Special Section for Teachers – Scholars – Principals

ORIGINS OF TOTALITY METHOD

Language Naturally” is the result of a long experience in the field of language teaching, combined with the most important research of the sector. In the name of these principle Language Naturally staff has created the “TOTALITY METHOD”, i.e. an approach where the multi-tasking mode of modern life combines with the natural way of learning.

The first speculations on language teaching method date back to the 1940s. Before then - until the post-war period - teaching was conformed to the 'grammar-translation method ": priority was given to language as a "formal system ", or as a set of grammar rules and patterns, while comprehension and production were strictly related to written language; it was also related to a more formal and literary language, which was often unaware of the basic language of everyday communication. Furthermore, teachers themselves had an indirect knowledge of the language they taught, which they had learned from books. Another different method, was, the language learned through the "natural method". Immigrants who moved massively to richer countries had to build up for themselves a communicative skill, often weak in terms of grammar and containing limited vocabulary.

A boost from the US troops during the early post-war period: US soldiers located in various places around the world, the government, then, began to worry about training, according to the different language needs. It became necessary to implement a rapid and effective methodology, which had to work much faster than the traditional educational methods. An audio-oral method (ALM Audio-Lingual Method) was developed, in order to overcome the difficulties of grammar, spelling and all the rules and related to written language. This way, users were encouraged to fast comprehension followed by oral communication. In order to simplify the learning process, students, had to listen to recorded sentences in foreign languages and then try to reproduce them. Grammar was limited to a small number of pattern sentences, or stereotyped phrases , for which users would, by analogy, make up new structures by changing single words and inflection. The selected phrases always referred to realistic situations.

Further studies carried out in the US were based on the development of this methodology, in particular Bloomfeld’s research and theories and also Skinner’s behavioural studies. According to the new guidelines, the behaviour language was reduced to a mechanism of "stimulus - response-reinforcement." In the area of institutional teaching, the necessity of government testing encouraged the design of language laboratories as "interactive instruments” for the students. The new technological instruments became part of traditional teaching on the wave of a more comprehensive review of foreign language teaching.

From the 50s onwards, studies about linguistic education converged to the research of the renowned American scholar Noam Chomsky. He didn’t create a new teaching method, but his considerations on the “superficial” and “deep” structures of language implied a necessary and radical rethinking of the concepts of grammar and learning and also of language teaching. Chomsky’s studies tend to restore and clarify a very simple and almost obvious notion, especially in the field of linguistics: the structure of a language is not a transparent and never-failing criterion, as each statement, depending on its context, has its own semantic features. Moreover, we should consider that we learn our mother tongue ‘by imitation’, that is, we do not only understand and repeat previously “listened to” structures, but we express ourselves freely, independently from any habit, in accordance with new stimuli in a concrete communicative situation. We mysteriously attain, as was said many decades ago by Humbolt, to "make infinite use of finite resources." The mechanisms of language learning and production make teachers face a decisive result: a purely structural training does not bring to self-expression. According to Chomsky, traditional grammar lacks a substantial foundation as it doesn’t predict the creative process of language.

With regard to "generative" or "transforming" grammar, Chomsky, however, recognizes an encouraging potential: each individual is endowed with a LAD, which is a language acquisition device. Each of us, as a child, has not only heard and gradually began to repeat sounds and word sequences, but has further developed those sounds, until repetition has become not just mnemonic. The analysis of innate language allows teachers- despite much scepticism – to rely on the natural process of learning a second language. From these considerations on teaching strategy the increasing need to put communicative structures in a precise context as well as the strong involvement of the student in the learning process appear very clear. A good help are all the paraverbal or nonverbal devices, such as songs, pictures, videos, activities, group activities that encourage free enterprise and competence. The language is learned, and therefore, must be taught, as part of the life and of the social growth of the individual. If in science the concept of socio-linguistic context is considered as essential, the new teaching methods must first revise the order of priority in setting the so-called "programs". Chomsky’s conclusions will find their main implementation, during the early '70s, in Wilkins’s notional-functional grammar and communicative approach, also adopted by Widdowson’s Communication Language Approach.

Instead of working on a new teaching method Widdowson focused on the basic principles (approach) that must change the existing methods according to Chomsky’s studies. In this context special importance has the social-linguistic communicative skill as explained by Chomsky: teachers must judge their students’ communicative performance, and not merely their competence. Widdowson continues Chomsky’s dichotomy between competence and performance, referring to use /usage, by adding that - in terms of communicative teaching approach - the development of usage harmoniously and naturally leads to a better control of use. In other words, by feeling more confident towards a foreign language, the student will give more attention to the details and the formal structure of language itself.

Wlikins’s "notional-functional grammar" has been adopted by the Council of Europe within the “threshold level” programme: the continental institution, to encourage harmony amongst the citizens of the Union, has clearly understood the importance of language. It is therefore necessary that Europeans communicate at international level, at least at "threshold level", or with a sufficient degree of knowledge to integrate themselves both as individuals and as workers. Linguistic competence is not based on the speaker’s structural correctness, it rather focuses on the ability to interact and understand. Wilkins invented a Notional-Functional Syllabus, which is a curriculum – or, as commonly said, a program - of didactical units developed not by priority of structural topics but on the basis of a fluid construction of concepts (conceptual categories: time, space , quantity, comparison, negation, etc lexical categories etc.) and functions (communicative actions to perform individual tasks: introduce oneself, greet, thank, ask for information etc.) The energies that the Council of Europe has put on the Notional-Syllabus Program convey the huge importance of language training for members of the “United States of Europe”. That is to say that the responsibility of today’s language trainers is much greater and must consider the long process that put linguistic studies beyond the narrow theoretical and methodological context.

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