Current Issue: Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations
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Cara Tuzzolino-Werben
Idiom Editor

Elisabeth Gareis
Column Editor,
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Nanette Dougherty
Column Editor,
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Column Editor,
Promising Practices


Featured Article

It’s All About How Language Works
Shu Jen Chen

NOTE: This article was written as a reaction to the previous article, entitled “Communicative Language Teaching in EFL Contexts: Not a Unersal Medicine,” by Liping Wei, published in Idiom, 40(4)

There Is No Best Method. Why CLT?

Language learning is a life-long ongoing process. There is no shortcut to master language proficiency, nor is there an ultimate terminal for language learning. Throughout the history of language teaching, language teachers have been seeking more effective approaches or methods of teaching second or foreign languages. There is no best method (Prabhu, 1990) and by the end of the 20th century, many applied linguists and language teachers had opted out of the belief that newer and better approaches and methods are the solution to problems in language teaching (Richards & Rogers, 2001). Although Traditional Grammar-Translation and Audiolingualism were considered inadequate for second or foreign language teaching at a time in the 20th century, Grammar-
Translation was a time-honored predominant method for teaching Latin and Greek for over a century (1840s–1940s), and Audiolingualism was prevailing in teaching English as a second or foreign language in the United States in the 1960s. Audiolingualism, with an emphasis on oral proficiency, was viewed as an innovative interesting teaching method as a response to Grammar-Translation. Later on, in reaction to Grammar-Translation and Audiolingualism, many approaches and methods, such as Total Physical Response (TPR), Silent Way (SW), Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), etc., viewed as state-of-the-art teaching methods, began to sprout one by one. Nevertheless, any well-known theory-based language teaching approach or method can become far-fetched if teachers have no knowledge about how language works regardless of its practice contexts. As Wei (2010) recognized, CLT is not “a universal medicine” (p. 1). So, how does language work? What are the underlying difficulties of language teaching in the United States and ESL/EFL contexts?

How Does Language Work?

Three theoretical models—nature, nurture, and interaction—have had a significant impact on language learning and acquisition. The nature model emphasizes innate ability, such as Language Acquisition Device (LAD), which is associated with the critical period for language development (Chomsky, 1957). The nurture model highlights learning through experience, such as imitation and repetition (Skinner, 1957). The interaction model features reciprocal learning in the cultural context by scaffolding (Vygotsky, 1934). The three models complement one another; no single model can exclusively stand alone. One requires the innate ability, experience, and interactions with the environment and humans in order to make and understand meaningful sounds and symbols.

A great deal of research, both neural and behavioral, has found that there is a critical or sensitive period for language learning and acquisition, including the fossilization of accent and pronunciation after puberty (Brown, 1980; Oyahma, 1976; Selinker & Lamendella, 1979). According to Montessori (1949), there is a sensitive period, a critical period in Chomsky’s term, for every area of human development, such as walking, language, etc. A critical period is “a specific period in children’s development when they are sensitive to a particular environmental stimulus that does not have the same effect on him when he encounters it before or after this period” (Hetherington & Parke, 1999, p. 279). According to Goodglass (1993), young children’s speech can recover rapidly and completely if the brain damage occurs before puberty. Numerous studies go even further to confirm that there is a strong relationship between the age of exposure to a language and the proficiency achieved in that language (Birdsong, 1999; Johnson & Newport, 1989; Knudsen, 199; Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1982).

It is axiomatic that when the brain reaches a certain level of maturation (at the onset of puberty), a second language learning and acquisition becomes difficult and the ability of acquiring a native-like accent and pronunciation begins to degenerate (Acton, 1984). Crain (2005) added, “There is growing evidence that a critical period for rapid second language learning ends even prior to puberty perhaps at the age of 7 years” (p. 367).

Children and adults learn language differently, mostly due to brain lateralization (Rice, 2002) associated with the critical period. This further explains why children can easily acquire language by exposing themselves to native speakers, whereas adults require formal training (conscious learning) through understanding grammar with explanations and translation (Krashen, 1982).

The Underlying Difficulties of Language Teaching in the United and ESL/EFL Contexts
Any established theory-based language teaching approach or method can be unfeasible if a teacher doesn’t know when and how to apply such approach regardless of its practice contexts (the United States or ESL/EFL countries). Let’s take Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), for example. Hymes (1971) first coined the term “communicative competence,” meaning the ability to use the language effectively in appropriate contexts. Communicative competence is the desired goal of CLT. Unlike Audiolingualism, CLT emphasizes fluency and allows the use of native/first language (L1) and translation wherever plausible and beneficial to the learner.

