Foreign language teaching today

By Erhard Dahl, May 2013

Once linguistics had developed into the actual reference discipline for foreign language teaching, research contributions based on individual teaching experience largely lost their academic acceptance. Contributions which dealt with the pedagogical dimension of foreign language teaching became fewer and fewer. Studies looking critically at the societal context of foreign language teaching could not maintain their position in the specialist literature any longer either. The findings of linguistics began to be observed more critically because it was unable to describe and illuminate many different factors which determine the learning of foreign languages in school. Research areas such as the psychology of learning, psycholinguistics and research into second language acquisition promised a greater insight into the learning processes of learners. On the one hand, many different international contributions made clear the complexity of the factors determining language; on the other hand, the differentiated observations overwhelmed all those educationalists who were as much concerned with theoretical research into language acquisition as with the wish to place their results at the service of foreign language teaching in practice. 

The claim of the three research areas mentioned to present results on language acquisition both in and out of school has increasingly lost credibility with many foreign language educationalists. It became more and more clear that language learning in schools is different in many ways from the unguided natural acquisition of a second language. There were increasing numbers of contributions in the research debate appearing at the turn of the century which were assigned by their authors to a new discipline, namely “language teaching research”.

“Language teaching research”: a new discipline

Usage of the term “language teaching research” makes sense. On the one hand it differentiates this field from the work of authors who are primarily interested in information about the learning processes and rules which govern the acquisition of additional languages, who therefore do not focus specifically on guided classroom teaching and learning of foreign languages. On the other hand the concept is justified in that a discipline has grown up here which has contributed to a more differentiated approach to the “methodology of foreign language teaching” research area in a way which was unknown as recently as the 1980s. That language teaching research has radically changed the status of foreign language teaching among the sciences is beyond doubt; whether that means that the concept of the “methodology of foreign language teaching” is becoming obsolete is debatable. The concept of “teaching methodology” in this sense in any event obliges the researcher to integrate the factors on which the effectiveness of educational action is contingent and extends the scientific analysis of language teaching and learning by additional research fields.

Goodbye to methodological monism

The most pronounced change in the research into foreign language teaching is the fact that there has been a move away from the attempt to discover and define the one single method for foreign language teaching in schools. The great acceptance of linguistic findings in the 1950s-1970s meant that the corresponding methods were still produced with relative speed. They included the “audio-lingual method”, the “audio-visual global and structural method” and “communicative foreign language teaching”. With the emancipation of foreign language teaching from linguistic streams and the associated focus on the learner, the attempt has ebbed away to formulate one single method for groups of learners who may be quite diverse. Methodological pluralism rules.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the learner of foreign languages is the focus of research. Researchers want to find out what is happening in the heads of pupils when they perceive, process and use a foreign language. The many different publications which have arisen out of this research interest illustrate the refinement which the “foreign language teaching” research discipline has undergone in the last two decades.

New research fields

Many different questions have been investigated: what learner types and learning strategies are there? Do we learn the sentence structure of different languages always in the same sequence? What is the relative position of unconscious and conscious learning? Is it legitimate to distinguish between vocabulary and grammar teaching? How is an “interlanguage” formed and what is its influence when we learn a second language? How can the aptitude of pupils to learn a language be described and what are its prerequisites? What characteristics (degree of reflexivity, impulsivity, intrinsic motivation, willingness to work, independence, social attitudes) determine the learning of languages? Can learning processes still be planned against the background of the hypothesis that knowledge is individually “constructed” (constructivism) in learning?

We can name further areas of the methodology of foreign language learning. They include “computer-based foreign language learning” which in the view of its supporters opens up both other forms of communication in the foreign language and numerous information sources and a wealth of digital learning materials when learning the foreign language. Learners establish contact with native speakers over the Internet. That can influence the lessons and remove the artificial nature of language learning which is often the subject of complaint. Seeking information sources oneself on the Internet, and thus finding ways of learning, can additionally support autonomous learning. Critical contributions about the use of PCs in lessons point out that the role of the teacher becomes less important and speaking could be neglected in favour of writing and reading.

The research into “foreign languages at primary level” is gaining in importance – at least in Germany. Education policy decisions mean that in some of the German federal states English is being taught from as early as class 1. Foreign language educationalists saw themselves called upon to make methodological recommendations, draw attention to the special opportunities of an early start and illuminate the language learning process of primary children with research on “the natural acquisition of a second language”.

There has also been an intensive research debate in the field of literature teaching. The role of the reader is investigated and thus what happens during reading. The way in which learners understand texts in their own individual way, what they perceive and feel in doing so, should become the subject of a foreign language dialogue. Learners are called upon to express their subjective opinion and to investigate the artistic techniques which have triggered a particular understanding and specific reading experiences. This debate, brought about by reader-response criticism, in turn has its critics who see this approach as a threat to the authority of the author and the literary work of art.

Foreign language teaching of necessity today also has to concern itself with education policy decisions, for the development of central examinations and competence-based curricula, as well as the description of common, competence-based educational standards, profoundly affects foreign language teaching in Germany. The research debate of recent years has almost exclusively focused on learners, and thus processes. How foreign language teaching copes with the task of structuring classes in view of standardised competences remains an open question.

Textbook criticism then and now

If in the 1970s and 1980s it was primarily the content of the dialogues and texts in the textbooks and their implicit value system which was criticised, more recent research contributions (for example by H.E. Piepho, R. Freu­denstein, W. Butzkamm) have pointed to the lack of quality of the dialogues and texts themselves. They also criticise the grammatical progression and its additive approach which still dominates in many textbooks. The fact that learners construct the system of the new language in a non-linear process was ignored. Practice opportunities were thrown away, forms of exercise were wasted because the subject matter was too comprehensive and did not take account of the various skills levels in the classroom.

Everyone learns in a different way

Differentiated empirical studies have created an awareness in foreign language teaching of the many different factors involved in learning. The questions were refined, hasty generalisations avoided. This has made it possible to see that every “pupil” learns differently. The research debate produced many teaching and methodological recommendations. It is also clear that the discussion is about the “learner”, very rarely the “child”, “young person” or “pupil”. The learning processes in the brain, the progression of language acquisition are investigated in order to increase efficiency in the sense of the pragmatic aims of the lessons. The latter are closely connected with the market value of the foreign languages to be learned and the socio-political expectations of the subject which have existed for some considerable time. The potential educational effect of foreign language lessons on the development of the senses, on the young person’s understanding of the world and his or her self, on their perceptual flexibility, is not the focus of research into foreign language teaching – and neither is what could legitimise this school subject with regard to the current debate about education. One exception is research contributions on “intercultural” learning. But such perspectives would not just lead to further areas of research (e.g. “artistic foreign language teaching” or “foreign language acquisition processes in their dependence on learning behaviour”), but would also productively question things which have become almost taken for granted in foreign language teaching.

Regarding foreign language teaching in Waldorf schools, the educational effectiveness of these lessons is of central importance and the starting point for educational and methodological recommendations. The research interest arises from Rudolf Steiner’s understanding of foreign language lessons as lessons which – like all other school subjects – can provide an important educational help for the growing child. The primary reference discipline of foreign language learning has remained education for almost a hundred years. The quality of methodological and curricular innovation is decided by the question whether any such innovation is in harmony with the healthy development of the child. That such an orientation in teaching foreign languages also considerably supports the pragmatic objectives of such lessons is beyond doubt for experienced teachers.

About the author: Dr. Erhard Dahl held a chair of English literature and its teaching at the University of Paderborn until 1990; from 1990 to 2012 he was a specialist English teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf school in Stuttgart and lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart.