Why the Communicative Approach Is Holding You Back in Language Learning

(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.

Alfred Guillou [Public domain], Image Source

Alfred Guillou [Public domain], Image Source

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?

Three Problems

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.

  • Tante Leonie

    Interesting post.

    The very reason I self-study my target language is because I absolutely loathe the role playing/discussions/game playing that classes serve up!

    I would imagine many self-studiers feel the same.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I know what you mean. I don’t mind that stuff in small doses, but it’s unavoidable nowadays in classrooms. The only thing to watch out for–at least as I’ve discovered with myself–is that it’s easy to become too isolated as a self-studier. If your goal is conversation, you have to find ways to sneak in conversation–but having authentic conversations with people out in town suits some students more than classroom talk.

      • Tante Leonie

        Yes, I see what you mean in general.

        In my case, however, I’m lucky enough to be living in the country whose language I’m learning. No shortage of opportunities here!

        • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

          Perfect! haha…it sounds like you’re getting the best of all worlds, without having to pretend you’re a hotel clerk and another student is making a reservation. lol

  • http://allthetongues.hol.es/ Roman Shinkarenko

    Your takeaways is that no method would work by itself. Any one must be balanced with others, to get the languages through multiple channels.

    And this communicative classroom approach is worthless without a lot of input to mimic.
    As Benny said in his book, you can get a start by speaking from day 1, but to really improve you need to hit the textbooks.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Benny gets a lot of flak from the “language community,” but I like him. He promotes a lot of different strategies and injects a healthy dose of common sense into his recommendations.

      • http://allthetongues.hol.es/ Roman Shinkarenko

        A lot of flak? Really? I know only about Steve Kaufman (his case can’t be helped), one comment by Randy and one comment thread by me (that quickly rose to a flame war, to my shame).

        If only his newest posts didn’t read like a sales pitch… (Delete this paragraph after reading, please)

        • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

          Just on Reddit and stuff, I’ve read some ugly things. Oh, and there’s a couple people on YouTube who have dozens of videos bashing him. I think that level of hate is unwarranted, especially considering the subject matter. I find his material very useful.

        • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

          haha, and I read your paragraph. I can’t delete the paragraph without deleting the entire comment.

          • http://allthetongues.hol.es/ Roman Shinkarenko

            Just open the Dashboard and in the comments list (you have it on the Dashboard, don’t you) press Edit near my comment.

          • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

            Oh wow. I didn’t know you could do that. You could make anyone’s comment look like they said anything. Yikes!

  • http://www.eurolinguiste.com/ Shannon Kennedy

    Interesting post, Ron. I think that if one goes at learning a language with any one resource or any one method, they’re going to have a hard time at it. I think it’s always best to use a variety of resources and approaches. It really increases the chances of one rounding out their skills in a language and understanding it more fully.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I agree 100%. I find that a lot of things in language–native, second, or otherwise–are a trade off. Coming at it with different mindsets is vital.

  • DoctorZin

    Sorry, late to the party, but I’m a course designer for a commercial (multiple) language school in Asia attempting to design a program to bring a little bit of institutional uniformity to the great diversity of languages that we offer and the attendant chaotic process that is language acquisition.

    It seems to me, that the bare-bones of a communicative lesson plan is simply WARMUP – GRAMMAR POINT/LESSON FOCUS – GUIDED PRACTICE – FREE PRACTICE – AND (the fairly new stage of) SELF/TEACHER/PEER ASSESSMENT. My work recognizes, not necessarily originally, that there are a million ways to employ activities to meet the standard for the CLT process. Nothing I’ve seen precludes an explicit grammar explanation or anything, although I do feel that a kind of Socratic approach wherein the S is offered some kind of inspirational material and intuits as much about the lesson as he is able.

    Anyway, when we’re trying to bring structure to an inherently largely random process, I feel that we could do a lot worse than the common sense process I described in the 2nd paragraph. I guess, in summary, I feel we can use the relatively new idea of ‘Principled Eclecticism’ within a communicative framework to give our students the best chance at success in the target language.