The Tragic History of the Communicative Approach

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.

17 responses to “The Tragic History of the Communicative Approach

  1. I believe strongly in the ‘communicative approach’ yet I also admit to using French more and more in English language lessons. Advantages:
    – It helps establish raport with lower level students and beginners
    – I can quickly overcome language blocks, rather than ‘miming’ to explain.
    – Students can smile at my many French language errors, including pronunciation, and hence feel less inhibited about making mistakes themselves.
    Nevertheless, I do believe it should be used sparingly, and I do also explain the language point in English too.

  2. Excellent post… well done! I think teachers everywhere (including Brazil) are increasingly becoming aware of the shortcomings of the communicative approach (in the format you describe above), especially since we are now at the stage when many wannabe English teachers are failing to demonstrate adequate accuracy and fluency. This is one of the reasons why the group, with over 55 thousand students as well as it’s own publishing house ( has sought to reintroduce some drilling as part of the overall approach to developing greater autonomy amongst students, with communicative goals. This initiative has been welcomed by students and teachers alike and we are beginning to see excellent results. The new approach does indeed espouse a ‘judicious’ use of L1, obviously avoiding this if an L2 equivalent can easily be used or ‘acquired’ as part of classroom routine.

  3. Dear Graeme,

    Thank you very much for your message. I have passed it on to Wolfgang Butzkamm who wrote this post.

    Best wishes,


  4. Pingback: The Tragic History of the Communicative Approach | Creativity Autonomy Technology in ELT |

  5. I don’t understand why “it is indisputable that mother tongue skills are the very foundation of FL skills.” Perhaps this is an age issue? I.e., the older one is, the more one is likely to grapple with a new language from an L1 ‘home base’?
    But learning to negotiate the L2 on its own terms is one of the points of eschewing use of the L1 in the classroom. I’m not an absolutist about not using the L1, but I would suggest that failure of any approach may have to do with the ineffective application of that approach rather than the nature of the approach itself.

  6. When I moved to Japan in the ’80s I didn’t speak any Japanese and neither did 70% of the other English teachers. My Japanese teachers were more interested in improving their English and meeting foreigners. I learned Japanese from books, bar owners, and biochemists. My Japanese ability grew, but so did my seniority so I was always teaching above my level – i.e. teaching English in English always seemed the way to go. BTW in those days everyone back home was surprised to hear that English was taught by people who couldn’t/shouldn’t speak the native language.

  7. Perhaps complete immersion was the “model” way, in those days…!?
    Just a comment. My own teaching environment is presently similar and the language-culture gap continues to become ever so blatantly present to me as the months go by. That is language learning doesn’t appear to necessitate learning many cultural associations at the impressionable early teenage levels anyhow. The presence of only one foreigner, myself, may be a significant reason for this, granted! Nonetheless, try to consider ways of asserting some English cultural associations successfully in any lesson!
    But for now, Holiday Greetings to any readers of this!

  8. Marcos Protheroe, PhD

    The only thing tragic here is Herr Butzkamm’s confusion of the relationship between fluency and accuracy. In the communicative method / total immersion classroom, the students’ native language is never used as a crutch. The target language is the only medium of instruction. That said, the goal in beginning classes is to get the students to talk. Fluency is most important. So, some errors are tolerated, particularly ones that will correct themselves with time. At the intermediate level, accuracy becomes more important. Here, students are given the opportunity to self-correct. Instead of correcting everything, the communicative teacher repeats the errors in disbelief, so that the students can recall and say the correct forms. Communicative language instruction in a total immersion environment is the most efficient way to teach a second language, because it is the closest approximation of living in a foreign country. Anything less only slows down second language learning.

    • Dear Marcos,

      Thank you very much for your valuable comment on W. Butzkamm’s contribution to my blog. I agree with many things you said. Please allow me to ask you about the following (your words): “the communicative teacher repeats the errors in disbelief, so that the students can recall and say the correct forms”. Based on your experience, do you think this a convincing/promising strategy? (long-term effect)? In the age of behaviorism (the audio-lingual/visual method), this was unthinkable, simply because highlighting errors was conceived of as a counter-productive strategy. So, how does this fit into your approach to teaching? Awareness seems to play an important role ….

      • Marcos Protheroe, PhD

        Dear Herr Kurtz,
        Thanks for writing. I love your blog. I do find error reflection an effective way to teach, because it gives my students opportunities to self-correct, and any subsequent discussions that result are conducted entirely in our target language of Spanish. During those times, we are basically talking about Spanish in Spanish! The communicative method / total immersion training I received is a reaction against ALM, grammar-translation, and other failed approaches. The long-term effect speaks for itself. My students know several social skills after one school year. When they don’t understand something, they ask for clarification in Spanish. Above all, the method works.
        Best wishes,

  9. Just spreading editor’s love: you have two lines in the article broken. Those starting with “said” and “it”.

    • Thanks a lot for letting me know. This must have happened when I changed the appearance of the webpage.

  10. Wolfgang Butzkamm

    Dear Marcos,
    “Above all, the method works”. More than thirty years ago, when I was a grammar school teacher of foreign languages and firmly committed to the monolingual principle, I would have used exactly that phrase in response to anyone who suggested I should re-think and change some of my teaching techniques. But then I had my eureka experience which I have described here.

    “In the communicative method / total immersion classroom, the students’ native language is never used as a crutch.” But see, for instance, my article “Code-Switching in a Bilingual History Lesson: The Mother Tongue as a Conversational Lubricant”. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (1998)1:2, 81-99. Please click here.

    My lesson analysis does not “prove” anything in a strict sense but rather makes certain things appear plausible. The mother tongue can be used in such a way that it becomes an ally of the foreign language, a true conversational lubricant – without abandoning the path of virtue, i.e. the functional use of the foreign language as the working language in the classroom.

    • Two questions for everybody. (1) Is there any serious test of ‘it works’ along the lines of, say, ‘PSA blood tests detect prostate cancer’ – do you think there can even be such a test? BTW the whole PSA thing just fell apart so maybe we shouldn’t idolize results. (2) Won’t serious adult learners subvert any system to feel better about their progress? I read every English book I could find on Japanese grammar and even bought ALM tape courses, knowing they were obsolete. Desperation trumped expertise.

  11. Teaching methodologies come and go. Good teachers find ways to utilize and reinforce what is working in whatever method they are employing. However, what was working probably had little to do with the Communicative Language Teaching approach, which still dominates our textbooks. When I focused on its goals, I was disappointed every year. When I switched my emphasis to other aspects of listening, speaking, and writing, I had greater success. What I have found is: Students need more reading materials than we are supplying them; they need to hear and read new vocabulary repetitively in different context; they must frequently produce sentences of their own verbally and in writing. I’m waiting to see these practices in a textbook form.

  12. Teaching Spanish, I find speedy results come from a study of the verb system and vocabulary with little emphasis on real life communication which is the end result, not the process,. This involves a great deal of repetition. The communicative method is useless without the base and is even then slow and inefficient. A teacher led experience involving drilling and memorisation gets the same results easier and faster without the presence that effective communication can be created in a fake classroom environment without grammatical knowledge. It is an exercise in delusion and deception.

  13. Without the pretence…

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