In the U.S. context, a native English-speaking teacher will best benefit ESL children’s language learning. Unfortunately, many classroom teachers are not well prepared yet to deal with the diverse student population (Polloway, Smith, & Miller, 2004), particularly when they encounter ESL children who speak no or little English. Their reaction to these children is that they can’t communicate and that they require translation or language instruction in special education settings. Consequently, many children from the culturally diverse backgrounds are overrepresented in some disability categories (Banks, 1999; Geva, 2000; Hardman, Drew, & Egan, 2004; Popham, 1995). For ESL adults, most English-speaking teachers do not speak an ESL adult’s L1 or have conscious knowledge in the English language (Freeman & Freeman, 2004). Hence, teaching advanced grammar and doing translation for ESL adults present a significant challenge.

In ESL/EFL contexts, most teachers are non-English speakers. Lack of oral proficiency in English and a deficiency in strategic and sociolinguistic competence in English have been reported as some of the major factors contributing to the difficulties of applying CLT in ESL/EFL contexts (Li, 1998; Valdes and Jhones, 1991). ESL children may pick up the accent, pronunciation, and expression from their non-English speaking teachers. For ESL adults, however, although they can improve their language learning from their non-English speaking teachers who can speak L1 and understand English grammar well, their errors in English accents and pronunciations they picked up early on may have been fossilized.


Understanding how language works, which is linked to critical period, is central to the success of language teaching. This understanding guides teachers’ perceptions and endeavors for innovation (Li, 1998). It inspires teachers to create a learning environment where learning is spontaneous, motivating, and interactive; where learners’ strengths are optimized with a strong need for communication; and where teachers and learners embrace the future of learning.


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Birdsong, D. (ed.). (1999). Second language acquisition and the critical period hypothesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Brown, H. D. (1980). The optimal distance model of second language acquisition. TESOL Quarterly, 14(2), 157-164.

Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic structures. The Hague: Mouton.

Crain, W. (2005). Theories of development: Concepts and applications (5th ed.).Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Freeman, D. E. & Freeman, Y. S. (2004). Essential linguistics. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goodglass, H. (1993). Understanding aphasia. New York: Academic Press.

Hymes, D. H. (1971). On communicative competence. In J. B. Pride & J. Holmes (Eds.). Sociolinguistics. London: Penguin Books, Inc.

Johnson, J. S., & Newport, E. L. (1989). Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognitive Psychology, 21, 60-99.

Knudsen, E. I. (1999). Early experience and critical periods. In M. J. Zigmond, et al., Fundamental Neuroscience (pp. 637-654). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. New York: Pergamon Press.
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Li, D. (1998). It’s always more difficult than you plan and imagine: Teachers’ perceived difficulties in introducing the communicative approach in South Korea. TESOL Quarterly, 32(4), 677-703.

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Oyama, S. (1976). A sensitive period for acquisition of a non-native phonological system. Journal of Psychological Research, 5(3), 261-283.

Polloway, E. A., Smith, T. E. C., & Millier, L. (2004). Language instruction for students with disabilities (3rd ed). Denver: Love Publishing Company.

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Prabhu, N. S. (1990). There is no best method—Why? TESOL Quarterly, 24(2), 161-176.

Rice, D. C. (2002). Using trade books in teaching elementary science: Facts and fallacies: valuable addition to the science curriculum, if teachers know how to select good ones. The Reading Teacher, 55(6), 552-565.

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Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Valdes, A. I., & Jhones, A. C. (1991). Introduction of communicative language teaching in tourism in Cuba. TESL Canada Journal, 8(2), 57-63.

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Wei, L. (2010). Communicative language teaching: Not a universal medicine. Idiom, 40(4), 1 & 24.

About the Author

Shu Jen Chen is an associate professor in the School of Education at Touro College in New York. Her areas of specialization are learning and instruction for children with special needs (inclusion, relationships of perception, assessment, and instruction, disability studies, multicultural education, and literacy). She holds an M.A. in TESOL from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in applied behavioral studies in special education from Oklahoma State University. Before 1996, she taught in the Department of the English Language and Literature in a university in Taipei, Taiwan, for six years, and was an ESL teacher at KOJEN English Language Schools in Taipei.