A History of Language Learning: The Road to Dynamic Immersion

These days, language-learning methods sport an array of trade-names associated with a particular founder, technique or symbol. But names aside, these methods cluster around two basic approaches: those which use translation and grammar explanations in the learner’s native language as the touchstone for meaning in the new language, and those which do not. The first set of approaches is generally called the Grammar Translation Method (GTM) and the second either the Direct or Natural Method, or simply Immersion.

Grammar Translation Flourishes
This distinction between the two wasn’t so clear five hundred years ago in Western Europe when Latin was still a living, spoken language. With the decline of Latin as a spoken language in the seventeenth century, however, teaching by translation and rote memorization became the only way to read classic Latin writings. Students were evaluated primarily with written tests while oral abilities were used simply to read the translations aloud. During the eighteenth century in Europe and later in North America, modern languages began to rival Latin in schools. The rote approach was simply recycled to teach modern foreign languages, and the grammar-translation method emerged.

girl reading textbooks

Getty Images/Igor Balasanov


Grammar Translation Fails
At the tail end of the 1800s, however, a revolution broke out in language learning that stressed oral communication and removed translation from the process. After centuries of dominance, GTM had proven unfit for teaching students to communicate in a new language. Assigning texts to translate and grammar rules to memorize had not worked. Using students’ first language as the language of instruction had not developed students’ abilities to speak.

So by 1900, teachers in Germany and France were experimenting with ways of teaching new languages that mirrored the way children learn their first languages. This “direct method” stressed oral communication and learning to think in the new language. All foreign-language teaching occurred in the target language—the language students were learning—with no instruction or translation in the students’ native languages.

While the Direct Method never took hold in public education, “direct” techniques filtered into the 20th century. But they almost always appeared in classrooms using students’ native languages as part of the language-learning process. Tests still had students translating. And learning to speak a new language was a long shot.

New Technologies and Dynamic Immersion®
Serendipitously, computers showed up in our schools and homes in the 1990s with all the capabilities to recreate language-learning settings like those in which we learned our first languages. Words, images and sounds combined to form new worlds of language. Constant interaction made it possible for us to immerse ourselves in the language and learn on our own. Sound familiar?

Rosetta Stone language learning

An image from Rosetta Stone’s office in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Yet nearly twenty years after computers revolutionized learning, most technology-based programs for learning languages—most language-learning programs of any kind, for that matter—still rely on GTM and therefore fail to build genuine communication skills. Even the propagation of digital devices, social media, and virtual worlds has left us speechless when it comes to holding conversations in a new language.

With Dynamic Immersion, Rosetta Stone’s method for learning to speak new languages, we resolve to lead the language-learning revolution.

For more reading on language-learning education, check out:

• The Grammar-Translation Method. Rene Tetzner. 2004.
• Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Richards and Rodgers. 2001
• Desiderius Erasmus: Concerning the aim and method of education. William Harrison Woodward. 1904.

man and woman using iPad

Getty Images/Alan Bailey

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Duane Sider

Duane Sider, director of learning for Rosetta Stone Ltd., is passionate about changing the way the world views language learning. In his role, Duane has introduced Rosetta Stone® solutions and the joy of the language-learning journey to a variety of audiences through numerous speaking engagements worldwide. Additionally, Duane has authored a number of articles and papers on immersion methodology in second-language acquisition. Duane joined the company’s international operations in 1997, became director of learning in 2003, directing domestic and international training programs, and assumed his current responsibilities in 2008. Prior to joining Rosetta Stone he taught literature, philosophy and aesthetics at the university level for 14 years. Throughout his career, Duane has traveled, performed and taught extensively throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia, promoting international communication and advocating new technologies in education. Duane holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology from Messiah College and a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Virginia. He has written two plays, a collection of poetry and manages a theater company in Virginia.
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