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Audiolingual Method

This article presents information on the Audiolingual Method of teaching foreign languages, including English as a second language. The Audiolingual Method was a popular method used to teach foreign languages in the 1950s and 1960s. The foundations of the method rested on two important theories: the linguistic theory of Structuralism and the educational theory of Behaviorism. Key concepts of the method included a focus on language as speech and an emphasis on imitation, memorization and drill practice. The theoretical underpinnings of Audiolingualism, its historical rise to popularity and the reasons for its decline are examined.

Keywords Army Method; Audiolingual Method; Aural-Oral Approach; Behaviorism; Dialogue; Functional Skills; Grammar-Translation; Informant Method; Language Lab; Oral Approach; Phonetics; Structuralism

English as a Second Language: The Audiolingual Method


The Audiolingual Method was a method for teaching foreign languages that enjoyed its heyday in the mid-1960s. The approach was partly based on the then-prevalent belief that language learning was a behavioral skill. According to this belief, the learning process involved cultivating habits by reinforcing correct language uses. Students learned language through a series of drills involving imitation, repetition and practice (Richards & Rodgers, 2001). For instance, a typical lesson might include the introduction of a model dialogue read aloud by the teacher; choral repetition of the dialogue with frequent teacher correction of pronunciation; memorization, practice and adaptation of the dialogue; drill practice of grammatical structures; and reading and writing activities related to the vocabulary and forms presented that day (Richards & Rodgers, 2001). In the classroom, the target language was the only language spoken by the students, and students were expected to gain an understanding of grammatical forms inductively rather than deductively as was common in traditionally-used methods of the time (Kerper, 1999; Smith, 1970).

Further Insights


The foundational beliefs underlying the audiolingual or functional skills approach were based on a learning theory called behaviorism and a linguistic theory called structuralism. Behaviorism, developed by American psychologist B. F. Skinner, is a theory that views learning as a process of reinforcing behaviors. According to this theory, when individuals receive positive reinforcement for their behavior, they are likely to repeat those behaviors. When individuals receive negative reinforcement, they are likely to stop producing those behaviors. Thus, in terms of language learning, a behaviorist approach would reward students for correct responses. This idea was incorporated into many of the methods that comprised the audiolingual approach. For instance, one of the principle methods of the approach involved the memorization of dialogues representing situations the student could encounter. It was believed that if students memorized the correct responses of the dialogue and were given positive feedback for their responses, then when students encountered the situation in real life, they would automatically recall the appropriate language for the context (Richards & Rodgers, 2001).


The second theory, Structuralism, was a linguistic theory that highly valued the grammar or structure of the language as its starting point. Structuralists believed in paying particular attention to the pronunciation and basic sentence patterns of the language. Because speech is naturally learned first, they believed that language was speech and that writing was a secondary form of language. In their study of language, structuralists began at the phonetic level and moved upward to investigate words and sentences. In this way, they followed the footsteps of Henry Sweet, an influential voice in the late 19th century who contributed greatly to the establishment of linguistics as a science. Sweet believed that the science of language was rooted in phonetics, or the sounds of the language. "Phonetics is to the science of language generally what mathematics is to astronomy and the physical sciences" (cited in Matsuda, 2001, p. 87).

The structuralists with the most impact on the development of audiolingualism were Charles Fries and Leonard Bloomfield. Separately and concurrently these individuals developed techniques of teaching foreign languages that were incorporated into the audiolingual approach. Fries was responsible for the development of the oral approach also known as the aural-oral approach or structural approach. Under the oral approach, students learned grammatical patterns through a series of drills involving imitation and pattern practice (e.g., This is a pen. That is a pencil. That is a book. This is a desk. What is that?) Fries emphasized the differences in patterns that occurred between languages, believing that these were the root of errors in a second language. The oral approach was initially used at the University of Michigan, the site of the first "Intensive English Language Institute" in the country. The goal of the ELI was to help international students develop a mastery of the English sound system and the structure of the spoken system. Students were taught using a limited vocabulary and were expected to be proficient in less than three months (Richards & Rodgers, 2001). Bloomfield, like Fries, developed techniques for learning the spoken system of language. In his textbook and pamphlets on language teaching, he developed the principles of mimicry and memorization and introduced the term habit in relation to language learning (Castagnaro, 2006; Richards & Rodgers, 2001).

A Bottom-Up System

Based on these structuralist ideas, the audiolingual method was designed around a progressive exposure to the language beginning with the spoken system and then moving to the written system. First, students listened in order to learn the sounds of the system. Then students learned to speak by repeating what they had heard. Finally, students read and wrote the same language that they had already used orally. Because the system was designed to move from the bottom-up, students were expected to form their own understanding of the grammar through the processes of making analogies, generalizing and discriminating. This was in direct contrast to the traditional method of the time known as grammar-translation which presented grammatical rules first and followed the rules with practice. Unlike traditional teachers, teachers operating within the audiolingual paradigm did not give explanations of language principles until students were believed to have their own perceptions of how the language worked (Smith, 1970).

Nelson Brooks, originator of the term audiolingual, summarized the practices of an audiolingual teacher as follows:

• The modeling of all content by the teacher.

• The subordination of the mother tongue to the second language by rendering English inactive while the new language is being learned.

• The early and continued training of the ear and tongue without recourse to graphic symbols.

• The learning of structure through the practice of patterns of sound, order, and form, rather than by explanation.

• The gradual substitution of graphic symbols for sounds after sounds are thoroughly known.

• The summarizing of the main principles of structure for the student's use when the structures are already familiar, especially when they...

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