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Changes since 1918 in the curriculum of foreign language teaching in American high schools

Garry Gillard

Assignment for Education 31, Dip Ed, UWA, 1970.


Before proceeding to a survey of language teaching curricula, it is necessary to make some points about the nature of language skills and the consequent aims of teaching foreign languages.

Modern definitions of language typically emphasise the spoken language. Simeon Potter, for example (Potter, 1960, p. 208) defines it as "a system of arbitrary and conventional vocal symbols by means of which human beings communicate and cooperate with one another." The written language may be seen as 'metalanguage', a system of written symbols which represent more or less faithfully the vocal symbols. Usually we use the term 'language' to cover both levels of language - spoken and written.

Furthermore, communication is two-way; so that 'we have four modes of language: inward and outward, spoken and written; in other words, hearing, speaking, reading and writing. Thus "learning a language" means learning some or all of these four skills; and language teaching curricula must necessarily state which of the skills are to be taught and what emphasis each will receive.

Language teaching may have additional aims to the four basic ones, for example, "gaining a new understanding of language and its structure, and deepening and expanding the knowledge of another people's culture as well as his own." (Monroe, 1960, p. 868) It is often specifically stated that study of a foreign language helps understanding of one's own language. This principle can be inferred from the above quotation, and it does seem as if this might be a true instance of transfer of training.

Any educational procedure should involve the fourfold task of stating objectives, deciding on content and method, and evaluation the entire process. There is, unfortunately, a tendency to confuse both objectives and content, and and in the case of language teaching, to confuse both objectives and content with method. Misplaced enthusiasm can carry this confusion into classroom practice. It can happen that a teacher is no longer teaching his students, he is not even teaching French. He is teaching, for example, the Direct Method. The distinctions between aims, content and methods are so fine that the confusion occurs, or at least appears to occur, in the literature. This matter, then, needs to be clarified. When we are attempting to talk about aims and objectives we need to be aware of the danger of unintentionally talking about methods of content. Clarification of this can come from stating objectives in behavioural terms - in terms of what the student is expected to be able to do at the end of his course. And hence the methods used will follow from this.

A possible objective of a foreign language course could be bilingualism - the ability to speak two languages with equal facility. The practical impossibility of achieving this within the time allotted to languages in class has long been recognised and yet often been ignored. This fact was demonstrated by Eric Hawkins (Richardson, 1967) in an article published in an English journal, which makes interesting reading, as it shows the similarity of problems in language teaching in the United States and the United Kingdom (indeed in English-speaking countries generally). In the editorial of the same journal, Richardson shows that the ‘New Look‘ in language teaching is not so new; that Comenius three hundred years ago and Wilhelm Viëtor, eighty-five years ago shared most of the most 'modern' ideas of today. The field of language teaching seems to be one in which constant change is taking place without any real alteration or improvement in technique, at depth. The root of the problem lies in the initial statement of the aims. Clearly, bilingualism is the ultimate in language learning. For practical purposes, however, it is better to establish aims which can be achieved, and which will give the student skills which he will want to develop when he leaves school.


Before mentioning changes since 1918, it will be necessary to indicate a few of the main trends in language teaching in the United States before that date.

French, German and Spanish had been taught in national immigrant communities from the first settlements; German especially in Pennsylvania, and Spanish in the Southern states. As these were cultural sub-groups, the aim was to maintain the language in a living form, whereas as in the Latin Grammar School and the Academy (in which former, French and German were taught from 1749) the aims were handed on from the study of classical languages and therefore the methods. As educators at this time believed in the transfer of training, they emphasised the structure of the languages they were teaching and insisted on rote learning and memory work and translation, rather than the skills of reading and speaking. Students would be drilled in the rules of grammar, with exceptions, would have to recite verb paradigms and would have to memorise vocabulary lists. With this equipment, students would then be able to turn back into the foreign language certain English sentences which were cleverly devised to illustrate the grammatical principles learned - and often stressing the exceptional cases, thus attempting to trap the student rather than teach him. (Childers, 1964, pp. 31, 32.)

It is convenient, and almost true to say that this was the only method in use up to 1918. There was the interlinear translation method of the middle of the nineteenth century, which was a literal and idiomatic translation between the lines of a story, which was accompanied by questions and model answers. The aim was to enable the students to do a translation exercise at the end of each section.

A method called the ‘natural method‘ became popular in about 1866 - but popular mainly in private language classes, rather than in formal classes in schools.

There was one major development before 1918. This was the ‘Direct Method‘, which was developed by Wilhelm Viëtor, made official in France and Germany in 1901 and 1902 respectively, and brought to America in 1911 by a disciple of Viëtor. The aim was to teach the foreign language as the first language is learnt - by oral use; grammar being learnt inductively.


With troops returning from France after World War 1, there was increased interest in this direct method and many teachers were using a method which was basically aural-oral. Unfortunately, it was soon found that this took rather too much time; and a compromise method - the eclectic method- became widespread. However, this soon declined, in the cyclic fashion which seems to have been common in the early twentieth century in the United States, into a translation method.

