Audiolingual method

Language teaching

Learning a language through oral repetitions... only

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash
Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

Hallelujah! Let's finally get started with the technical stuff, namely the various methods of learning foreign languages. The hero of the first issue of the kind is the old-school audiolingual method (aka the army method).

The audiolingual method grew out of the once-popular behaviourist theory. It assumed that sapiens learn only through a system of rewards or punishments for doing the right or wrong thing respectively.

What's the essence? Very briefly, it's multi-multi-multiple time repetitions after a teacher or an audio recording. Correct repetition brings a reward. Incorrect one, not so much. If a little less briefly, the audiolingual method doesn't exclude some variations either, not just to imitate a parrot. For example, the task may not be only to repeat a sentence but also to change the form of one of the words or substitute. Let's say the teacher says "I ate a sandwich" and the learner repeats but changes the number of the noun "I ate sandwiches" or changes the complement word "I ate an apple". There are also more radical practices, such as complete paraphrasing.

The most noticeable characteristic of the method is the absolute rejection of any language other than the target one. It is akin to many other methods, including the most common nowadays - the communicative one.

Why is it also called an army method? That's pretty easy to guess. Because in its early days (around the beginning of the Second World War), the audiolingual method was mainly used for training military personnel, who needed, first of all, to speak a new language fluently. Interestingly, around the same time, American linguists were particularly fond of the oral component. Having extirpated the lion's share of native Indian speakers by that time, the country just stepped onto ethnolinguistic descriptions, found out there was almost nobody to describe local dialects at all. So the national interest in speaking skills fuelled the rise of audio techniques further.

What's more? The audiolingual method separates language skills strictly, i.e. listening, speaking, reading and writing are taught separately one by one and in this exact order. First, we listen and repeat a lot, then we read the script of the dialogue (dialogue is the most important didactic unit for this method) and only then, maybe, we will write something based on what we have listened and read. Where might be the problem here? In listening comprehension - it can be almost ignored by focusing exclusively on learning how to speak using the correct grammar. So it turns out that the audiolingual method is primarily about grammar, repetition aloud and a minimum of creativity.

The latter in fact was the thing to raise doubts in the minds of academics - it's hardly possible to speak a language in memorised sentences alone. A little later, some research came to light that grammar could also be explained in the native language sometimes if there is a clear lack of understanding. Further rise of communicative methods pushed audiolinguality further and further, but not completely. Some of its elements can still be found in modern language programmes and curricula but as a combination with other approaches.