Adapting an audiolingual course

Don’t feel constrained to learn a course in the way the author intended. That’s what it means to be an independent learner.

In my previous post, I explained the Audiolingual Method and mentioned some courses that use it (most of them being US Foreign Service Institute [FSI] courses whose copyrights have expired). At the end, I wrote, “In a future article, I plan to share ways I adapt audiolingual courses to make them a little closer to a comprehensible input approach, less tedious, and/or more useful as preparation for conversation.”

Before I do so, I want to mention a few trends since the Audiolingual Method fell out of favor. First, a handful of teaching professionals hypothesized that languages are not taught and learned so much as acquired through comprehensible input (CI)–in other words, reading and listening to a language until it becomes familiar. Note that the input has to be comprehensible, meaning that learners understand most of what they hear and read, and can guess the meanings of unknown vocabulary and grammar through context. If the input is too hard, they hunt for something easier.

Preferably, the input should also be compelling. Examples include a story which draws the reader or listener in–or a fascinating non-fiction article. As the evidence allegedly accumulates (I can’t verify this because I don’t read scholarly journals), more teachers accept this approach, but it’s still not widely accepted. Also, even Stephen Krashen (its most famous proponent) admits that he doesn’t practice the comprehensible input approach consistently. In a nutshell, people don’t learn languages, they get used to them, as Olly Richards is fond of saying.

A more popular trend (which was very popular when I was earning my post-bac certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language in the early 1990’s) was called Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). In CLT–which I practiced as I taught English in South Korea for two years and Japan for three years–the teacher creates activities for pairs of students, small groups, and sometimes the whole class to do together. These activities require students to speak with each other in their target language. For example, handouts might require two students to take turns asking and answering each other questions. It took me a long time to figure this out, but I eventually realized that many of these controlled speaking activities were essentially Audiolingual grammar drills in disguise.

The language teaching profession and the international polyglot community have independently reached the same conclusion: Different students favor different approaches to learning. Although research has discredited the “learning styles” and “learning strategies” paradigms, eclecticism is still widely favored. In other words, teachers are urged to teach the same material in a variety of ways until most of their students understand or can use new grammar and vocabulary.

Meanwhile, the polyglot community recommends that independent learners try a variety of courses and methods until they find one(s) they’re comfortable with–and these courses/methods vary over time and from language to language. In other words, a method that worked well for you when you were a beginner might not work well for you as an intermediate student. Likewise, a technique that worked well for learning Spanish might not work well for Russian or Japanese. Experiment, watch YouTube videos in order to learn new methods, expand your horizons, leave your comfort zone–and you will become a better language learner.

With this background of knowledge, what are some ways that audiolingual courses can be adapted by independent learners in order to take advantage of these trends? First, don’t feel constrained to learn a course in the way the author intended. You don’t have to do every exercise in each chapter. You don’t have to memorize every word or understand every grammatical point or pronounce everything perfectly before continuing to the next chapter. Experiment. Change up your methods from time to time. Memorize only words that you are likely to use in conversation.

Recently, I studied from John DeFrancis’ Mandarin Chinese textbooks–but in my own way. The textbooks put the dialog first, but I chose to study other parts of the chapter first (vocabulary and sentence build-ups) and then the dialog. The textbooks and audio were meant to be studied together, but I studied the textbooks first before the audio (because the audio is spoken quickly). The textbooks teach a limited vocabulary in each chapter. I didn’t memorize those words, but looked up words in the dictionary that I wanted to know, memorized those words instead, and made my own sentences using the grammar drills in the textbook with the words I looked up in the dictionary. Also, DeFrancis’ textbooks came in pairs: one textbook using the Latin alphabet (pinyin) and an identical textbook using Chinese characters. I alternated between the two textbooks in a way which made sense to me. All of these adaptations made the course easier and more interesting to me.

In the past, I used the Beginning Japanese audiolingual textbook by Jorden and Chaplin. My focus was mostly on repeating after the audio in order to get used to speaking Japanese at native speed. I also used the audio for listening practice (after reading through the chapter). By simply reading and listening to the dialogs and drills, I received a lot of comprehensible input at native speed. Granted, it’s not compelling input, but it is comprehensible for beginners. My point is, it’s not necessary to speak to benefit from audiolingual courses. You can just read and listen, then just listen.

I also studied the FSI German Basic course. But in this case, my focus was on the dialogs rather than the drills. I printed out a chapter’s dialog, kept it on my desk, and occasionally mumbled a sentence or two until they became easy to say. I resumed my work and later studied another sentence or two. I brought the papers with me to the microwave and studied them while my lunch was cooking. I did not try to study whole chapters, but merely practiced sentences from the dialog to improve my speaking fluency (fluidity).

Although I only studied a few chapters of each of these courses–never finishing any of them–they all helped me to learn these languages. The key was to select a strategy for studying each course rather than feeling obligated to do everything as designed. For example, instead of doing a grammar drill, you can just repeat the correct answers. In the process, you’ll encounter the same grammatical form in many sentences, and this will make the grammar easier to learn.

Another thing you can try is studying a course together with another learner or tutor or language exchange partner (even over Skype, if necessary). In this case, you can create communicative (CLT) activities together. For example, you can take turns asking and answering each other’s questions in order to practice the grammar and vocabulary in the audiolingual course.

As an independent learner, you can decide if and how you will adapt each course, and you can quit at any time and use a different course or method. That’s what it means to be independent. Go be independent!

4 thoughts on “Adapting an audiolingual course”

  1. You’re working with some quite old Mandarin material. I’m surprised you could even find the audio for those DeFrancis books. I’m remember those books being really old 20 years ago when I used them and I couldn’t find the audio.


  2. Very interesting that you mention about controlled speaking activities being Audiolingual grammar drills in disguise. I never thought about it that way, but it makes sense! I am very glad that you started this blog. I really enjoy reading your posts and learning more about learning languages

    Liked by 1 person

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