Saturday, 27 August 2011

Language teaching history - early modern times

In Europe before the 16th century, much of the language teaching involved teaching Latin to priests. In the 16th and 17th centuries, French was a lingua franca for speaking to foreigners. Members of the court spoke French, of course, but it was also a necessary language for travellers, traders, and soldiers. French was fairly widely taught during this period, and a study of the theoretical books and language textbooks from this period indicate that many of the same ques¬tions that are being considered today by language teachers were being considered then. These included questions about practice versus learning rules and formal study versus informal use.

Later during the Renaissance the formal study of the grammars of Greek and Latin became popular through the mass production made possible through the invention of the printing press. In the case of Latin, it was discovered that the grammar of the classical texts was different from'that of the Latin being used as a lingua franca (the latter subsequently being labeled "Vulgate Latin", i.e. the Latin of the common people). Eventually major differences developed between the Classical Latin described in the Renaissance grammars, which became the formal object of instruction in schools, and the Latin being used for everyday purposes. This occurred at the same time that the Latin was being abandoned as a lingua franca, so no one was speaking Classical Latin any more, and various European vernaculars had begun to rise in respectability and popularity.

So, the status of Latin changed during this period from a living language that learners needed to be able to read, write in, and speak, to a dead language which was studied as an intellectual exercise. The analysis of the grammar and rhetoric of the Classical Latin became the model language teaching between the 17th and 19th centuries, a time when thought about language teaching crystallized in Europe. Emphasis was on learning grammar rules and vocabulary by rote, translations and practice in writing sample sentences. The sentences that were translated or written by the students were examples of grammatical points and usually had little relationship to the real world. This method came to be known as the grammar-translation method. Though some people tried to challenge this type of language education, it was difficult to overcome the attitude that Classi¬cal Latin was the most ideal language and the way it was taught was the model for the way language should be taught.