A Paradigm Shift in Language Teaching – at long last!


by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

Goodbye Berlitz, goodbye Helen Doron, goodbye Rosetta Stone…
The fact that small children grow into their native language without the help of another one, has inspired countless reformers. Charles Berlitz proclaimed himself the inventor of the direct method (which he wasn’t), and in his schools any use of the learners’ native language was taboo. In our times Helen Doron schools similarly claim to be using „the only internationally acclaimed early English learning method that allows children to absorb English in exactly the same way they learn their mother tongue”, i.e. without translation of any kind. The central idea, the exclusion of the children’s own language, has also been adopted by many public school systems and official guidelines for teachers, although in a less strict and dogmatic manner. A methodological monolingualism became the mainstream philosophy, as evidenced in many textbooks. The use of the mother tongue was invariably cautioned against, generally downplayed and rarely recommended. English-only became almost a badge of honour.

However, commercial self-instructional courses today are curiously divided. There are computer courses which make “no translation” their central selling proposition (e.g. Rosetta Stone: “It essentially means that you learn German in German, without translations – like you picked up your mother tongue”), and there are others which make regular and systematic use of their learners’ native language in various ways (Assimil; Birkenbihl; Michel Thomas…), making the very opposite their central selling proposition.

For more than a century this most vexing issue has been discussed and has often generated more heat than light, and it has certainly generated an immense literature by now.  Although in many countries monolingual teaching with some modifications carried the day, a number of researchers continued to radically question the monolingual assumption. Interestingly, some of them started out as „monolingual“ practitioners (the students’ native language being only a last resort), but changed their minds over time. This is also my own case. As early as 1976 I pressed for a „paradigm shift“, building on C.J. Dodson’s Bilingual Method, a book which opened my eyes when I was a young teacher of modern languages. On reading Dodson I could put the new bilingual techniques immediately into practice, and thus came to understand them by experimenting and observing their effects in the classroom (for more on this, please click here).

In many ways what is now happening fits Thomas Kuhn’s description of a paradigm shift (in The structure of scientific revolutions), a significant change away from the monolingual doctrine in favour of a modern bilingual approach. Over the years, more and more researchers have challenged the settled view of their predecessors, and it seems that a paradigm shift is just around the corner:

2004
„Die Zeit ist reif für eine neue Synthese … die bilinguale Revolution findet statt.“ [„The time is ripe for a new synthesis…the bilingual revolution is taking place“] (W. Butzkamm, Lust zum Lehren, Lust zum Lernen, 12004, p. 2)

2009
“Making the mother tongue the corner stone in the architecture of FLT is a true paradigm shift.” (W. Butzkamm & J. A. W. Caldwell, The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching, p. 15)

2011
“We live in interesting times: having lived through one paradigm shift, I now have the feeling this book marks the start of another.” A. Maley, Review of Translation in Language Teaching: an argument for reassessment by G. Cook. ELT Journal 65.2, 192–193.

2012
„If their proposals are implemented, it will be a true paradigm shift.“  P. Scheffler, Review of The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching by W. Butzkamm  &  J. A. W. Caldwell.  ELT Journal 66/1, 2012, p. 119).

In the influential journal  Language Teaching  – (listed both in  the Arts & Humanities Citation Index and in the Social Sciences Citation Index) authors G. Hall & G. Cook come to the conclusion: „The way is open for a major paradigm shift in language teaching and learning“ (state-of- the-art article „Own language use in language teaching and learning“ , in Language Teaching, 45/2012, pp 271-308). With this authoritative review one can safely say that a century old tenet has been overturned. A dogma has been toppled.

According to Butzkamm & Caldwell the learners’ native language is ‘the greatest pedagogical resource’ that they bring to foreign language learning, as it ‘lays the foundations for all other languages we might want to learn’. While language teaching in many countries had to be officially monolingual with small concessions, it is now accepted that language learning is, and has always been, a fundamentally bilingual endeavour, as modern brain research has shown. Thus it is not just a more flexible and less rigid attitude towards own-language use which is advocated today, but the well-targeted, systematic exploitation of the diagnostic potential of learners’ own language(s), however with the foreign language still being the working language of the classroom. What is now needed is the knowledge and dissemination of those highly effective techniques in which the L1 is essential – techniques which are yet to filter into mainstream pedagogy.

Caution: A sophisticated bilingual approach does not give licence for the lax, unthinking or indifferent use of L1.  It is a highly purposeful, focused tool to promote L2 learning and communicative use in the classroom. We must at long last resolve the apparent paradox that with systematic mother tongue support an authentic foreign language classroom atmosphere can be created much more easily than in classes with a mother tongue taboo.

2 responses to “A Paradigm Shift in Language Teaching – at long last!

  1. Reblogged this on CLERA blog and commented:
    And finally, in Butzkamm’s latest post, he reports on the latest developments in the international SLA community towards a paradigm shift he himself has been advocating for decades: the re-evaluation and revaluation of principled L1 use in L2 teaching and learning.

  2. It was about time! I have been battling against monolingual teaching since I started teaching Italian 25 years ago. My classroom experience made it clear to me that monolingual teaching was frustrating for both students and teachers, and caused unnecessary guilt trips. I learned several languages through contrastive analysis and translation, and absolutely hated it when teachers of those languages treated me like a child, used children’s games and kindergarten flashcards, banned the use of mother tongue even when it was the most expedite and effective way to clarify grammar topics.

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