The reaction to this decline and the consequent decline in the esteem of the subject led to the Modern Foreign Language Study of 1924-1929, which resulted in the Reading Method. This was based on the idea that reading in quantity had a great effect on the achievement of the pupil. Texts were proliferated, based on word frequency lists and carefully 'graded' . This new emphasis had the effect of pushing the age of commencement of learning a foreign language back and diminishing its importance, as it was felt that students could achieve the aims of this method in shorter time. Four reports and commissions in the early 1940s diminished this even further. The Harvard Report of 1945, for example, removed foreign languages from the core of the curriculum and recommended General Language as a substitute for foreign languages. It could be claimed that this report is one of the antecedents of the present Achievement Certificate in Western Australia in this regard.

However, it was during this very time, and as a result again of war, that foreign language teaching took a dramatic turn, which had far-reaching and world-wide effects which are still being felt. The necessity of producing fluent speakers of foreign languages in wartime, particularly of Japanese, produced the Army Method, which was the aural-oral method and which became the audio-lingual method, which in this country we are still discovering today, and which is the major change in the field since 1918.

The audio-lingual method was made possible by anthropologists and descriptive linguists studying North American Indian dialects. They evolved a method of studying languages as a stream of sounds, which they were able to break up into phonemic groups. Instead of seeing a language as being a system of written symbols, it was now seen as an amalgam of its phonology, morphology and syntax.

The aim of teaching at this time was that the trainees should be able to speak a language fluently and accurately and have almost perfect comprehension of a native speaker. With this aim, combined with the superb motivation of patriotism, careful screening and classes of ten, the Army Method achieved amazing results - they claimed to be able to teach a trainee to speak a language in three months. And this method was based on the analysis of a language in terms of its sounds.

When language for communication became the dominant aim in the 1950s, the term audio-lingual was coined to describe this new method based on the natural order of learning a language: listening, speaking, reading and writing.

The effect of the first Russian satellite on American education through the National Defence Act of 1958 is well known. The Act provided a similar kind of stimulus to that of the Army Method, fifteen years before. There was a greatly increased public interest in languages in the media and on school boards. With the increased expenditure on education, it became possible go offer languages to more students; this having been found to be a field in which there was a great lack. Many teachers attended summer courses to learn new methods and returned to present languages as "living, vital keys to culture". (Childers, 1964, p. 85) One of the new techniques which was soon to become available to a great number of them was the language laboratory.

The language laboratory, whether the full equipment of tape recorder and headset for each student, or the electronic classroom, with merely a headset for each student; has become widely accepted in the United States. (Hutchinson, 1966, p. 216) However, there are two sides to this, as other questions, as is shown in the following notes on some recent articles on this and other problems in language teaching.

The theme of constant change without any real alteration is taken up in an article (Zeldner, 1963, pp. 245-253) in which it is claimed that teachers are being exhorted to 'teach all four aspects of language as if this were something new, whereas this was something they felt they had been doing since the 1930s. Furthermore, teachers are being overwhelmed by the quantity of electronic equipment they must handle and which is impersonal at its very best, in this writer's opinion.

Smith (1964, pp. 366-368) believes that the American public has adopted the bilingualism objective. She suggests that students could best achieve mastery of a foreign language by concentrating on one language and pursuing its study for a number of years. She also proposes non-graded instruction to enable students in junior high schools to acquire adequate proficiency in the fundamental skills.

The principle of bilingualism - mastery of the second language - raises the problem that the length of instruction must be increased within the high school and also into the primary school where qualified teachers are not readily available. This issue is treated (Walsh, 1965, pp.82-85) in an article which suggests the use of foreign language specialists in the elementary school. The problem is then raised of providing a satisfactory high school course for the student who has had foreign language studies in his primary years. The problems of articulation with college courses are also discussed in the hope that these may be developed to keep pace with improvements in teaching at secondary level.

Suther (1968, pp. 849-852) criticises the teaching of languages as simply tools of factual communication. She feels that the audio-lingual method, albeit laudable in many respects, fails in its under-emphasis on literature.

It is made clear in "The Language Laboratory, Boon or Bane?" (Cables, 1966, pp. 618-622) that the success of the language laboratory depends on its use and particularly on the tapes that are prepared for it. Too many tapes simply require the student to repeat what he has just heard, and boredom sets in. In the ‘four phase‘ system, a space is left for his response after which the correct answer is given and the student must repeat it. This can encourage laziness on the part of a student who simply waits to hear the correct response.

Even in these days of emphasis on the spoken language, it is not surprising to find someone in support of a stress on reading ability (Burling, 1968, pp. 61-75). Thus, for some students "it would seem reasonable to introduce oral skills only to the extent that these help them to read, and if it should turn out that this teaching requires only a very minimal oral training that fact should not disturb us." (p. 63) Reading a foreign language is, after all, the skill which can be most readily practised by the student - if he wishes to. Burling‘s 'Outlandish Proposals‘ (title) involve teaching "grammar, lexicon and phonology more separately than ... in the past". (p. 63) This archaic-sounding process comprises reading passages progressing from English in the word-order of the new language, to the text in the target language complete with only the insertion of English words where the meaning is not evident, having gone through a stage using the structural words of the target language.

