Generations of students in Western Europe and North America studied Latin by what came to be known as the grammar-translation method. Classroom lectures in the local language described the grammar, rote learning committed conjugations, declensions, and vocabulary lists to memory, translation into and out of Latin provided practice in practical use. Dull it might have been, but students did learn to read and write the language, and many language courses still employ the same techniques along with more modern ones.
Around 1900 a new approach to teaching modern foreign languages caught on in many countries, especially in Europe. The “direct method” got its name for teaching directly in the target language. Native speakers were considered ideal teachers, and reading and writing were secondary or even postponed to later courses. Advocates pointed to similarities with the way we learn a native language in infancy.
The parallels have been exaggerated, and research has shown that adults and older children don’t learn languages the same way infants do. In practice, direct method courses have only superficial resemblance to native language learning. But when done well, they can be an excellent way to develop conversational skills, and the courses can be less boring to the learner. They’re more work for the teacher, however, and it’s important to make sure that students don’t get lost or mentally exhausted trying to deduce the meaning of words and phrases from the teacher’s actions.
The best known proponent of the direct method in Esperanto was the talented Andreo Cseh. Students found themselves learning so much—and having such a good time doing so—that many even brought friends and family members to the classes with them. It wasn’t unusual for Cseh’s courses to end up with a lot more students at the end than at the beginning. The major contributor to this success was Cseh himself; he was a remarkably gifted and entertaining teacher.
The “audio-lingual” method of language teaching, based on ideas from behavioral psychology, enjoyed a wave of popularity in the middle decades of the 20th century. Grammar in particular was treated as a set of behavioral habits, and students were given so-called “pattern drills,” in which they were expected to repeat the same phrase or sentence many times, substituting different words each time. The idea was to make the grammatical structure a reflex. The advancing science of language instruction had finally discovered something more boring than tables of verb conjugations. As behavioral psychology fell out of favor, however, so did the audio-lingual method as such. But some of the better things introduced at the same time, such as language labs, are still in use.
Since then a multitude of other approaches to language teaching have been introduced, as you’ll quickly discover if you search the web for “language teaching methods” or a similar phrase. They vary in their emphasis on the written language, how much of the students’ native language is used in class, and their employment of technology and individual instruction, etc. Some make use of interesting innovations, such as Pimsleur’s system of graduated recall and the “Learning by Teaching” approach in which students teach each other various language elements. All these methods have some features in common with older approaches, and no one method has been proven to be best. In practice, many teachers combine ideas from multiple methods to create their own unique technique, as in fact Andreo Cseh recommended to students of his method.
No matter what method or combination of methods to you decide you use, there are a few principles with very broad applicability:
First, it’s best not to bore the student. This point is especially important when teaching people who won’t be getting a grade, since as soon as they’re bored, they can simply stop showing up. For this reason, rote memorization of word lists, dry, formulaic drills, and the like are best minimized or avoided entirely.
Second, recognize that many students tend to be shy about speaking for fear of making a mistake. En masse response in chorus, as used by Cseh, is valuable in overcoming that reticence. Another useful tool introduced by famed language tutor Michel Thomas is the idea of conversational “islands”; these are phrases a student can swim to when sinking. At the simplest level are handy stock phrases such as Pardonu, mi ne komprenis vin and Kiel oni diras ____ en Esperanto? Consider what students are apt to need the first time they attend an Esperanto meeting or a kongreso. They should be able introduce themselves, say saluton, dankon and bonvolu, explain that they’re komencantoj, ask for directions to the necesejo, and understand the response!
Do emphasize speaking and listening in class, since that’s the hardest part of any language to learn on one’s own. But don’t entirely avoid the use of writing, because many people learn faster with a visual element reinforcing the aural. Encourage students to label common objects. If every time you enter the bathroom you see a mirror labeled spegulo, you’ll eventually remember the word.
Almost everyone seems to agree that students and teachers should strive to use the target language in class as much as practically possible. But there’s no need to be rigid about this, especially when working with beginners. Even Cseh had a local Esperanto speaker present to translate what he was saying for the first class or two. If it takes a minute to explain something in your students’ native language and 15 minutes to get it across using a strictly direct method approach, there’s a lot to be said for the time-saving method.
At the same time, don’t feel that you have to explain everything, especially not when you first introduce it. Give the students what amounts to an easy puzzle to solve—one they can figure out easily enough, but not completely obvious. It’s more fun and more interesting that way, and students are more likely to remember what they’ve had to think about.
Review frequently, and make a point of emphasizing how much has already been learned. Students will work harder if they think they’re getting somewhere.
Especially if the course doesn’t meet every day, assign a modest amount of homework, possibly using lernu.net. A few minutes a day between class meetings goes a long way toward helping students retain what they’ve learned.