Foreign Language Teaching


a historical perspective

By Giuseppe Carone

The aim of this article is to outline the main features and development of ‘foreign language teaching’ (FLT) in the Western world, from ancient times to the end of the 20th century. The method of analysis will be both diachronic, to get a chronological view of the subject, and synchronic, to portray a full picture of its social and educational context.

Origins of FLT

In classical ages, Greek and Roman times, teaching was entrusted to single philosophers, private pedagogues and educators. In those times, it was more important to wield a sword than to get and enrich one’s own education and knowledge. According to their family social status, children were instructed to learn a job, usually linked to farming, or to learn the use of arms to become a brave warrior. “Thanks to” bad, natural and social phenomena, such as famine and wars, people were obliged to move and change places and, in so doing, to come into contact with different people, cultures and languages.

Following the natural events and the fortunes of war, the languages that accompanied people in their wanderings were Arab, Greek and Latin. During these contacts, whether voluntary or forced, philosophical, scientific and everyday practical knowledge moved from one place to another and made headway. An example and witness of those contacts is the ‘Rosetta Stone’, found in Egypt in 1799 and now on public display at the British Museum in London. It is a granodiorite stele which shows an Egyptian king’s decree (196 BC) in three versions: hieroglyphic, Demotic/Coptic and Greek.

Eastern Sanskrit-Arab sciences, such as medicine, astronomy and maths, were absorbed  and assimilated by Greek (a branch of the Arian family). Greeks developed them and added myths, drama and philosophy.

From Greek-Roman times to the Renaissance (200 BC – 1600)

When the Greek power and civilization collapsed (c. 200 BC), the Roman Empire took its heritage and spread it in the western world, from the African Nile to the subpolar regions of Scandinavia. The flourish and death of powers through time meant also flourish and death of languages, both in the oral and written code.

Languages were not taught or studied, they were learned by coming into direct contact with people (native speakers), especially through commerce; future scribes or interpreters were sent directly to the country whose language they wanted to learn. Latin replaced Greek in every field and it became the language of Church and high culture.

Up to the Renaissance, Latin was grammarly (grammar-translation method) studied and it was used to write scientific, philosophical and artistic works. It is worth remembering that in the Middle Ages people used three languages in London: English, which was spoken by illiterate labourers and servants, French, which was the language of the Court and Norman nobles, Latin, which was used by the Clergy. For example, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote his treatises both in English (‘The Advancement of Learning’) and Latin (‘Novum Organum’). Language study and teaching was made by clerics for religious affairs or it was the task of single scholars at court and rich families that became patrons of artists and writers.

End of Latin and the study of other European languages (17th – 19th cent.)

The need to learn foreign languages was feltin Europe in the middle of the 17th century, with the decline of the use of Latin as a means of international communication. French spread from Portugal to Russia, from Sweden to the shores of the Mediterranean. It was learned by interpreters, travellers and privileged classes and it became their status symbol.

From the mid-eighteenth century, albeit to a lesser extent, also English was studied and learned abroad. Analogous to the other knightly arts, like singing, dancing, horse riding and fencing, foreign languages were taught to young rich aristocrats individually by native teachers. These ‘arts’ would become scholastic disciplines almost everywhere in Europe during the 19th century. The process brought about great changes both to the status of languages and to those who taught them, with the inevitable transformations of contents and methodology. Questions about ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ started to loom in the landscape of foreign language teaching.

J. A. Comenius and J. Locke dealt with the appropriate learning of foreign languages, respectively, the former through the practical use of language (Janua Linguarum, 1631) and the latter through the interlinear faithful translation, focussing on grammar, according to Latin morphosyntax. Aristocratic travellers enlarged their linguistic knowledge by the ‘grand tour’, augmenting the rudiments received during their childhood from nurses, preceptors and contact with foreigners.

In the age of the Enlightenment and throughout the 19th century, public schools started to be established in various countries and school attendance gradually became compulsory. This is the time when the contrast between natural ‘use’ of language and reflection-study of prescriptive grammar starts (in the USA they will call it ‘the pendulum syndrome’).

