was a largely irrelevant vernacular. Although some attempt was made to teach spoken Latin (for example, in the English Abbot AELFRIC's Colloquy, a conversation reader, c. AD 1000), learning centred mostly on a close acquaintance with the most highly valued literary texts. With the Renaissance and the Reformation, and the return of classical Latin as a model, the language largely ceased to be used in speech; thenceforth, the aim was written mastery, learners imitating the style of ‘the classics’, and being led away from the ‘debased’ styles of less highly regarded texts. The ‘golden’ texts of Cicero, Horace, and Virgil were accepted, while the base metal of Apuleius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Petrarch, and later Latin writers was ignored. The route to understanding lay through rote memorization of grammar and vocabulary and imitation that might or might not lead to creativity.

The grammar-translation method

Opposition to the literary tradition arose in and around Germany in the late 18c, with methods of teaching Latin and other languages that have in the 20c been given the name the grammar–translation method/approach. Reformers sought to organize and simplify the traditional exposure to texts by using specimen sentences and emphasizing practice by translating in both directions. Through translation of specially constructed sentences that were keyed to lessons centred on particular grammatical points, learners could be exposed to the grammatical and stylistic range of the target language in an economical and systematic way. The reform was not, however, complete, and for the next 200 years the grammar–translation method and the less systematic literary method coexisted and often blended.

The Reform Movement

Dissatisfaction with the practice of teaching modern languages by such text-based methods came to a head in the Reform Movement of the 1880s–90s, among scholars and teachers in Germany, Scandinavia, France, and Britain who were interested in the practical possibilities of a science of speech. It began with the publication in 1877 of Henry SWEET's Handbook of PHONETICS. With its analyses and specimens of different sound systems, this book opened up the prospect of teaching speech systematically and escaping from the ancient dependence on texts. In 1882, the German phonetician Wilhelm Viëtor expressed the growing impatience in the pamphlet Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren (Language teaching must start afresh), initially published under a pseudonym. Paul Passy in France is credited with inventing the term la méthode directe (the Direct Method) to sum up the aims of the reformers; other names are the Natural Method, New Method, and Phonetic Method.

Writing in Transactions of the Philological Society, Sweet continued to publish analyses of the sound systems of various living languages, adding in 1884 the paper ‘On the Practical Study of Language’. In the same year, Felix Franke in Germany published Die praktische Spracherlernung (The Practical Acquisition of Languages), in which while acknowledging his debt to Sweet he emphasized, in addition to the use of phonetic transcription, the psychological aspect of learning, the importance of creating the right associations, of avoiding translation as much as possible, and of entering into the spirit of the community concerned. Later in 1884, Franke's book was issued in a Danish translation by Otto JESPERSEN. In 1885, Sweet published what for the reformers came to stand as the model textbook of English for a foreign learner, Elementarbuch des gesprochenen Englisch, aimed initially at a German-speaking public, but subsequently issued in an English version, A Primer of Spoken English (1890).


Early in 1886, under the leadership of Paul Passy, a group of teachers in France formed the Phonetic Teachers' Association and started a journal in phonetic script entitled Dhi Fonètik Tîtcer. At Jespersen's suggestion, membership was made international; he joined in May, Viëtor in July, and Sweet in September. This body in due course developed into the Association Phonétique Internationale (in English the INTERNATIONAL PHONETIC ASSOCIATION, in German the Weltlautschriftverein), whose deliberations resulted in the IPA alphabet. In 1899, Sweet published The Practical Study of Languages. Two years later, Jespersen published his ideas in a book in Danish later issued in English as How to Teach a Foreign Language (1904). These complementary works by and large represent the Reform Movement, Sweet's concerned with principles, Jespersen's with classroom work. Their minor differences were typical of the movement as a whole.

The direct method

Reformers rejected the teaching of modern languages through grammatical paradigms, specimen sentences, and word lists. They wanted to base teaching directly on speech and to apply the results of phonetics in their courses so as to ensure sound pronunciation from the start. For the rest, they sought as close an approximation as possible to the way a child learns its first language. They adopted the principles of association, visualization, and learning through the senses, through pictures and through activity and play. They emphasized the learning of grammar by practice rather than precept, by making the responses to points of grammar automatic and unconscious. The mother tongue should be avoided as much as possible and translation reduced to a minimum. They held that learning a language in this way meant, in effect, the absorption of another culture. It was generally agreed that professional language teachers should receive phonetic training, and that at the school stage the teacher should preferably be of the same language background as the pupils. The aim of the teaching should be successful use of the target language, actively and passively, but should not include translation.