Georges Joyaux (1965, pp. 102-105) in assessing the present-day boom in language teaching, is critical of the "dabbling with foreign languages in elementary schools throughout the nation". (p. 83) He also asks for a new attitude to language laboratories, for them to be seen as a tool, and not as an end as well as a beginning in language teaching. He feels that too much emphasis has been laid on training, and that this has in fact increased as a result of the race with Russia which embraces more than weapons. Consequently, he calls for a study of foreign literature as the logical outcome of language study - in short, for a humanization of language study.


One of the important questions debated in the sixties was the extension of language-learning down into the elementary school, as has already been mentioned above. Conant had recommended (1964, pp. 73-77) that this occur, and the debate was taken up in the National Elementary Principal (Habermann, 1963, pp. 51-54; and Andersson, 1963, pp. 61-62). The problem is discussed at the level of learning outcomes and purposes rather direct objectives. When foreign languages are taught in elementary schools, it is necessary to decide whether they are being taught as such, or as adjuncts to the social studies course.

Lopato reports (1963, pp. 499-507) on an experiment which suggested that average third-grade children could benefit from a French conversation course without disrupting their regular primary school program. She also reiterates the point "that it takes continuous effort and study for a number of years to acquire an adequate degree of competence in a foreign language.(p. 507)

According to research results reported in the French Review (Brega, 1965, pp. 433-438), students who had studied foreign languages in elementary school were significantly superior to students who had not. The comparison was made at the end of the third year of high; school.


Another question which keeps recurring is the place of literature in language study. Nelson (1963, pp. 617-628) feels that the study of literature needs to be rationalized. He feels strongly that it should be included in a foreign language course, but objects to the use of extracts and to the discussion in English of the texts. He suggests that all students should study literature but not until they have the linguistic ability to do so.

Young (1963, pp. 629-632) attempts to show experimentally the effect of foreign literature study on attitudes (towards other people et@.). A slight positive improvement was recorded but this was not as great as had been expected by teachers whose opinions were collected before the experiment.

Melcher (1966, pp. 595-603) reviews a series of literary texts published in recent years which provide notes, vocabularies and even interlinear translations which imply that reading literature is to be treated principally as a translation exercise. Furthermore, this approach could also be discovered in books which purported not to do this.


Recent developments in language teaching reveal a trend to more and more technical aspects of the curriculum; in both senses of the word 'technical', in that methods tend to become more complex as more and more mechanical and electronic aids are used.

Thus we may find one writer (Adams, 1968) proposing a language laboratory combined with an electric typewriter and a computer to provide what would seem for the moment to be the ultimate in teaching machines; while in the same book, another writer (Fried, 1968) proposes the use of comparative linguistics analysis in language teaching. The latter concludes in part: “Two-way translation may not be excluded here.", which would surely seem a backward step to the first writer. (p. 45)

Some institutions now have remote listening posts for self-instruction and practice with laboratory programs, some even permitting random access by dial-up, while others may publish the programs available at fixed times (Hocking, 1968, p. 52). Of course, many teachers in the United States have access to instructional programs on television, and almost all would have teaching or cultural background films available to them, especially the latter.

The combined use of several of the modern techniques has been advocated. For instance (Corder, 1966, 233-252) using an audio-visual course sent over television to students in a language laboratory. The most recent material to which I have access proposes an integrated language course using CAI: computer-assisted instruction (Ruplin, March 1970).

Psychologists too have contributed their special points of view. Carroll (1966, pp. 93-106) gives limited support to what he calls the ‘cognitive code-learning theory of language as against the ‘audio-lingual habit‘ theory, which latter is explicitly or implicitly the basis of current practice in the United States.

So it seems that even in the most recent and involved work in this field, as in earlier work, that there is still tension, or perhaps rather balance, between contrasting points of view, which contributes to the on-going process of improvement in the teaching of foreign languages.


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Andersson, T., "FLES: A Clarification", National Elementary Principal, XLIII, 1, 1963.

Brega, E. and Newell, J.M., "Comparison of Performance by FLES Program Students and Regular French III Students", French Review, 39,3, 1965.

Burling, R., "Some Outlandish Proposals for the Teaching of Foreign Languages", Language Learning, XVIII, 1and 2, 1968.

Cables, V., "The Language Laboratory, Boon or Bane?", French Review, 39, 4, 1966.

Carroll, John, B., "The Contributions of Psychological Theory and Educational Research to the Teaching of Foreign Languages", Trends in Language Teaching, ed. Albert Valdman, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1966, 93-106.

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Conant, J.B., The American High School Today, N.Y.: New American Library, 196A.

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Smith, E.C., "Junior High School Curriculum in Motion - Modern Foreign Languages", Journal of Secondary Education, 39, 12, 196A.

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