The Audiolingual Method

Historical Background

Richards and Rodgers (2001) provide one of the most thorough descriptions of the historical background of the Audio-lingual Method, from which the following information has largely been drawn.

Audiolingualism came about as a result of a number of developments in linguistics, psychology, and politics. In the 1940s, linguists at the University of Michigan and other universities were engaged in developing materials for teaching English to foreign students studying in the U.S. Their approach, based on structural linguistics, relied on a contrastive analysis of the students' native language and the target language, which they believed would identify potential problems in language learning. Lessons consisted of intensive oral drilling of grammatical patterns and pronunciation. The approach became known variously as the Oral Approach, the Aural-Oral Approach, or the Structural Approach.

At approximately the same time, the United States was drawn into World War II and needed personnel who were fluent in foreign languages. Upon finding a lack of Americans with sufficient language skills, in 1942 the U.S. government developed the Army Specialized Training Program, an oral-based program based on intensive drilling and study. The success of this program convinced a number of prominent linguists of the value of an intensive oral approach to language learning. Most American schools and universities, however, continued to employ the Grammar-Translation Method or the Reading Method well into the 1950s.

In 1957 Russia launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, causing the U.S. government to become concerned about Americans' isolation from scientific advances in foreign countries due to their lack of proficiency in foreign languages. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 provided funds for developing foreign language teaching materials and training teachers, and language teaching specialists set about developing new teaching methods. They drew upon the earlier Structural Approach and the Army program, as well as on principles of behaviorist psychology. The new approach, which Yale professor Nelson Brooks dubbed audio-lingual (Brooks, 1964, p. 263), claimed to have transformed language teaching into a science.

The Audiolingual Method was widely adopted in the U.S. and Canada and served as the principal approach to foreign language teaching in the 1960s. The method's decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s was brought about by two factors. First, linguist Noam Chomsky questioned the theoretical basis for the method, particularly the assumption that external conditioning could account for all language learning (Chomsky, 1959). Second, some language teachers and students experienced frustration with the method's avoidance of grammar explanations, its heavy emphasis on rote memorization and drilling, and its failure to produce conversational ability in the foreign language (Hadley, 2001). These developments led to the eventual abandonment of the method, although some of its practices, such as dialogue learning and pattern drills, continue to be used in some foreign language programs.

Theory of Language Learning

Audiolingualism views language as a set of structures, including phonemes, morphemes, and syntax, the patterns of which can be deduced by analyzing the language used by native speakers. The audiolingual syllabus is organized around these linguistic structures, which are represented in dialogues and pattern drills.

A second tenet of audiolingualism is that language is primarily an oral phenomenon, inasmuch as all natural languages first developed orally, and children learn their first language orally before learning its written form. Thus, the Audiolingual Method teaches listening and speaking before reading and writing. Exposing beginning students' to the written language is avoided in the belief that seeing the written word interferes with developing correct pronunciation habits. Reading and writing are introduced later, and consist primarily of material that was first learned orally.

The learning theory underlying the Audiolingual Method is behaviorism, a prominent school of psychological thought in the first half of the twentieth century. Behaviorism posits that all learning occurs as humans respond to external stimuli and their response is either rewarded or punished, which serves to increase or decrease the behavior. Psychologist B. F. Skinner, in his 1957 book Verbal Behavior, included language among the behaviors that are learned through this type of conditioning. Brooks (1964) explained how behaviorist theory was to be applied in the classroom, with teachers providing linguistic stimuli in the form of dialogues and drills," reinforcing students" correct responses, and correcting their errors. Brooks summarized the application of behaviorist theory to language learning as follows: "The single paramount fact about language learning is that it concerns, not problem solving, but the formation and performance of habits" (p. 49).

Because the formation of correct linguistic habits is paramount, great emphasis is placed on proper pronunciation, intonation, and grammar usage. Students are discouraged from using language to create their own meaning due to the potential for making errors, which may potentially become ingrained habits.

Classroom Activities

A typical Audiolingual lesson begins with a dialogue, which is presented either from a recording or verbally by the teacher, often accompanied by drawings to illustrate the meaning. Lines from the dialogue are memorized one by one, with students repeating each line in chorus. When a pair of lines is learned, the teacher asks half of the class to repeat the first line, and the other half to respond by repeating the second line. The same procedure is repeated with rows of students and then with individual students.

When the dialogue has been memorized, the teacher leads students in adapting it to their own situation or interests by substituting words or phrases. Students repeat the dialogue with the new substitutions.

Sentences containing key linguistic structures are then extracted from the dialogue to form the basis for pattern drills of different types. The teacher reads a sentence and asks students to repeat it in unison. The teacher subsequently leads the students in drills based on the model sentence. Drills may include responding to questions, substituting new words or grammatical structures, negating affirmative sentences, or making morphological manipulations such as changing singular to plural, all according to the teacher's cues. These drills are first practiced in chorus and then individually. Any grammatical or pronunciation errors are corrected immediately by the teacher. Some grammatical explanation may be provided, but it is generally kept to a minimum.

Follow-up activities may consist of reading, writing, or vocabulary activities, which are based on the dialogue and sentences that have been practiced in class. If a language laboratory is available, students may do further drill work on structures and pronunciation using recordings of the dialogues and sentences.

Notes on the Video

The lesson in the video is taught to a first-year Spanish class by Dr. James S. Taylor of Brigham Young University. The lesson begins with a brief review of greetings in Spanish, followed by presentation and memorization of a dialogue using visual aids. This is followed by an adaptation and expansion phase in which students are taught to "personalize" the dialogue by substituting other expressions to tell how they are feeling or where they are going at the moment. The lesson concludes with a series of pattern drills of contractions and verb forms based on sentences extracted from the dialogue.

References and Additional Resources

Brooks, N. (1964). Language and language learning: Theory and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace.

Chastain, K. (1988). Developing second-language skills: Theory and practice. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Chomsky, N. (1959). A review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior. Language, 35(1), 26-58.

Fries, C. C. (1945). Teaching and learning English as a foreign language. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Hadley, A. O. (2001). Teaching language in context (3rd ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Lado, R. (1964). Language teaching: A scientific approach. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rivers, W. M. (1981). Teaching foreign language skills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.