This week I’m going all epic and I’m going to tell you briefly about language instruction throughout history. ‘Why?’ you might ask. Although TEFL is a relatively modern industry, it has roots that stretch back as far as language itself.
Maybe you are just going to teach for one year, or maybe you are settling into a career in TEFL. Either way, knowing where you stand in the history of language teaching can motivate you and improve your teaching.
Academics say there are 3000 languages spoken on earth. How do people learn these languages? By and large it comes from cultural, especially parental, instruction. The process of learning a mother tongue is something that has been studied endlessly. Foreign language instruction is a different matter. The origins of foreign language study in the modern western world can be traced back to the study of Latin. This study went hand in hand with the intense study of grammar. Grammar was said to be the foundation of language. This grammatical approach was also used when studying languages other than Latin.
The 19th and 20th centuries saw many changes in the approach to language learning, however. Linguistic theorists, such as Harold Palmer, began to study the process of language learning with the hope of defining an approach that was guaranteed to work. This gave rise to two separate, and quite opposed, schools – empiricists and rational theorists.
In brief, empiricists believe language can only truly be learnt through conditioning – constant repetition and mimicry. Theorists argue that language is a uniquely human ability, and that humankind has some kind of innate understanding of grammar. Therefore, teaching a student to use the language will result in grammar acquisition. Noam Chomsky is one whose work has supported the theorist camp. The popular language schools of Berlitz and De Sauze are also theorist.
TEFL is a unique phenomenon in language learning; a global program of education carried out largely by native speakers who travel the world. There have been many advances in the industry, including the establishment of some well-recognised qualifications, and even post-graduate qualifications and studies into teaching English as a foreign language. Most areas have their own TEFL central organisations that help to unify teachers. Seminars and events are carried out throughout the world to progress teaching methods and assess needs.
Most likely, you are teaching your students a very practical form of English that focuses on their needs for the language. Or you maybe teaching English for Specific Purposes. Either way, you can take your stand in the pantheon of teachers across the globe who are helping to facilitate international communication.