by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany
In the seventies a movement called the communicative approach emerged. The term was well chosen and intuitively appealing to all of us. Is there anybody around who prefers teaching non-communicatively?
Communicative activities should be at the centre of foreign language teaching. There is a basic law of learning known to all of us: We learn what we practice, i.e. we learn to communicate by communicating. Make “message-oriented communication” rather than “medium-oriented communication” the focus of the classroom (for this distinction see Butzkamm & Caldwell, The bilingual reform , p. 42ff.). An old mistrust of grammar was revived and a new kind of error tolerance was born. Gone are the days when catched, or she didn’t bought the jeans, were considered a crime against the English language by teachers who were quite unaware of the fact that monolingual English children made the same mistakes on their way to adult grammar. Did such mistakes prevent them from communicating happily? Many other good things can be said in favour of the communicative approach, such as a new emphasis on speech functions, on learners’ needs inside and outside the classroom etc. And, in fact, it did breathe new life in my teaching. Nevertheless it “failed to deliver”, as Robert O’Neill wrote in The Guardian in 1999, and is still failing today.
This is because it tragically came with several birth defects, one of which is that it simply ignored the long-standing issue of the role of the mother tongue. So native speakers happily continued teaching monolingually, while others were
generous to a fault in using the pupils’ mother tongue even for message-oriented activities such as organizing the daily life of the classroom, explaining tasks, setting homework, giving feedback on tests etc.. Still others used it hesitantly and sparingly in various ways while feeling guilty about it.
What is badly needed is the knowledge and dissemination of highly effective techniques in which the L1 is essential and indispensable. Teachers need to understand and use sophisticated bilingual techniques alongside monolingual ones, of course. Here are two articles that describe some of these techniques: “Practice Makes Perfect or: How to learn structures“ and “Practice Makes Perfect or: How to learn a dialogue“.
On my website (please click here), you can also see videoclips illustrating bilingual techniques. After all, it is indisputable that mother tongue skills are the very foundation of FL skills. Nevertheless, the communicative philosophy, as I see it, still wants teachers to keep the L1 out of the FL class, i.e. rarely mentions bilingual techniques which can scaffold the learning of an L2 most effectively. How can you keep something separate from its very foundation?
The “communicative approach” will not die because the term in itself is so attractive. But it will be faltering and ailing unless it openly recognizes its birth defects and remedies them. I’ve mentioned one of these defects, but see O’Neill for others (please click here).
Wolfgang Butzkamm & John A. W. Caldwell (2009). The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching. Tübingen: Narr.