Teaching approaches: what is 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.