The Audio-Lingual Method, developed for American troops in Europe during World War II, is based on behavioral theories from earlier in the century. Here, language is seen as a mechanical activity, and learning occurs via the acquisition of linguistic habits. Students practice language patterns through structured dialogues and drills, with an abundant use of tapes (CDs) and visual aids; emphasis is placed on pronunciation; memorization and mimicry are encouraged; explicit grammar instruction isn’t given.

Of course, components of Audio-Lingualism continue to be used regularly today. Indeed, with the learning of any subject, a certain amount of repetition is important; however, from the 1970s onward this system fell from popularity as a complete methodology with the rise of the concept that language is a system of communication and should therefore be taught with an end goal of communicative competence. New approaches took into account the person as a whole, recognizing the importance of a positive relationship between student and teacher, student with other students, and student with his or her environment.

Contemporary Methodologies

Another valuable learning theory that has greatly influenced language teaching and has led to new methodologies is the idea that students are all individuals with differing strengths, weaknesses, and ways of learning. For example, Total Physical Response is a method that purports language must first be internalized before verbal participation is possible. In teaching, classroom roles would be similar to those of a parent with a child in which the child must respond physically to the words of the teacher. This type of teaching works well with students who need to be more physically active. A good example of a TPR exercise would be the game called Simon Says, and with some imagination, features of this method can be used with older students as well.

The Silent Way Method focuses on problem solving, in which the student discovers the language, its rules, and its functions through inductive reasoning. This method could be considered the opposite of Audio-Lingualism as the teacher only prompts the students, who must work out the problem for themselves. An everyday example of this approach’s application occurs when a teacher doesn’t correct a student outright but instead indicates that a mistake has been made by means of a gesture or a question, thus allowing the pupil to come to the right answer on his own.

The aim of the Communicative Approach is communicative, not linguistic, competence. Grammar is taught, but more as a reflection rather than a systematic means to an end. The target language is the normal medium in the classroom; lessons are active and student-centered, using functional language for real-life situations. All four skills—speaking, listening, reading, and writing—are developed in a variety of ways, using authentic resources as much as possible, particularly for intermediate and advanced levels. Student errors are seen as part of the natural process in a learning environment in which students are trying to use the language creatively and spontaneously.

What’s Best for You?

So what is the best approach? Teachers need to examine all methods and incorporate the most effective aspects of each according to their particular situations. Generally, a mix works best, and many find that the Communicative Approach is the most successful all-around method. Furthermore, incorporating a variety of activities within the focus of each lesson helps reinforce key points while maintaining interest, particularly with beginner, intermediate, and younger students.

How to begin is always a difficult question, but when to start is sooner rather than later. The first decision is which language to study—one from the family’s heritage, one for future work or vacation possibilities, or one for which there is a good mother-tongue teacher in the community? Are there siblings or friends studying the same language for possible interaction and group activities? Is the parent/teacher already familiar with a language to be able to start out and/or help the student?