by Nicholas Oulton

Much has changed in the world of language learning, as many a frustrated parent and bemused university tutor will know. When I was at school, French was taught in much the same way that maths and Latin were. The teacher told us, in English, what to do, and how well we had done it. We learned grammatical tables and vocabulary lists by heart and were tested on them. We chanted verb forms (-e, -es, -e, -ons, -ez, -ent, etc) around the class until they stuck in our memories, and were told how to use them. We wrote sentences in French and we took down dictations, requiring us to write accurately a paragraph or two of French that had been read by our teacher.

The criticism levelled against this method of teaching was that, while giving pupils an excellent understanding of the grammatical structures on which the language was based, it left them with a very limited ability to speak the language. And so a new method was introduced that relied essentially on osmosis. By this method, lessons are conducted entirely or predominantly in the target language. Pupils learn words and phrases in the way - supposedly - that a child learns its mother tongue. Grammatical structures, syntactical rules, even the ability to make simple changes from, "I am eating my sandwich," to, "We are eating our sandwiches," are all gleaned by experience, by trial and error. Communication is all.

The rationale for this, placed at the heart of the national curriculum for modern foreign languages in 1990 on the recommendation of Sir Martin Harris, the Government's principal adviser, is that children learn their mother tongues aurally, without the need for formal grammar teaching, and should be able to learn a foreign language in much the same way. But, of course, a very young child is totally immersed in his language for as many hours as he is awake, seven days a week. A pupil of 11, with perhaps three lessons of 40 minutes each per week, and rather less incentive to learn, is in a rather different position.

A second major difference between language teaching now and then is that pupils are no longer expected to translate with any degree of accuracy. Indeed, as Sir Martin's report stated: "Attempts to correct mistakes or bring out underlying principles can easily interrupt the flow and inhibit further production." Furthermore, translation itself is considered an antiquated, if not elitist, concept, not to be uttered in the modern classroom, where pupils learn instead to communicate. Goodness knows where our next generation of professional interpreters is going to come from.

As a result, in too many of our French, German and Spanish lessons, children sit in a state of confused paralysis while the teacher dutifully follows "good teaching practice" by talking to them in the target language and then handing them a worksheet in which they match single words to (often unidentifiable) clip-art images.  Phrases are learnt by heart to allow the pupils to have a staged conversation with their partner in role play – so long as the partner says exactly what the situation demands.

But there are alternatives to the ineffective methods described above. New textbooks, such as those published by Galore Park,  place grammar back at the heart of language learning.

Nicholas Oulton is managing director of Galore Park Publishing Ltd, PO Box 96, Cranbrook, Kent TN17 4WS. Tel. 01580 241025 (

This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph (14 January 2004) with whose permission it is reproduced here.

/July 2004


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