Up to then, according to the study of the classical languages, Greek and Latin, the process was from theory to practice, but now some scholars start ed to propose the other way round, even if they were few and far between. Just to remember some of them: H. Sweet (‘The practical Study of Languages’, 1899), the Danish Otto Jespersen (‘How To Teach a Foreign Language’), Harold E. Palmer who proposed a compromise between the theoretical and intellectual 19th century study of the language and the practical communicative trend of the modernists.

The 20th Century

In the first half of the 20th century, a period of wars, nationalism and isolation, the linguistic methods that derived from the previous glottodidactic and psycholinguistic studies were three:

1. formalistic approach: grammar-translation, use of L1, no communication, only translation;

2. direct method: the use of L1 is forbidden, inductive study of grammar, the teacher must have a native speaker mastery of the language taught (e.g.: the Berlitz method/school);

3. reading method: the language used in teaching is the students’ language and the written language comprehension is the only pursued ability to provide the students with.

The linguist that marked the passage from one century to the other and who laid the foundations of the second half of the 20th century methodology was John Rupert Firth (1890-1960). Modern Linguistics is indebted to him for some fundamental principles such as ‘context of situation’ and ‘context-dependent nature meaning’. Among his students at the University of London were future famous linguists like T. F. Mitchell, Frank R. Palmer and Michael Halliday.

In the second half of the 20th century the learning process follows three different learning models: cognitive, behaviourist, integrated.
The cognitive model is based on the interaction between nature and nurture (Lévi-Strauss, Firth); the behaviourist model (B. F. Skinner) considered the child’s mind a ‘tabula rasa’ on which mental habits are created by a series of stimulus-response-reinforcement (SRR) sequences (pattern drills); the integrated model, whose main representative was Stephen Krashen, the theoretician of the ‘natural approach’, based on the sequence: input – learning (i + 1) – acquisition, (inspired by the Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky’s ZPD, that is, ‘zone of proximal development’).

In the new development of language learning-teaching process, the three main agents, teacher-student-language, pass through different stages and undergo the following changes:

  • the student: first, considered a tabula rasa, he is taught with formal, structural, direct approaches; then, put at the center of the teaching process, he is helped by the teacher (now a mediator, a facilitator) with situational, notional-functional, communicative approaches;
  • the teacher: first, he is a grammar and culture expert in the formalistic approach; then, he is a language and culture expert in the communicative approach;
  • the language: first, it is seen as a complex of rules and words; then, it is seen as an instrument of communication, which the child acquires by an innate ‘linguistic acquisition device’, LAD (N. Chomsky).
  • The impact of mass media, the greater movement of people between countries and t direct contact and stays by the young in foreign countries shift the focus from a merely linguistic dimension to a sociolinguistic one. Aware of the fact that mere knowledge of the language in itself, of its morphosyntactic structures and lexis (‘linguistic competence’), is not a sufficient condition to meet the learner’s needs of life and communication, theorists and researchers point out and stress the necessity to provide students with ‘communicative competence’ (D. Hymes). This kind of competence takes into account extra-linguistic, para-linguistic and socio-cultural components and corresponds with the standards fixed by the linguistic ‘threshold levels’ (‘livello soglia’ in Italian, ‘Niveau Seuil’ in French) (J. A. van Ek, J. L. M. Trim, 1991).  

What about the US?

The main pedagogic and psycholinguistic currents that come from America and offer an enlargement of perspectives to European glottodidactics are: ‘suggestopedy’ (1978), outlined by the Bulgarian psycholinguist G. Lozanov; the ‘total physical response’ (1965), by J. J. Asher; the ‘community learning’ (1976), by C. A. Curran; the ‘silent method’ (1972), by C. Gattegno; the ‘natural approach’ (1978), by S. Krashen.

At the dawning of the 21st century 

From ancient times up to the first half of the 20th century, the interaction between teacher and student was realized with the use of three elements: the teacher’s voice, a piece of chalk and a blackboard. As from the second half of the 20th century, the main teaching aids used in all school subjects, but in particular in foreign language teaching, were didactic electronic and technological tools.

From the appearance of the reel-to-reel tape-recorder, cassette-recorder, language laboratory equipped with interactive individual stations, closed-circuit TV, video-cassette recorder, interactive white-board (IWB), we arrived at the use of IT Science and its main instrument, the computer. Schools, houses, offices were equipped with computers and the digital era boomed.