LANGUAGE TEACHING METHODOLOGY OVER THE CENTURIES
There is no single 'best' way of teaching foreign languages. The successful language teacher will not limit himself to one method only, excluding all others. A method which is appropriate with one class on one occasion will not necessarily suit the same class at another time
For most of us, our method is personal - an ensemble of our techniques, tricks of the trade, ways of presenting materials, ways *in which we analyse and structure the content.
History of language teaching shows it swinging like a pendulum between extremes of method as teachers have searched for different solutions. Tempting to view language teaching methodology as a continuous upward progress through history, not yet perfect but moving towards perfection. But closer analysis of older books on language teaching reveals surprising similarities with present day methodology.
Methodologies are as much a product of their times as educational systems, and rooted in the ideas of their time. Ideas have a habit of coming into and going out of fashion. Many new approaches are rediscoveries of old methods neglected but e-illuminated.
Throughout the middle Ages Latin was the lingua franca of Europe. Before the 13th century no languages other than Latin and Greek were formally taught. Latin was an essential vocational subject for any youth aspiring to further education or to work in the public service - it was the key to the world of scholarship.
Through 15th, 16th and 17th centuries - gradual decline of Latin as accepted lingua franca. The rise of the vernaculars and their diffusion through the new technology of printing led to a gradual separation of functions. Latin was still the key to literature and thought, but the vernacular took over its social role as a language of everyday communication.
The court of Charles II in the 17th century brought in the French language, which was to become the diplomatic language of the time. Towards the close of the 18th century the French Revolution provided England with scores of first class French scholars, exiled aristocrats - all resorted to giving private lessons as a living.
In the 19th century the modern language breakthrough continued with Germany leading the way - due to the prestige of German philosophers (Humboldt, Kant and Hegel, German science and technology, literature (Goethe and Schiller), music (Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven).
Most famous language methodologist of 17th century was J A Comenius (1592-1670). Languages at this time were being taught by oral methods for communicative purposes. The works of Comenius stress the importance of the senses rather than the mind, the importance of physical activity in the classroom. He is best known for his use of pictures in language teaching. Much in Comenius is surprisingly modern. "The exemplar should always come first, the precept should always follow".
At the same time the philosopher, John Locke, was also laying emphasis on oral skills: "French should be talked into the child ... Grammar is only for those who have the language already".
Yet by the end of his life Comenius had done a complete volte-face - renounced his earlier ideas and was proposing the learning of a language from pre-set rules of grammar. The Age of Reason had arrived. Renaissance man was a doer, but 17th and 18th century man was a thinker. Language for the man of reason was governed by logic. The basic rules of language were embedded in grammar and the art of translation was central to language learning.
The Grammar/Translation method was born, which was to continue in Britain well into the 19th century - reflecting an educational system which was geared to logical thinking and to teaching an elite of cultivated minds