Language learning during the 19th century was marked by an intent focus on the benefits of the simple intellectual challenge. Latin was a popular subject for study not for any practical value, but because the prevailing thought was that internalizing a library of irregular conjugations and sentence patterns was the ultimate brain teaser. From this, academics began formulating formal approaches to language learning stressing grammar patterns and rote memorization. Reading and writing proficiency were the goal.
The 20th century saw a pragmatic shift towards speaking. New approaches and methodologies championed the ability to speak and communicate with the language, rather than just construct it from a series of rules. This way of thinking has become ingrained, and for obvious reasons. Now, we are all one business trip, one Skype call, one affordable flight away from needing our language skills to prevail at communication immediately. Burlitz, Pimsleur, and Rosetta Stone rode this wave of innovation and have contributed to today’s unwavering demand that effective speaking be the deliverable of any language school or product.
Most recently, the conversation has turned to interaction. Not obvious at first glance, interaction and speaking are fundamentally different conceptions of the learning process. The final product – communicative fluency – may be the same, but since we all expect to be able to use our language skills in some capacity short of perfection, the journey is more import than the destination. As an extreme image, consider learning immaculate pronunciation and sentence-construction by listening to a tape recording and repeating to a brick wall. Compare this to the philosophy underpinning interaction: sitting in a room with a native speaker who doesn’t know your language either, pointing at objects, and wrestling to teach each other simple nouns. According to the interaction school of thought, speaking is just an artifact of real communication; real value derives from the mutual struggle to meet in the middle and working to grow an intersection (comprising words, sentences, facial expressions, gestures, whatever) where communication can occur. This way of thinking has led to some language products that market their methodologies as helping you learn as you did when you were a small child.
I think the evolution in thinking about language learning over the last two centuries has been for great benefit. Learning Latin to read the classics and bend your brain is great, but our increasingly interconnected world demands a pragmatic approach that gets people talking to each other as quickly and easily as possible. I do think, however, that this line of thinking can be overdrawn. Thinking that language learning as a teen or adult should replicate the processes by which we learned as a child, for example, sounds nice but is an oversimplification. Another example is a branch of thought that holds that the primary language should never be used in teaching the secondary language: in some cases, though, comparing grammar and vocabulary can be extremely informative and natural. Not to mention that different individual learning styles may actually be served better with a less bleeding-edge interactive approach.