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Foreign Language Teaching 101: Brief History of Foreign Language Teaching and Method Development


Foreign language teaching has changed throughout the years. In the previous era, teachers would enter the classroom and begin the transfer of information, while the role of the language students was also clearly defined: to listen, take notes, study, and eventually learn. However, through observation, studies, and experimentation, we discovered that language teaching is more complex in practice. It requires the educator attending the methods of presentation of the new information, while also providing the right circumstances for developing the competencies, skills, and abilities of the students. The following series will explore some of the methodology and aspects of language teaching while also looking at the different mediums used by educators and learners.

The Foreign Language Teaching 101 series is divided into six chapters:

Brief History of Foreign Language Teaching and Method Development

Humans are known to possess the ability to learn new languages. Today, it is estimated that about 60% of the population is multilingual (Richards & Rodgers, 1986). Learners can begin acquiring a foreign language at any stage of their education – elementary, middle-school, high-school, or university. In some educational systems, foreign language learning even starts at the preschool stage. As mentioned in a study by Karl H. S. Kim (et al., 1997), "Distinct cortical areas associated with native and second languages", the age of acquisition of the new language matters the most for the brain to perceive it as a second or a foreign language. In other words, the earlier someone is exposed to another language, the greater the chance of them acquiring it as another mother tongue.

Although oftentimes used synonymously, a second language and a foreign language can be distinguished by considering the environment in which they are being studied. A second language is considered a language that is being spoken not only in the classroom but also in the environment where students reside. On the other hand, a foreign language is studied only or mostly in the classroom and to which students are not exposed in the real world.

Image 1. English Explorer Website, "When Is The Right Time For You To Start English Lessons?"

Historically, language learning practices have been established since the pre-twentieth century. During the ancient Byzantium and the Latin Empires, the Greek and Latin languages were used in the same way that English is used today – as lingua franca. The classical forms of Greek and Latin were common in the higher learning environment, which made them more accessible to the elites. In the Renaissance, with the production of books and Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, the study of classical languages became even more formal.

At that time, people also began to notice that classical Latin and spoken Latin differ from one another quite significantly. Both followed different grammar rules; the classical language, was more common at formal institutions, while the spoken one was used for daily conversation. Slowly, classical Latin started to get dismissed by people, as nobody spoke Latin in its formal form. This notion may have contributed to the disappearance of Latin in general as lingua franca, turning it into a dead language, while other languages gained popularity and respectability throughout Europe (Celce-Murcia, 2001).

Image 2. Gordon, 2020. "Teaching and learning the German language".

During the 17th century, the Czech scholar Comenius published several works discussing language teaching methods and classroom techniques. In these works, he emphasized the practicality of the language and sought to promote education through imitation rather than a description of grammar rules. He was the first scholar to describe the inductive method, which stresses teaching language competencies instead of analysis of the language.

Despite Comenius's instructions, the tradition to analyze the language rules through The Grammar-Translation – an already established foreign language learning method – remained strong, shifting from Latin to modern-day foreign language education in the 19th and the early 20th centuries.

Changes occurred throughout the years. Towards the end of the 19th century, The Direct Method, which promoted the development of language skills rather than analysis, started to gain popularity in schools in France and Germany. This was accomplished with the help of two scholars from these countries François Gouin and Alexander von Humboldt (Celce-Murcia, 2001). At about the same time, the International Phonetic Association developed an International Phonetic Alphabet and published a document in which they stressed the importance of teaching pronunciation and oral skills, aspects not addressed through The Grammar-Translation Method.

Image 3. Nygård, 2021.

In the 20th century, in the US, scholars endorsed a method known as The Reading Approach. This method was primarily concerned with developing reading competencies in the target language. This was applied in most schools in the United States, until World War II when the need for the military to speak and understand foreign languages became imminent. Following up on this urgency, the US government, with the help of language and behavioral specialists, invented and implemented The Audiolingual Approach. The Audiolingual Approach prioritized listening and speaking and avoided the use of students' first language in the classroom. It also relied on mechanical repetition and accuracy of speech using repetitive drills (Essberge & Tefl.NET Team, n.d). In another part of the world, Britain developed The Situational Approach to teaching foreign languages. It organized the language into functions used in various situations, then encouraged students to repeat the chunks of language as a group.

Although the history of foreign language education has been influenced by many ideas and theories, in general, it can be said that there have always been two approaches to teaching. One is the practical, direct, or inductive approach, and the other is the analytical, descriptive, and utilitarian approach. These variations and combinations have been systematized and described in more detail by many linguists and are still being applied in various educational facilities around the world. In the late 20th and 21st centuries, foreign language teaching terminologies were also established. That is why now we understand that in an approach, we are describing a set of assumptions, principles, or beliefs about language teaching. The method refers to an overall plan comprised of strategies and a system for presenting and teaching a language in the classroom. And finally, a technique refers to a specific activity implemented in the classroom (Richards & Rodgers, 2014).

Bibliographical References

Essberger, J. & Tefl.NET Team. (n.d)."The Audiolingual Method". Tefl.NET Website, Section "Tefl Teaching Ressources" and "Language Teaching Methods". Retrieved October 3, 2022, from:

Celce-Murcia, M. (ed.). (2001). Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (3rd ed.). Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Kim, K., Relkin, N., Lee, KM, & Hirsch, J. (1997). "Distinct cortical areas associated with native and second languages". Nature, 388, 171–174.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (1986). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching: A description and analysis. Cambridge Language Teaching Library. Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2014). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

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2 ความคิดเห็น

Carol Lawrence
Carol Lawrence
22 มี.ค.

I appreciate you taking the time to write out all of these helpful tips for the IB English Lit and Language Oral exam . With your advice as a guide, students will be able to confidently complete this important part of their IB curriculum. Students will be better prepared to succeed if you stress the significance of careful planning, clear expression of ideas, and analytical thinking. Not only does your instruction help them do better in school, but it also makes them value language and literature more highly. Your efforts to help students succeed on their English IOs are greatly appreciated.


01 พ.ค. 2566

Good afternoon. These are pretty interesting techniques, I've never read about them before. Teaching is no less difficult than studying as a student, but when there are services like that facilitate the learning process. This makes it possible to complete even the most difficult tasks on time.

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Gery Ciftcioglu

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