The teaching of foreign languages has come on leaps and bounds in the period following World War II. Advances in applied linguistics, psychology, education and technology have all combined to make the late twentieth century one of the most exciting times for foreign language teaching (FLT). English teaching and the field of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) benefited most from these new approaches to teaching. The Grammar-Translation Method was the predominant method for a long period of time. It focused on the use of translation as a route into the foreign language as well as the memorisation of grammatical rules.
The Direct Method was developed in opposition to Grammar-Translation. No translation was used here and neither was the mother tongue. Other methods included the Silent Method, the Audio-Lingual Method and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) which has gained ground in recent years and is perhaps one of the most popular approaches nowadays. It was itself a response to the Audio-Lingual Method. In the communicative approach the focus is interaction and the use of authentic texts. This approach led to Task-based Language Learning which has also become extremely popular. In this approach grammar and linguistic elements are not the focus, but rather the task that needs to be realised in the language interaction situation.
With the foundation and strengthening of applied linguistics as a genuine academic discipline and the growth of TEFL as a truly marketable business (including the publication of foreign language learning textbooks), Grammar-Translation became marginalised and forgotten by many. Some of the key terms in FLT now include communication, task realisation and learner autonomy. No place for grammar or translation. Many of the criticisms directed at Grammar-Translation were genuine; there was too great a focus on authenticity (rather than fluency) and the mother tongue (rather than the target language).
However, as with all trends, CLT has perhaps swung too far. Many believe that regimented language learning which is often not highlighted in CLT (but is present in Grammar-Translation) is particularly useful for beginners. Learner autonomy is valuable in language learning but guidance and periodicity is equally important, also present in Grammar-Translation. The early twenty-first century has seen some call for a more hybrid (mix-and-match) approach to foreign language learning where the best ‘bits’ of various approaches are utilised.
Another point is the teaching of translation proper. Is is possible to use a purely communicative approach in translation training? Task-based Language Learning certainly can be used to teach translation but can we use it exclusively? Many teachers are lauding these new hybrid approaches which combine Task-based Language Learning with short ‘doses’ of Grammar-Translation which not only present authentic foreign language texts to students and trainees but also highlight the differences between languages and cultures. Thankfully, the old Grammar-Translation Method has left us. Perhaps it is time for a new one.
Out with the old, in with the new…?