COMMUNICATIVE LANGUAGE TEACHING
Communicative language teaching rose to prominence in the 1970s and early 1980s as a result of many disparate developments in both Europe and the United States. First, there was an increased demand for language learning, particularly in Europe. The advent of the European Common Market led to widespread European migration, and consequently there was a large population of people who needed to learn a foreign language for work or for personal reasons. At the same time, children were increasingly able to learn foreign languages in school. The number of secondary schools offering languages rose worldwide in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a general trend of curriculum-broadening and modernization, and foreign-language study ceased to be confined to the elite academies. In Britain, the introduction of comprehensive schools meant that almost all children had the opportunity to study foreign languages.
This increased demand put pressure on educators to change their teaching methods. Traditional methods such as grammar translation assumed that students were aiming for mastery of the target language, and that students were willing to study for years before expecting to use the language in real life. However, these assumptions were challenged by adult learners who were busy with work, and by schoolchildren who were less academically able. Educators realized that to motivate these students an approach with a more immediate payoff was necessary.
The trend of progressivism in education provided a further pressure for educators to change their methods. Progressivism holds that active learning is more effective than passive learning, and as this idea gained traction in schools there was a general shift towards using techniques where students were more actively involved, such as group work. Foreign-language education was no exception to this trend, and teachers sought to find new methods that could better embody this shift in thinking.
The development of communicative language teaching was also helped by new academic ideas. In Britain, applied linguists began to doubt the efficacy of situational language teaching, the dominant method in that country at the time. This was partly in response to Chomsky’s insights into the nature of language. Chomsky had shown that the structural theories of language prevalent at the time could not explain the creativity and variety evident in real communication. In addition, British applied linguists such as Christopher Candlin and Henry Widdowson began to see that a focus on structure was also not helping language students. They saw a need for students to develop communicative skill and functional competence in addition to mastering language structures.
In the United States, the linguist and anthropologist Dell Hymes developed the concept of communicative competence. This was a reaction to Chomsky’s concept of the linguistic competence of an ideal native speaker. Communicative competence redefined what it meant to “know” a language; in addition to speakers having mastery over the structural elements of language, according to communicative competence they must also be able to use those structural elements appropriately in different social situations. This is neatly summed up by Hymes’s statement, “There are rules of use without which the rules of grammar would be useless.” Hymes did not make a concrete formulation of communicative competence, but subsequent authors have tied the concept to language teaching, notably Michael Canale.