The reformers' influence

The movement has had a varied impact in different parts of the world. In Continental Europe, it is generally considered to have led, virtually within a generation, to a marked improvement in spoken English and other languages, especially in Scandinavia, Germany, and the Netherlands. The principles and practices of the movement continue to have a strong influence. In Britain, influence has been limited in the teaching of modern languages in schools but considerable in the teaching of English as a foreign and second language. Two EFL pioneers particularly influenced by the movement were Harold E. Palmer, author of The Oral Method of Teaching Languages (1921), and Daniel JONES, compiler of the English Pronouncing Dictionary (1917). In the US, the movement had little success until the Second World War, although in 1914 Leonard BLOOMFIELD had noted in his Introduction to the Study of Language: ‘It is only in the last twenty-five years and in the European countries that success in modern-language teaching has ever been attained’, adding that ‘most of our practice is half a century or so behind that of the European schools.’ Bloomfield's interest is reflected in his Outline Guide for the Practical Study of Foreign Languages (1942), the text that inspired both the massive US wartime programme of language teaching and postwar theories of teaching and learning.

The audio-lingual method

In the US in the 1950s there developed a movement based on the precepts of structural linguistics and behaviourist psychology and known variously as the audio-lingual method (ALM), audio-lingual teaching, audiolingualism, the structuralist approach, and structuralism. The ALM dominated the teaching of English as a second language in North America for some 25 years, and materials prepared by Robert Lado and others at the U. of Michigan were widely used there and elsewhere. Its content derived from an analysis of the phonemes, morphemes, and sentence patterns of the target language, and it sought to automate classroom activity through pattern practice drills (exercises in the repetition of specific kinds of phrases and sentences, with systematic changes intended to extend the learner's skills), taught by techniques of mimicry and memorization known for short as mim-mem.

The structural approach and the audio-visual method

The American audio-lingual method differed considerably from two European approaches with similar names: (1) The British structural approach of Harold E. Palmer and Michael WEST in the 1920s–30s, which augmented the direct method with graded grammatical structures, word lists, and readers. (2) The French méthode structuro-globale (in English usually called the audio-visual method), which developed in the 1960s and used a combination of textbooks, tape recordings, filmstrips, slides, and classroom presentation. Although it appeared to be the ALM with illustrations, the French method was technological, not ideological.

The situational approach

Almost from the start of the Reform Movement, practitioners used conversation readers in their teaching, often with texts in phonetic script, such as E. T. True and Otto Jespersen, Spoken English (1891) and H. Palmer and F. G. Blandford, Everyday Sentences in Spoken English (1922). In the 1960s–70s, many textbooks took such a practical approach further, grouping their teaching units around situational themes such as At the Hairdresser and The Post office. The dialogues and narratives in the text derived from these settings, and teachers were expected to produce appropriate material to support action-based language use within the situation defined by the chosen topic. The strength of the topic was language appropriate to a situation, but its weakness, the difficulty of generalizing what is learned, led to its being used more in collaboration with other procedures than in its pure form.

The notional-functional approach

In the early 1970s there developed in Europe an approach to LT that focused on two kinds of semantic and performative criteria: notions, such as time, place, quantity, emotional attitudes, and functions, such as describing, enquiring, apologizing, criticizing. The introduction of such ideas has influenced subsequent syllabuses and coursebooks. However, courses whose content is entirely notional and functional are often difficult to teach and learn from, because some notions and functions presuppose a knowledge of grammar and vocabulary for which no provision may have been made. It is probable that no definitive list of notions or of functions exists or may even be possible, but the concept has proved useful.

The communicative approach

In the 1970s–80s there developed in both Europe and North America an approach to foreign-and second-language teaching that drew on the work of anthropologists, sociologists, and sociolinguists. In many ways a lineal descendant of the direct method, it has concentrated on language as social behaviour, seeing the primary goal of language teaching as the development of the learner's COMMUNICATIVE COMPETENCE. In addition to formal linguistic knowledge, learners are considered to need both rules of use to produce language appropriate to particular situations, and strategies for effective communication. Partly through the influence of the Council of Europe Languages Projects, the movement at first concentrated on notional–functional syllabuses, which depended on analyses of semantic and functional categories of language use rather than on those of formal grammar. In the 1980s, however, the approach was more concerned with the quality of interaction between learner and teacher rather than the specification of syllabuses, and concentrated on classroom methodology rather than on content, which remained similar to that of situational and notional–functional course materials.

