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Aportaciones de la lingüística a la enseñanza de las lenguas extranjeras. El proceso de aprendizaje lingüístico: semejanzas y diferencias entre la adquisición de la primera lengua escolar y de la lengua extranjera.




  1. Introduction.
  1. Language teaching before the 20th century.
    1. Ancient times and the Middle Ages.
    2. From the 16th to the 18th century.
    3. The 19th century.
  1. The 20th century: from linguistics to language teaching
    1. First philological and linguistic approaches: Sweet, Jespersen and Palmer.

  3.1.a.   Henry Sweet (1845-1912).

  3.1.b.   Otto Jespersen (1860-1943).

  3.1.c.   Harold E. Palmer (1877-1949).

    1. Structural Linguistics: a methodology of linguistic principles.

   3.2.a.   A linguistic and psychological approach.

   3.2.b.   The ‘Army Method’.

   3.2.c.   The ‘Audio-lingual Method’.

   3.2.d.   The ‘Audio-visual Method’.

   3.2.e.   The main contributions of Structural Linguistics.

    1. Generative Grammar: linguistic evolution and methodological transition.
    2. Pragmatics and the ‘Communicative Approach’: a global, interdisciplinary view of teaching and learning.

   3.4.a.   Theoretical foundations.

   3.4.b.   Innovations and contributions.

  1. The contributions of Applied Linguistics.
    1. First and Second Language Acquisition. ‘Language learning’ versus ‘language acquisition’.
  1. Conclusions.
  1. Bibliography.



  1. Introduction.

It is an established fact that language is a distinctive human capacity. Hence the interest language has always attracted as an object of study in all cultures and civilisations. People acquire language, that is also a fact. Languages can be taught and learned, and used as a means of communication. However, how we acquire a language remains an unsolved mystery. There have been many theories and possible explanations, all of which seem true or have some truth in them. But, far from anyone of them explaining satisfactorily the process of language acquisition, these theories rather complement each other and provide some insights on why, how and when a language is acquired by a human being.

In practical terms, it is probably easier and more effective to focus our attention, as teachers, on how to teach a language and try to find immediate solutions, methods and materials by looking at results.  

However, knowing different principles and understanding previous didactic approaches and experiences can also illustrate our views and help us to design the syllabus and techniques that can bring about the best results in our personal teaching-learning experience.




2.1 Ancient times and the Middle Ages.

Languages were already studied in ancient civilisations. Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, etc. had fairly developed diplomatic systems which required experts in foreign languages to deal with foreign representatives in order to make advantageous agreements, negotiate peace and so on. In Rome, wealthy families got Greek teachers to teach Greek to their offspring. The first Christian missionaries learnt the native language of the people they would try to convert. In the Middle Ages, however, only Hebrew, Greek and Latin were considered worth learning, as most important writings were written only in these classical languages. The Church, in particular, preserved the use of Latin as a means of cultural interchange.


2.2 From the 16th to the 18th century.

During the Renaissance, due to the influence of Humanism, classical philosophy, science, art and languages became again a main object of study. Latin was a first requirement to enter University, and continued to be the basic language of Law and Science well into the 17th century.

From the 16th century onwards, as, little by little, Latin starts to become a dead language and is confined to grammar books and dictionaries, modern languages tend to be taught as if they were dead languages too. Soon, there appear experts who react against those methods.

Thus, Erasmus recommended that Latin should be taught in a direct conversational manner, according to the students’ characteristics. Martin Luther also suggested emphasising content over formal grammar. Juan Luis Vives and Montaigne also defended the idea of learning through contact with native speakers in a natural environment. Since classical languages were learnt basically in order to read Greek and Latin authors, special emphasis was laid on the reading skill and translation. For example, Roger Ascham, William Bath and other  humanists developed learning methods based on authentic texts and the study of vocabulary in context.


2.3 The 19th century.

During the 19th century and well into the 20th, live languages were taught very much like classical ones, mainly through grammar and translation, even though the ‘Direct Method’ had already been advocated by a few innovators in the previous centuries, as we have seen above. In the early 19th century, new manuals appear, full of paradigms and grammar rules followed by exercises of translation and application. Thus, the so-called ‘Grammar-translation’ or ‘Traditional Method’ was fully shaped and established. Its main features are: a) learning grammar rules; b) memorising lists of vocabulary with their translation; c) making sentences by applying the rules and the vocabulary learnt; d) translating sentences and texts from literature, history, etc.




3.1 First philological and linguistic approaches: Sweet, Jespersen and Palmer.

3.1.a. Henry Sweet (1845-1912).

3.1.b. Otto Jespersen (1860-1943).

3.1.c. Harold E. Palmer (1877-1949).

