Listening, Speaking (then Reading, Writing): The life, near death and hidden life of the Audio Lingual Method: Part one

green-flowerWe were at war. We had to send troupes over to that far away place. In that far away place, most people did not speak American. Our brave boys would have to be able to communicate, to buy bread, to interrogate prisoners, to give orders, to meet girls. They had to learn languages, and fast. What was there to be done?

A bunch of structural linguists were consulted. Up to the date, language learning had either been an intense study of grammar and endless translation from one language to another, or endless translation from one language to another combined with an intense study of grammar. The emphasis was not on being able to speak the language, it was actually a philosophical exercise.

Structural linguistics, which was just getting off its hands and knees and taking shaky steps from one end of the language scale to the other, took on the challenge of first analyzing and simplifying language for quick acquisition, then offering a teaching method that would get those soldiers speaking quickly. The so-called “Army Method” was born.

What a pity. We have all seen movies with military basic training exposed. Soldiers do a number of repetitive actions, with a shouting drill sergeant on their butts the entire time, until they get whatever action being practiced just right. At the same time, they were strengthening their bodies and minds for what their superiors knew was awaiting them over there. The pity? The “Army Method” of learning those strange tongues tended to follow the same plan. Why, we continue to use the word “drill” when speaking about some of the basic exercises used in that method.

There must have been some success with the “Army Method”. We did win the war, after all (or did we? oops, that’s another theme that doesn’t belong on a language blog!). In any case, probably basing themselves upon that “Method”, those Structural Linguists went on ahead with the development of materials and curriculum and “methods” to bring the “Method” to the common man, this time concentrating upon the new subject of English as a Second Language.

That’s where the real birth of the Audio Lingual Method (ALM) occurred. Brilliant men like Charles C. Fries and Robert Lado, recognized in their field for their meticulous study, breakdown, reconstruction and explanation of the English language, contributed to, maybe even were responsible for, the Audio Lingual Method. Before I discuss Mr Fries’ and Mr Lado’s contributions to ALM, though, I want to discuss that word I have so often put between those Dr Evil quotes: “method”. That’s what’s up for the next post in this series: The Madness Behind the “Method”.

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