The cognitive code approach

This approach to language teaching, which developed especially in the US in the 1980s, advocates conscious (cognitive) awareness of the structure of the target language and argues that study of rules of pronunciation and grammar will give learners a practical command of that language. Some commentators see it as the grammar–translation method in a new form, others as essentially a rejection of behaviourism and the audio-visual method.

A plethora of methods

A wide range of approaches to L2 teaching are currently available, ranging from the grammar–translation method and the communicative approach (both ‘mainstream’, in the sense that they are used by large numbers of teachers) through the now less influential audio-lingual method or structural method with its behaviourist bias (favoured especially in North America in the 1950s–70s) to such radical ‘fringe’ approaches as Caleb Gattegno's Silent Way and Georgi Lozanov's Suggestopedia. The Silent Way seeks to give the learner maximum investment in the language-learning process, by reducing the spoken role of the teacher as much as possible. Highly formal charts for pronunciation and grammar, together with Cuisenaire rods for manipulation, provide the major teaching aids. Suggestopedia is based on the view that relaxation enables learners to exploit their capacities for language acquisition to the maximum degree. Emphasis is placed on comfortable surroundings, use of music and chanting, and trust in the authority of the teacher. Particularly used to assist memorization, the procedure relies on making LANGUAGE LEARNING different from the stressful effort to produce appropriate communication for predefined needs. Conferences for EFL and ESL teachers currently provide sessions on a sometimes overwhelming array of methods and blends of methods, and a plethora of books describes the main varieties in detail or in overviews. Holistic methods emphasize putting the learner into a frame of mind for learning or developing the education of ‘the whole person’, and diminishing the teacher's appearance as an authorityfigure. The humanistic approach similarly seeks to emphasize the shared interests and needs of teachers and students and provide a caring environment in which to learn. Many pragmatists, however, endorse no particular pedagogical or ideological position in their teaching, a style sometimes referred to as the eclectic approach. The on-going debate testifies to the variety and vitality of the profession.

Public and community issues

LT requires today, in every country, deliberate policy decisions by government on such issues as: which language should be encouraged; how many teachers should be employed; what training teachers should be given; how they should be valued in terms of pay and conditions; what average class size should be supported and at what rate of intensity; what teaching resources and materials should be supplied; what support should be given to research and development; what the degree of direct government intervention should be, in such matters as setting a syllabus, prescribing books, and inspecting the teaching; what standards of achievement are desirable and hence what examinations and qualifications should be promoted. Community attitudes (friendly or hostile) towards particular peoples and their languages also strongly affect teaching, as do popular assumptions about how successful members of the community will be in learning languages: for example, compare expectations about whether the average citizen will learn at least one foreign language in the Netherlands and in Britain.

Teaching formats

A further aspect of the public and community dimension of LT is the educational format in which it takes place: in a teacher-led class in a school or college; through distance learning by correspondence or radio or television (with or without an element of face-to-face tutoring); in one-to-one contact between a teacher and a learner; in solitary, self-study learning; in ‘immersion teaching’ (for example, with immigrant children in Canada, where learners are immersed in an English-speaking or French-speaking life instead of experiencing the target language only in time-tabled class hours). Most of these formats are found in most countries; which one is being employed at a given time determines the different settings that will be necessary in the parameters of LT, in order to bring about effective LL. In addition, the ultimate aims of language teaching need to be clarified: whether it is part of general education, geared to instrumental needs such as the integration of immigrants into a particular society, or for such specific purposes as English for maritime communication (SEASPEAK) or air traffic control (AIRSPEAK).


Debates in L1 and L2 teaching in the 20c may be interpreted in terms of a tension between the dual tradition (the literary and grammar–translation methods) and the reform movement (the direct method and its various derivatives). The literary method has provided immediate contact with prestigious texts, serious subject matter, and a link with ancient traditions, while the various phases of grammar–translation have promised a less élitist approach, devising short-cuts to mastery of grammar or the social strategies necessary to become (more or less) part of the target-language community. Greater emphasis on writing or on speech has varied from time to time and place to place, but generally movements to renew or improve the effectiveness of teaching have consistently combined with movements to undercut the classical humanist traditions by appealing directly to usefulness. Reform movements have generally been equivocal about whether they are doing more efficiently the same things that previous traditions have done or whether they are subverting the previous traditions by changing the goals, substituting what any learner could do for what only a select few would wish to do. Each reform has therefore attracted adherents who imagined that they were undermining the values of previous education, together with those whose intention was to improve its effectiveness but not to question its goals.