3.2 Structural Linguistics: a methodology of linguistic principles.

3.2.a. A linguistic and psychological approach.

3.2.b. The ‘Army Method’.

3.2.c. The ‘Audio-lingual Method’.

3.2.d. The ‘Audio-visual Method’

3.2.e. The main contributions of Structural Linguistics.


3.3 Generative Grammar: linguistic evolution and methodological transition.

Noam Chomsky published in 1957 his study on Syntactic Structures. It has been argued that Noam Chomsky (the “father” of Generative Grammar) was a “double structuralist”, since he distinguished two levels in the structure of language: ‘surface structure’ and ‘deep structure’.  It is true that Chomsky was clearly influenced by linguistic Structuralism and by psychological theories such as Behaviourism. 

However, ‘Generativism’ starts from a different conception of language learning. First, Chomsky claimed that all human languages have some common structures and functions: ‘linguistic universals’. Second, the human mind is not a tabula rasa. From birth, it is “equipped” with a kind of “programme”, ready for the acquisition of language. 


3.4 Pragmatics and the ‘Communicative Approach’: a global, interdisciplinary view of language teaching and learning.

3.4.a. Theoretical foundations.

3.4.b. Innovations and contributions.




Like many other disciplines, language teaching needs to rely on a corpus of data and information. This information helps to regulate the practice of teaching and makes it more rational and effective.

Teaching, in general, depends on scientific material provided by Pedagogy, Psychology, Sociology, etc… Apart from these, language teaching, in particular, will use developments achieved by Linguistics, or rather, Macrolinguistcs, which would include, at least, Psycholinguistics, Sociolinguistics and Microlinguistics (Phonology, Morphology, Syntax and Semantics). All data and knowledge from these disciplines can help us to understand processes, make decisions and identify problems in language learning.

4.1 First and Second Language Acquisition. ‘Language learning’ versus ‘language acquisition’.

Research and studies in this field are particularly interesting for language teachers. Based on these insights and illustrated by of our own teaching experience, we can identify the differences and see how children acquire their mother tongue and how they acquire or learn the foreign language. Then, we should decide whether those are essentially similar processes or quite separate ones. Our conclusions will provide valuable clues on how to design the language syllabus, how to define the objectives, prepare activities and select materials, how to distribute time and spaces, determine the sequencing of didactic contents in adequate didactic units, etc. .

As we said in previous pages, Structuralism, following Skinner’s behaviourist theory, considered  the human mind as a ‘tabula rasa’, and language acquisition as the acquisition of a set of habits through a process of ‘stimulus and response’. The “right” habits were acquired through ‘trial and error’, by reinforcing the right responses.

Later, Chomsky argued that the human mind possessed an innate linguistic capacity: the ‘Language Acquisition Device’ (LAD). 



5. Conclusions.

It is quite clear that language teaching has advanced rather slowly throughout the centuries. It is also apparent that no method can be classified as intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’. All of them have provided positive results and not-so-positive ones. The choice depends on the type of programme we have to follow, on our personal perspective on language  teaching and, especially, on the balance between the aims we pursue and the results we obtain.

Nowadays, there is a general tendency to eclecticism. All methods present some valid aspects and useful types of activities. Each learner has a personal learning style and individual capacities, as well as learning interests and communicative needs. Whatever the method, we should have access to, provide and design the adequate materials to suit those needs and compensate capacities and difficulties.

The ‘communicative approach’ seems to be the most comprehensive and realistic approach to language learning, probably because it offers the most modern views and, to a great extent, covers all the previous methods. However, there will always be doubts and unanswered questions, such as: Should the teacher follow the programmes contained in books? or, on the other hand, should we try to “place” the students in a communicative environment without a particular order and wait for their systems to develop through a natural acquisition process stimulated by communicative needs? Will errors be considered as a mere reflection of the state of development? or, will we impose correction and “punish” mistakes?

Some of these problems may have a solution in the contributions of Applied Linguistics, which, as a rather new discipline, ought to work hand in hand with pedagogy and methodology to offer global insights and solutions to particular situations. In this sense, the objectives of Applied Linguistics will be pragmatic and applicable: instruction of teachers, elaboration of programmes, materials, books… able to cope with different learning situations and needs.




  • Chomsky, N. . Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1965.
  • Corder, Pit. Introducing applied linguistics. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1973, p. 142.
  • Corder, Pit. Error Analysis and Interlanguage. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1981.
  • Crystal, D. . Linguistics. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971.
  • Ellis, R. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Halliday, M. A. K. . An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold, 1985.
  • Hyde, John. “Teoría y práctica: el papel de la lingüística aplicada” (Compilación de artículos, junto con otros autores).
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