We’ve all admired young children speaking what seemed to be the most elegant French or a particularly articulate Chinese, thinking that the child in question must certainly be exceptionally gifted. But upon reflection, we reason that this is obviously the child’s mother tongue, and we realize that we, too, would have had the same capacity to dazzle non-English speakers when we were toddlers.

Often the ability to speak two or more languages is reserved for those lucky few raised in bilingual households, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Anyone with the capacity to learn a first language has the aptitude to learn a second. So why does it seem so daunting?

Many parents have themselves studied languages in classroom settings throughout their student careers, unfortunately without ever having gained any real competency. Thus, the way in which one learns a language remains a mystery to most and seems a formidable subject for many homeschool parents to approach. It may be comforting to know that over the past century the language experts also have struggled and experimented in this area, and they certainly have not finished their work. However, looking at how language was taught in the past and examining the thought behind the methods developed over the last century can help dispel the “it’s all Greek to me” aura that often hovers over this important study.

Two Historical Methods

A very early technique of language learning is the Grammar-Translation Method, historically used in the study of classical languages (Greek and Latin) and applied to the study of foreign languages at the end of the eighteenth, throughout the nineteenth, and into the twentieth centuries. Simply described, this approach centers on the translation of phrases and literary texts, focusing on grammar and its rules. Lessons are taught in the student’s native tongue, and vocabulary is learned through translation. The Reading Method is a variation of this approach, developed in the 1920s under the supposition that limiting the activity to reading alone was the most practical and effective way of learning a language.

These historical, formalistic methods are often considered to be what one thinks of as traditional language learning. The major disadvantages are that the target language is not actively used, vocabulary and grammar are taught isolated from context, and the texts themselves are treated as mere exercises. In the twentieth century the focus of language learning shifted from academic reasons to communicative necessity, prompting a plethora of theories, studies, and new approaches. Many of these methods attempt to imitate or capture, each in its own way, the process of mother-tongue language acquisition.

The Direct Method

Perhaps in complete opposition to the Grammar-Translation Method is the Direct Method. Developed in the first half of the twentieth century, it places its emphasis on the student actively using the target language in realistic situations. The mother tongue is never used; translation is forbidden; material is first presented orally with an emphasis on speaking and listening skills; grammar and culture are taught implicitly. Instead of going back and forth between two languages, thinking in the target language is encouraged. Techniques include reading aloud, the pairing of images and words, role-playing, and employing paraphrases and synonyms to explain words.

The Direct Method strives to replicate the total immersion of a child learning his native language, but can this experience be duplicated at an older age and/or in a classroom several times a week? Many of the principles of this method have validity; however, strict adherence to a system of this sort, particularly outside the country of the target language and with relatively minimal contact time, can sometimes lead to frustration.

The Audio-Lingual Method