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Teaching approaches: what is audiolingualism?

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article discussing the concept of audiolingualism.

There seems to be a widely held perception amongst language teachers that methods and approaches have finite historical boundaries - that the Grammar-Translation approach is dead, for example. Similarly, audiolingualism was in vogue in the 1960s but died out in the 70s after Chomsky’s famous attack on behaviourism in language learning.

In this context, it is worth considering for a moment what goes on in the typical language learning classroom. Do you ever ask your students to repeat phrases or whole sentences, for example? Do you drill the pronunciation and intonation of utterances? Do you ever use drills? What about choral drilling? Question and answer? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then, consciously or unconsciously, you are using techniques that are features of the audiolingual approach.

This approach has its roots in the USA during World War II, when there was a pressing need to train key personnel quickly and effectively in foreign language skills. The results of the Army Specialized Training Program are generally regarded to have been very successful, with the caveat that the learners were in small groups and were highly motivated, which undoubtedly contributed to the success of the approach.

The approach was theoretically underpinned by structural linguistics, a movement in linguistics that focused on the phonemic, morphological and syntactic systems underlying the grammar of a given language, rather than according to traditional categories of Latin grammar. As such, it was held that learning a language involved mastering the building blocks of the language and learning the rules by which these basic elements are combined from the level of sound to the level of sentence. The audiolingual approach was also based on the behaviourist theory of learning, which held that language, like other aspects of human activity, is a form of behaviour.

In the behaviourist view, language is elicited by a stimulus and that stimulus then triggers a response. The response in turn then produces some kind of reinforcement, which, if positive, encourages the repetition of the response in the future or, if negative, its suppression. When transposed to the classroom, this gives us the classic pattern drill- Model: She went to the cinema yesterday. Stimulus; Theatre. Response: She went to the theatre yesterday. Reinforcement: Good! In its purest form audiolingualism aims to promote mechanical habit-formation through repetition of basic patterns. Accurate manipulation of structure leads to eventual fluency. Spoken language comes before written language. Dialogues and drill are central to the approach. Accurate pronunciation and control of structure are paramount.

While some of this might seem amusingly rigid in these enlightened times, it is worth reflecting on actual classroom practice and noticing when activities occur that can be said to have their basis in the audiolingual approach. Most teachers will at some point require learners to repeat examples of grammatical structures in context with a number of aims in mind: stress, rhythm, intonation, "consolidating the structure", enabling learners to use the structure accurately through repetition, etc. Question and answer in open class or closed pairs to practise a particular form can also be argued to have its basis in the audiolingual approach, as can, without doubt, any kind of drill.

Although the audiolingual approach in its purest form has many weaknesses (notably the difficulty of transferring learnt patterns to real communication), to dismiss the audiolingual approach as an outmoded method of the 1960s is to ignore the reality of current classroom practice which is based on more than 2000 years of collective wisdom.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Agreed. It is easy to deride conventional language teaching methods if we see them from a dualist point of view. Some people discard previous teaching methods as outmoded failing to realize that ultimately all adult language learning relies on some type of grammar-translation learning (after all adults are learning a system whose grammar and vocabulary is different from their L1) and the presence of the L1 is the inescapable difference in L2 learning (Cook, 2008).

    The confusion arises if/when we assume that a language learned in a "conventional" way cannot be turned into conversation. In relation to the audio-lingual method, Richards and Rodgers (2001) claimed that "Students were often found to be unable to transfer skills acquired through Audiolingualism to real communication outside the classroom" (p. 59). Let's say we learn how to ask questions in English through transformation drills like "You want a coffee" "Do you want a coffee?"

    Asking someone whether he/she wants to have a coffee sounds like "real communication" to me. Why would the fact that we have learned it through a drill make it less valid? Why would we have to be drinking a coffee in a restaurant to be able to learn that? Of course it's more meaningful when we apply what we learn in a real-world scenario but we don’t need to experience or enact what “murder” or “shop-lifting” is for those words to acquire their full meaning.

    Communicative methods are good, but are based on practicing rather than learning the language. They assume that you already know the language, which must previously be acquired through more "primitive", "less mesmerizing" methods.

    Chomsky was right in crediting learners with using their cognitive abilities in a creative way to work out hypotheses about the structure of the L2, rather than being passive receivers. However we need to remember that adults are not learning a language, but rather RElearning it, which also implies breaking patterns between the L1 and the L2. I think audiolingualism helps break molds and establish new patterns in a L2 laying strong foundations that pave the way for eventual conversation.

    I have started a blog myself where I also analyze different language learning methods:


    Cook, V. (2008). Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (4th ed.). London: Hodder Education.

    Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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  • Hi rapanzelrose,
    Scott Thornbury touches on the theory behind the audiolingual method in The A-Z of ELT, and on his blog. His blog entry on audiolingualism can be found here:
    I'd suggest starting here if you're looking for further reading on this topic.
    Tim Bowen's article on teaching approaches may also be helpful:
    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglish team

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  • is there any theory belongs to audiolingual method? if there is , what is it?

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