Debate and developments around the methods of language teaching and learning have been ongoing since the time of Comenius in the 17th century, if not before. However, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, linguists became interested in the problem of the best way to teach languages. These reformers, who included Henry Sweet of England, Wilhelm Vietor of Germany, and Paul Passy of France, believed that language teaching should be based on scientific knowledge about language, that it should begin with speaking and expand to other skills, that words and sentences should be presented in context, that grammar should be taught inductively, and that translation should, for the most part, be avoided. In other words, all reformers were vehemently opposed to teaching of formal grammar and aware that language learning was more than the learning of rules and the acquisition of imperfect translation skills.
Vietor ('Die Sprachunterricht muss umkehren' 1882) "This study of grammar is a useless torture. It is certainly not understood; therefore it can have no effect as far as the moulding of the intellect is concerned and no-one could seriously believe that children could learn their living German tongue from it."
Instead grammar should be acquired inductively by inducing the rules of how the language behaves from the actual language itself. "Never tell the children anything they can find out for themselves." (Jesperin 1904)
These ideas spread, and were consolidated in what became known as the Direct Method, the first of the "natural methods." The Direct Method became popular in language schools, but it was not very practical with larger classes or in public schools.
While Gouin’s The Art of Learning and Studying Foreign Languages, published in 1880, can be seen as the precursor of modern language teaching methods with its ‘naturalistic’ approach, the credit for popularising the Direct Method usually goes to Charles Berlitz, although he marketed it as the Berlitz Method.
The basic premise of the Direct Method was that one should attempt to learn a second language in much the same way as children learn their first language. The method emphasized oral interaction, spontaneous use of language, no translation between first and second languages, and little or no analysis of grammar rules. Sauveur, one of the pioneers of the Direct Method, at the end of the 19thC, would hold the attention of his learners on his performance, and was able to give elaborate speeches even on the very first lesson.
Richards and Rodgers summarized the principles of the Direct method as follows (2001: 12)
According to Prator and Celce-Murcia (1979:3), the key features of the Grammar Translation Method are as follows:
· Learning Theory: The theory of learning is based upon an associationist psychology ; sounds (words) are associated with objects and with actions, and then ideas are associated with other ideas. The route into the L2 is direct - the learner does not translate, but links the L2 word directly with the object that it represents. To do this properly, she must take an active role in the learning process - both asking and answering questions, reading aloud and so on. The L2 learning process is, as with Gouin and Comenius, taken to be very much the same as the L1 learning process.
· Language Theory: The language is seen as being fundamentally a means of communication. The language that is taught is ordinary, every-day language.
· Syllabus: There was little attempt to construct a grammatical syllabus, and if there was any grammar teaching, it was inductive.
· Teachers' Role: The teacher should preferably be a native-speaker of the language. Her task is to present the language, and to direct classroom activities. The language is presented through the teacher's monologue, and the use of realia, or images or of representations of the objects and actions - but it is above all the personal qualities of the teacher that make or break the learning process.
· Students' Role:The learner was expected to become autonomous as quickly as possible, and so the teacher would train the learners to correct themselves.
· Interactions:Usually “Teacher –Student” interactions but sometimes “Student – Student” interactions occur.
· Vocabulary Teaching: Only everyday vocabulary and sentences were taught; concrete vocabulary was taught through demonstration, objects, pictures; abstract vocabulary was taught through association of ideas;
· Grammar Teaching: Grammar was taught inductively; correct grammar was emphasized.
· Culture:Culture is represented in the everyday life of the student.
· Teaching Oral Skills: Both speech and listening comprehension were taught. Oral communication skills were built up in a carefully traded progression organized around questions-and-answer exchanges between teachers and students in small intensive classes; correct pronunciation was emphasized. New teaching points were taught through modeling and practice;
· Teaching Materials: the Direct Method based material on ordinary situations in which the learner might expect to find herself on going abroad - a lesson on the bank, the restaurant, or the hotel - or on subjects of ordinary conversation - geography, money, the weather.
· Role of L1: Classroom instruction was conducted exclusively in the target language;
· Error Correction: The mistake would be signalled by the teacher's repeating the utterance in a rising tone, or by stopping the repetition just before she got to the error.
As we shall see, the method has its limitations, particularly in schools. It is perhaps better suited to debutants than to more advanced learners - most of the adults that came into language schools were, until quite recently, absolute beginners. It is still useful when a teacher is dealing with a class in which the pupils do not possess a common L1.