The audio-lingual method, Army Method, or New Key, is a style of teaching used in teaching foreign languages. It is based on behaviorist theory, which professes that certain traits of living things, and in this case humans, could be trained through a system of reinforcement—correct use of a trait would receive positive feedback while incorrect use of that trait would receive negative feedback.
This approach to language learning was similar to another, earlier method called the direct method. Like the direct method, the audio-lingual method advised that students be taught a language directly, without using the students' native language to explain new words or grammar in the target language. However, unlike the direct method, the audio-lingual method didn’t focus on teaching vocabulary. Rather, the teacher drilled students in the use of grammar.
Applied to language instruction, and often within the context of the language lab, this means that the instructor would present the correct model of a sentence and the students would have to repeat it. The teacher would then continue by presenting new words for the students to sample in the same structure. In audio-lingualism, there is no explicit grammar instruction—everything is simply memorized in form. The idea is for the students to practice the particular construct until they can use it spontaneously. In this manner, the lessons are built on static drills in which the students have little or no control on their own output; the teacher is expecting a particular response and not providing that will result in a student receiving negative feedback. This type of activity, for the foundation of language learning, is in direct opposition with communicative language teaching.
Charles C. Fries, the director of the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan, the first of its kind in the United States, believed that learning structure, or grammar was the starting point for the student. In other words, it was the students' job to orally recite the basic sentence patterns and grammatical structures. The students were only given “enough vocabulary to make such drills possible.” (Richards, J.C. et-al. 1986). Fries later included principles for behavioural psychology, as developed by B.F. Skinner, into this method.
Drills and pattern practice are typical of the Audiolingual method. (Richards, J.C. et-al. 1986) These include
- Repetition: where the student repeats an utterance as soon as he hears it
- Inflection: Where one word in a sentence appears in another form when repeated
- Replacement: Where one word is replaced by another
- Restatement: The student re-phrases an utterance
Inflection: Teacher: I ate the sandwich. Student: I ate the sandwiches.
Replacement: Teacher: He bought the car for half-price. Student: He bought it for half-price.
Restatement: Teacher: Tell me not to smoke so often. Student: Don't smoke so often!
The following example illustrates how more than one sort of drill can be incorporated into one practice session :
“Teacher: There's a cup on the table ... repeat
Students: There's a cup on the table
Students: There's a spoon on the table
Students: There's a book on the table
Teacher: On the chair
Students: There's a book on the chair
The Audio-lingual method is the product of three historical circumstances. For its views on language, audiolingualism drew on the work of American linguists such as Leonard Bloomfield. The prime concern of American linguistics in the early decades of the 20th century had been to document all the indigenous languages spoken in the USA. However, because of the dearth of trained native teachers who would provide a theoretical description of the native languages, linguists had to rely on observation. For the same reason, a strong focus on oral language was developed. At the same time, behaviourist psychologists such as B.F. Skinner were forming the belief that all behaviour (including language) was learnt through repetition and positive or negative reinforcement. The third factor that enabled the birth of the Audio-lingual method was the outbreak of World War II, which created the need to post large number of American servicemen all over the world. It was therefore necessary to provide these soldiers with at least basic verbal communication skills. Unsurprisingly, the new method relied on the prevailing scientific methods of the time, observation and repetition, which were also admirably suited to teaching en masse. Because of the influence of the military, early versions of the audio-lingualism came to be known as the “army method.”
As mentioned, lessons in the classroom focus on the correct imitation of the teacher by the students. Not only are the students expected to produce the correct output, but attention is also paid to correct pronunciation. Although correct grammar is expected in usage, no explicit grammatical instruction is given. Furthermore, the target language is the only language to be used in the classroom. Modern day implementations are more lax on this last requirement.
Fall from popularity
In the late 1950s, the theoretical underpinnings of the method were questioned by linguists such as Noam Chomsky, who pointed out the limitations of structural linguistics. The relevance of behaviorist psychology to language learning was also questioned, most famously by Chomsky's review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior in 1959. The audio-lingual method was thus deprived of its scientific credibility and it was only a matter of time before the effectiveness of the method itself was questioned.
In 1964, Wilga Rivers released a critique of the method in her book, The Psychologist and the Foreign Language Teacher. Subsequent research by others, inspired by her book, produced results which showed explicit grammatical instruction in the mother language to be more productive. These developments, coupled with the emergence of humanist pedagogy led to a rapid decline in the popularity of audiolingualism.
Philip Smith's study from 1965-1969, termed the Pennsylvania Project, provided significant proof that audio-lingual methods were less effective than a more traditional cognitive approach involving the learner's first language.
Despite being discredited as an effective teaching methodology in 1970, audio-lingualism continues to be used today, although it is typically not used as the foundation of a course, but rather, has been relegated to use in individual lessons. As it continues to be used, it also continues to gain criticism, as Jeremy Harmer notes, “Audio-lingual methodology seems to banish all forms of language processing that help students sort out new language information in their own minds.” As this type of lesson is very teacher centered, it is a popular methodology for both teachers and students, perhaps for several reasons but in particular, because the input and output is restricted and both parties know what to expect. Some hybrid approaches have been developed, as can be seen in the textbook Japanese: The Spoken Language (1987–90), which uses repetition and drills extensively, but supplements them with detailed grammar explanations in English.
Butzkamm & Caldwell have tried to revive traditional pattern practice in the form of bilingual semi-communicative drills. For them, the theoretical basis, and sufficient justification, of pattern drills is the generative principle, which refers to the human capacity to generate an infinite number of sentences from a finite grammatical competence.
In popular culture
The fact that audio-lingualism continues to manifest itself in the classroom is reflected in popular culture. Films often depict one of the most well-known aspects of audio-lingualism: the repetition drill. In South Park Episode #172, Cartman applies the repetition drill while teaching a class of high school students. In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, an LP record of a French lesson instructs a pair of obliging children to 'repeat' short phrases in French and then in English.
- Barker, James L. "On The Mortality of Language Learning Methods". Speech November 8, 2001.
- Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching. 3rd Edition. pg. 79-80. Essex: Pearson Education Ltd., 2001
- James L. Barker lecture on November 8, 2001 at Brigham Young University, given by Wilfried Decoo.
- Butzkamm, Wolfgang; Caldwell, J.A.W. (2009). The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching. Tübingen: Narr Studienbücher. ISBN 978-3-8233-6492-4.