LANGUAGE TEACHING METHODSâ€” A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
Europe and Asia have had a long tradition of teaching and learning foreign languages. Memorization of vocabulary and translation of sentences often formed the major part of such learning processes in the past. Ancient languages such as Sanskrit and Pali were mastered in Asia through the process of memorization of texts and vocabulary lists. Learning vocabulary lists indeed formed the core of language learning.
The progress of Reformation in Europe brought within its wake change in methods of learning foreign and classical languages. While writing paradigms for individual verbs continued to be emphasized, teachers began to focus more on oral aspects of language. Until then learning a language was synonymous with learning the written language.
Two scholars during the progress of Reformation stood out as distinguished contributors for the change of language teaching methods: Erasmus and Comenius.
Erasmus, a contemporary of Martin Luther, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, argued that speaking the foreign language should begin early in oneâ€™s attempt in learning it. Good and understandable oral communication, he said, was the important thing to master. Next in importance was reading, and, then, writing came at last.
Erasmus wanted that we learn the language through exposure to interesting and practical conversations and stories accompanied by visuals such as picture. Note that this is still one of the cornerstones of current thinking on teaching foreign/second language. In addition, Erasmus suggested several rhetorical exercises which focused on â€œtransforming verse into prose, imitating the style of a prominent writer, translating, or recasting propositions in various forms.â€
Currently these types of exercises are not favored in teaching and learning languages. These are good exercises, no doubt, but are more useful in teaching literature, or more appropriately, teaching writing of literary pieces. Presently we do make a distinction between learning language and literature. We may learn a language in order to study the literature written in it. But learning a language need not be necessarily done through studying its literature.
Martin Luther was opposed to excessive drill on rules for producing sentences. Instead of memorizing rules for the production of sentences, he asked for the actual production of sentences themselves as appropriate practice to learn a language. William Bath (1565-1614) focused on teaching vocabulary through contextualized presentation, which would be further elaborated later on by Comenius.
The contribution of Comenius to modern secular education is enormous. His thoughts on methods of teaching languages had influenced generations of European teachers. He wanted a graded presentation of sentence structures. He insisted that grammar should be taught through an inductive approach, by giving many examples of the same sentence type, so that the students would understand and master the structures. He insisted that the understanding of the content, and mastery of linguistic forms must proceed on parallel lines. In other words, he recommended that we do not introduce a content topic, if, for the understanding and expression of which, the students do not yet have some parallel linguistic mastery in the language they are learning.
Comenius recommended that new words be introduced to the students with the visuals of objects or phenomena they represented. He asserted that â€œwords should not be learned apart from the objects to which they refer. Comenius held that the subject matter of lessons should have appeal to students, that modern languages should have priority over classical languages, that language should be learned by practice rather than by rules (though rules were seen as complementing practice), and that the subject matter of initial exercises should already be familiar to students (Oâ€™Grady, et al. 1993).â€ In subsequent centuries several methods came to be used.