In the field of TESOL, different teachers hold different views of how students learn a language. These various theories of language learning are called approaches. Approaches are significant as they influence everything that happens in a classroom from the objectives, the learning activities, and even the role of the learners and teacher.
In this post, we will look at several common approaches or theories of language.
Supporters of the cognitive view believe language reflects the characteristics of the mind. The mind is a computer. Therefore, learning language is about the acquisition of abstract knowledge. By abstract we mean general principles about a language such as the formation of nouns, developing questions, etc.
The cognitive approach suggests that there is a universal grammar that all languages have in common. Understanding and teaching this universal grammar will help individuals to learn a language. One method commonly associated with the cognitive approach is the grammar-translation method.
The structural approach views language as a system related elements that provide meaning. For example, a language has phonological elements, grammatical elements, lexical elements, etc. Learning the structure of these elements helps a person to learn the language. The audiolingual method is based on this approach.
Functional & Genre Approach
The functional approach sees language as a tool for expression one’ self in real-world experiences. The ultimate goal of language is the ability to communicate with it. Therefore, an understanding of semantics and communication is most important. This focus on communication downplays the need for a deep study of grammar. One method that is based on the functional approach is English for specific purposes.
The genre approach is derived from the functional view. In this approach, people learn a language in specific genres such as business, science, health care, etc. From learning language in specific genres people develop meaning. Academic English is one method based on the genre approach
Interactional & Sociocultural Approach
This approach sees language as being for the purpose of interacting with people. This means that people learn language through attempting authentic conversation with the people around them. Rules and grammar of a language are not of major significance. Task-based language teaching follows this approach.
The sociocultural approach is so similar to interactional that it is difficult to separate them. Sociocultural approach sees language learning as a communication activity in a social context. People learn language in the context of social relationships. Task-based language learning also is based on this approach.
There is little reason to try and decide which approach is the best. The best approach is the one that works well with a given group of students. The benefit of approaches is that they help to explain why a teacher does what they do. If a teacher stress interaction in class it may be because they hold an interactional view of language learning.Being able to explain what one believes is a critical component of better teaching.