Teacher: Joey, what is five times five?
Teacher: Hey, that’s pretty good.
Joey: Pretty good? No, It’s perfect!
In this joke, the teacher praises Joey’s behavior. But Joey changes the focus. Yes, his learning behavior may be pretty good. But his answer is perfect! When a teacher praises a student, we call it “positive reinforcement.” The teacher rewards or reinforces the correct behavior. This idea comes from behavioral psychology. It’s a way to get learners (or animals) to develop correct habits.
One language teaching method comes out of behavioral psychology. We call it Audio-Lingualism. The first supporters of Audio-Lingualism relied on the work of Harvard psychologist, B. F. Skinner. Skinner (1957) wrote an important book called “Verbal Behavior.” He believed that verbal behavior (language) was like non-verbal behavior (all other behaviors).
With Audio-Lingualism, teachers try to help learners develop correct language habits. These teachers do many repetitive drills. They drill students on grammar and pronunciation. And they often correct mistakes. Audio-Lingualism was popular in the 1950s and 1960s. But today, communicative methods have replaced it. Modern teachers may want to do a little drilling and repetition. (See the chapter on The Theory of Spaced Repetition.) But we have good reasons not to make drills and mechanical repetition the center of our teaching approach.
The Basics of Audio-Lingualism
Teachers who use the Audio-Lingual Method follow these principles.
- Teachers drill students with dialogs that focus on grammar patterns.
- Teachers drill students with patterns of pronunciation.
- Teachers emphasize listening and speaking.
- Teachers explain grammar (inductively) after drilling, not before.
- Teachers give reinforcement and correction.
- Students imitate the teacher (or tape). They practice, repeat, and memorize.
- Students try to build and over-learn grammar “habits.”
- Students try hard to avoid mistakes.
Besides the above principles, teachers use the following techniques.
- Repetition: “Repeat after me.”
- Inflection: “They are going; she is going.”
- Replacement: “Jill gave me; she gave me.”
- Completion: “What ___ Jill give you?”
- Transformation: “They went. I didn’t go.”
As teachers, maybe we can use some of these techniques today, but if we do, we need to be aware of the problems stated below.
The Problems with Audio-Lingualism
Most learners don’t like drills and repetition. Drills are boring, and students often find them meaningless. For example, look at this common pattern.
Teacher: Repeat after me! This is a pen!
Students: This is a pen!
In reality, students probably want to respond as follows:
Teacher: Repeat after me! This is a pen!
Students: Duh! We know it’s a pen!
Why is this example meaningless? For one, the students already know it’s a pen. They are not communicating anything new and meaningful. In this dialog, we see no communication. The teacher is not sharing a message. And the students just repeat the teacher’s words.
Besides being boring, historically, the Audio-Lingual Method did not produce great results. Students would drill in class. They would imitate the teacher, and they would repeat, repeat, and repeat. But they often could not use these language habits in the real world — for communication.
What is more, the Audio-Lingual Method discourages the making of mistakes. Of course, we don’t want to learn mistakes. Rather, we want to learn from mistakes. And learners sometimes need to make mistakes in order to learn. This kind of learning is called “generation.” It’s learning by trial and error, and a strict Audio-Lingual Method does not value learning from mistakes.
In short, we see that Audio-Lingualism bores learners. It fails to motivate. With drilling, it does not cause learners to experience communication. It does not logically account for generation — trial and error learning from mistakes. And for many students, it did not help them learn to successfully communicate in the real world. These are serious problems, but there’s one more big problem.
Language is Not Just a Habit
Language teachers and learners need to remember this. Language is not just memorized habits. When we use language, we are not just repeating habits. We are creating new and original sentences. Habits are involved, too. But when we communicate, we create. We use our mental powers to say new things, not just to repeat what we have memorized.
The famous linguist Noam Chomsky said, “Language is not habit structure.” (1966, pg. 153). This points to a central fact about language. It is creative. The creativity of human language shows that Audio-Lingualism is not complete. It is limited. And it does not cause learners to experience real, creative, and novel communication when they use it in class.
In the end, we can use some techniques and tricks from Audio-Lingualism, especially with retrieval, spacing, and interleaving. But we must know the limitations of the Audio-Lingual Method. And we would be wise to avoid using it too much. In our language classes today, we want to promote meaningful communication. We want students to creatively communicate in class because we acquire language through communication. And we never want to drill and kill student motivation with meaningless and boring repetition.
A Question to Consider
Language textbooks often use dialogs, and these dialogs seem to come out of Audio-Lingualism. Dialogs do not allow students to communicate real messages to each other. That is, they are not communicative. If so, how can we make language learning dialogs communicative?