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A linguistic revolution

By Panayiotis Mavros

We live in the age in which the chief requirement for “admission” to the newly-born global society is the ability to communicate fluently and efficiently.

It is, therefore, imperative that we enable students to make use of the English language, which serves as a lingua franca in almost every part of the world, to help them meet their needs in an entirely changing world.

Darwin’s theory of evolution can be associated with the development in foreign language teaching throughout the centuries.

Looking back, we can easily comprehend the link by taking into consideration the various stages of foreign language teaching evolution, originating from  the Grammar-Translation method, the goal of which was not the ability of the student to communicate in the target language, but to translate from one language to another.

It would have been inconceivable then to predict that the evolution of foreign language teaching would lead to the revolution in the communicative methodology constituting the ultimate aim of foreign language teaching.

English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classroom communication, as the term indicates, has been marked over the centuries by language teachers’ efforts to enable their students to communicate freely in the target language and satisfactorily function in real-life situations.

To accomplish this, English language teaching passed through various stages.

Travelling to the 16th century, we would have found ourselves desk-bound at a grammar school where the teacher would be the authority in the classroom.

Grammar schools were the main centres of child education and were called so because of their materials, since “grammar” was described as the art of speaking and writing properly, as well as reading with understanding the work of writers and poets who were studied in their original Latin and Greek, since the ancient classics were the exclusive materials of instruction impacting the 19th-century teaching of modern languages.

Consequently, the Classical Method or the Grammar-Translation Method, as it is better known, was used to teach Latin and Greek and the introduction of a modern language was inevitably taught in the same way – vocabulary items and grammatical rules to be practised in translation exercises – since no other method was known.

It was not until the 1870s that there was a radical change, owing to the introduction of compulsory education in England, which resulted in the demand for new aims and methods for a new breed of student, developments in the science of phonetics and developments in psychology dealing with the learning skills that a child could acquire.

The Direct Method
This radical change in the theory of language resulted in an influx of ideas which ultimately led to the Direct Method that became very popular in Europe and Britain, of course, and enjoyed a lot of prestige.
The main feature was that the foreign language learning was similar to mother tongue learning through the creation of typical language situations. The Direct Method placed the student at the centre, providing him or her with the opportunity to participate actively in class through play and activity.

The Direct Method flourished in the last three decades of the 19th century, and the first two decades of the 20th century, but required the services of very good, energetic, enthusiastic and intelligent teachers, who could conduct their lessons efficiently and effectively to be successful.

This urged many a language teacher, who could not cope, to return to the old Grammar-Translation Method. Consequently, by the 1920s, there was a drifting movement back to the old method.

At this crucial moment in the History of Language Teaching, Harold E. Palmer “interfered” and was able to restrain this drift back by accommodating the positive elements of the Grammar-Translation method and the Direct Method within the framework of the Oral Method.

This laid emphasis on the spoken form of language, but in no way ignored the teaching of grammar. In this way Palmer, who was a psychologist and a teacher familiar with the classroom situation, succeeded in widely spreading the principle of ‘eclecticism’.

The principle of eclecticism is now felt more strongly than ever in the latest developments in the field of language teaching through Communicative methodology.

There were no more important changes until the Audio-Lingual Method made its appearance in the early 1960s.  This new method drew on everyday situations in Britain or America, thus emphasising the spoken form of language through drills and immediate responses with positive reinforcement when the answers were correct.

The major objective was for students to acquire the structural patterns through “Stimulus-Response-Reinforcement” in order to acquire the target language habits.

In the 1970s, a new force began to make its presence felt: The Functional/Communicative Approach, which was regarded as the communicative revolution.

It shifted the emphasis to learners’ needs and their ability to use language as a tool to satisfy their needs by being thrown into real-life situations. Therefore, role-learning which should lead to role-making, constitutes the most important element in the Communicative Approach.

It should not be thought, however, that the structural view of the language was sacrificed at the expense of its functional use.

Harmonious relationship
The Communicative methodology – having established this harmonious relationship between the Structural Approach and the Communicative Approach – has driven us very closely, if not identically, to the Principle of Eclecticism and can be regarded as the Eclectic Method itself, since it accommodates all the positive elements from the methods that had been developed before the Great 1970 Functional Shift.

In Cyprus, in particular, the impact of the Functional Approach on English teachers has been strongly felt during the last 20 years, owing to a group of modern English teachers and inspectors of English who have been heavily invested in the task of promoting this approach through pedagogical institute courses.
There is still, of course, room for improvement, but it is a fact that the standard of English, as well as of other foreign languages, is most satisfactory, judging from the Pancyprian exam results, which speak for themselves.

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