The nature of foreign-language teaching


The belief is prevalent that the teaching of a foreign language is a comparatively simple subject. This follows the assumption that the process is solely that of providing language experience; for every lesson in which the language is spoken, read or written must inevitably contribute to the extension of the pupil’s acquaintance with the language. If this were the true character of the process the only qualification for the role of instructor would be an adequate knowledge of the language. Closer examination, however, proves that the efficient teaching of a foreign language, far from being a simple process, is probably the most difficult and complex of all subjects in the curriculum.

For all subjects the initial considerations are what to teach and who. In this case of all other subjects there is no appreciable difficulty about the first, as the syllabus is usually clear and indisputable. Even for method there are guiding principles which meet with more or less general acceptance. Foreign-language teaching, however, has not yet attained the stage of universal agreement even as to what is to be taught, still less as to how.

This may be taken as an indication of the complex character of the subject, wherein content and method are curiously involved. What appears to be a single subject is really a group of associated yet distinct branches of study; for language is a generic term covering all or any of the following features; speech, reading. composition, grammar, literature, commercial, technical and scientific activities. Therefore courses must differ widely if reading or speech is made the sole or major purpose, and if the syllabus is extended to literature or commerce; the extent and choice of vocabulary too will depend on whether instruction is given on Translation or Direct Method lines; and presentation of grammar will vary considerably if taught formally or functionally.

It is difficult even to qualify the general character of foreign-language teaching. All other school subjects may be broadly classified as either knowledge or skills. Thus History and Geography are undoubtedly knowledge subjects, whereas Mathematics and Drawing are skills. Strictly speaking none is purely one or the other. History is certainly more than the mere absorption of data, and Mathematics call for the memorizing of tables and formulae; but the predominant feature is clearly one element, with the other as incidental.

In which category is foreign-language learning to be included& The answer is more than academic interest, as the respective point of view will determine the whole character of course.

If it is thought of as predominantly a knowledge subject, efforts will be concentrated on giving the pupils as large a vocabulary as possible and supplying them with many grammatical data. The value individual lessons will probably be assessed by the number of new words taught or the point of grammar elucidated.

On the other hand, if language is thought of as essentially a skill, or a series of skills less attention will be paid to extent of vocabulary, and progress will be measured instead by the degree of fluency attained by the pupils. The conflicting views possibly arise from different interpretations of the function of memorizing in the learning process. This question has implications which warrant discussion.

That learning by the heart ought not to be lightly dismissed as a deplorable feature of obsolete methods may be gathered from the opinions of leading authorities.

Thus Handschin, a leading American Specialist, writes:

“One of the best exercises of the will is memorizing. We know there is a tendency in some quarters to make school tasks easy by omitting memory work in former periods. But, of course, there must be memory work,... although to overdo it is just as bad… For instance oftentimes a course in elementary language is so conducted as to acquire nothing but memory work.”- Methods of teaching modern languages, p.77.Word Book Company, New York, 1923,

Harold Palmer, one of the most stimulating of modern authorities, asserts that ‘ the study of language is in its essence a series of acts of memorizing; whether we are concerned with isolated words, with word-groups, with meaning or with the phenomena of grammar, the fact remains that successful memorizing is the basic of all progress.’- The Oral Method of Teaching Languages, p.20.Heffer,1023.

Elsewhere he elaborates his interpretation of the teaching process by analyzing language psychologically as comprising what he call (a) Primary matter and (b) Secondary matter.

He explains primary matter is an appreciable part of language may be seen from the list of categories it comprises. Summed up they are

1. All vocabulary (simple, compound and derived).

2. (a) All word-group used like single words, e.g.

of course, would rather, in spite of, had better.

(b) Verb phrases, e.g. go out, come back, get up.

(c) The association of prepositions with nouns, adjectives and verbs, e.g. on Sunday, made of, averse to or from.

3. Idiomatic sentences.

4. A large number of regular sentences for use as model in substitution tables.

It must be admitted in the light of Palmer’s formidable list of categories that there is a considerable amount of language is virtually an act of recall, for all constructed sentences conform to conventional patters. Indeed one of the chief causes of error may be (as Palmer points out) the attempt of pupils to construct secondary matter freely before they have absorbed and mastered sufficient primary matter. Memorising therefore is undoubtedly an essential part of the learning process.

Nevertheless it would be incorrect to interpret Palmer’s assertion that ‘ the study of language is in its essence a series of acts of memorizing ‘ as implying that the process is necessarily that of rote learning.

The essential characteristics of language in use are the speed and facility with which the language is received and produced. To be effective there should be little conscious effort but rather the spontaneous use of familiar words and forms. Fluent speech and rapid reading are not simply the application of knowledge; they imply the possession of specific habits; they are in effect a series of unconscious acts of memory. The inculcation of correct language habits is therefore the teacher’s chief concern. For this purpose extent of vocabulary and grammatical knowledge are not the most vital factors. Fluency is a quality attainable within any range of vocabulary and may be absent despite the knowledge of all the words and forms in the language. It would be right therefore to conclude that foreign-language learning is essentially a skills, or a series of skills, calling for the assimilation of a considerable amount of language matter for reproduction and adaptation without conscious effort.


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