(Given the controversial nature of the topic, I want to point out that this article is for people who are learning languages on their own and are trying to fine-tune their personal methods. This is not intended for academic audiences, linguists, or educational policymakers. I am entering into the debate as a self-studier, and this article is solely to help other self-studiers improve their own results.)
If there’s one thing people are good at, it’s following fads.
Take fitness, for example. Every few years a new piece of equipment or workout philosophy comes along that promises to make everything before it obsolete. In the 70s, workout enthusiasts flocked to Nautilus machines, and if you watched TV in the early 90s, you probably still remember the commercials for the Thighmaster and 8-Minute Abs.Language learning isn’t immune to fads either. It has its own trends, like the grammar-translation method, acquisition-based strategies, graduated interval recall, the audio-lingual method, and the communicative approach–just to name a few.
I’ll focus on the last one today, because while the communicative approach–which first started becoming influential in the 70s–undoubtedly has its merits, if you blindly adhere to it then you are holding back your progress.
The Communicative Approach
Some zealots say that the communicative approach is anything that improves your ability to communicate. I don’t buy that at all.
Why? Because that definition is too broad. It would encompass every form of useful language learning possible–that which has been created and that which will ever be created. And to say “Our approach works because it includes anything that works” is a tautology.
The best, most concise definition I’ve seen comes from David Barker in an article on Azar Grammar:
“Anyway, my understanding of the Communicative Approach is that it claimed that real communication is not only the goal of language learning, but also the process through which languages are learned. Put simply, you don’t just learn to communicate, you learn by communicating.”
A communicative approach classroom is typified by group discussions, one-on-one discussions, role playing, and games. Textbooks, grammar, and “studying” are downplayed or thrown out altogether.
Before I go any further, I’ll be the first to admit that just “doing” something has tremendous benefits. If you want to learn to ride a bike, at some point you have to get on the thing and pedal. If you want to get better at boxing, you have to strap on the gloves and fight.
And yes, if you want to learn to communicate, you have to get out there and communicate. Having meaningful conversations, reading authentic materials, and listening to people actually talking can really help you reach your goal.
So what’s the problem?
There are three big problems with the communicative approach.
(I know that someone is going to tell me that the communicative approach doesn’t have to be as stringent as I’m making it out to be. But I’m going to counter by saying a) I’ve encountered some hardcore zealots, including people who think we should throw out our textbooks, and b) approaches blending communicative with other strategies should be called “hybrid” or “balanced” approaches.)
1. CA devalues studying and learning.
Don’t throw out the grammar books, textbooks,and flashcards yet. Despite what some people would have you believe, these traditional methods still hold a lot of value for language learners. To claim that these traditional methods don’t work at all is just wrong. The proof is in the millions of people at schools, universities, and language institutes who have significantly improved their foreign language abilities by studying and learning–not just by “communicating.”
Traditional methods may be incomplete. For instance, I’d never say that someone should only do flashcard drills. But traditional methods serve a purpose and do effect improvement. I don’t think you should discard useful tools just because they don’t “fit” the CA template.
2. CA has mixed results.
I’ve talked about fossilization before. It’s when you get up to a certain proficiency level and then stay there for months or even years.
Fossilization is a very real, well-documented phenomenon that happens to people who learn a new language. It even happens to people who live in a country where the language is spoken, which explains why some immigrants can live in a country for several decades and still have a strong accent and incorrect grammatical patterns.
People only learn enough of a skill to get by. In the twenty-plus years she’s lived here, the Chinese woman who runs the local takeout place by me has learned enough English to take orders and field complaints–but that’s it. She communicates in English every single day, for hours a day, but the simple act of communicating hasn’t brought her anything resembling true fluency.
3. Many CA approaches are just as artificial as drills and studying.
Some CA zealots will say, without any hint of irony, “We only focus on authentic communication–like role playing.”
Role playing is just as artificial as grammatical drills. “Pretend you’re in a restaurant and you’re talking to a waiter” is definitely not an authentic situation when you’re sitting at a desk covered in pens, conversing with a speaking partner, under the firm but gentle guidance of a teacher.
But my point isn’t to suggest you stop role playing. My point is that role playing absolutely provides benefit because people are generally capable enough to adapt what they learn in a classroom to a non-classroom communication situation.
…which means that “learning by doing” doesn’t hold the monopoly on “learning.”
The Simple Solution
Mix it up. Mix communicative strategies with traditional strategies. Inject your language learning with a healthy dose of studying, reading, speaking, and listening. Don’t limit yourself to one approach when you can benefit from it all.
Someone is inevitably going to say, “I’m a communicative approach proponent and I already do this.” That’s great! But there are also traditionalists who throw in communicative methods as well. I really don’t care who’s doing what, or how the labels break down; I’m just saying that it’s in your best interest if you neither limit yourself to nor keep yourself from communicative strategies.
Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that my translation-heavy, audio-lingual focused approach to studying German resulted in speaking skills that aren’t as good as they could be. But it also resulted in reading and listening comprehension skills that are way, way better than most people would expect after a relatively short time period. And I know that if I focus on communicative strategies for a while, I’d see exponential improvements in my speaking because I’ve developed a good base.
The one big takeaway I want people to get out of this is that there is more than one way to pet a cat. Watch out for fads. Don’t be afraid to try something because people tell you it “shouldn’t” work. Give it a try yourself and make your own decisions.