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ISSN 1798-4769
Journal of Language Teaching and Research, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 559-565, May 2014 © 2014 ACADEMY PUBLISHER Manufactured in Finland.
doi:10.4304/jltr.5.3.559-565

Language Theories and Language
Teaching—from Traditional Grammar to
Functionalism
Yanhua Xia
School of Foreign Languages, China West Normal University, Nanchong, China Abstract—linguistic theories have greatly influenced language teaching theories in whatever stage they have been. By reviewing the three main stages of linguistic theories that have existed until now in the history of linguistics, this article has generalized the language teaching theories and the classroom characters resulted from them.

Index Terms—language theory, grammar translation method, audio-lingual method, communicative approach

It’s universally acknowledged that any new language teaching theory cannot come into being without the break in linguistic theory first. And any generation of linguistic theory has brought about new language teaching theory as well. Until now, the theories of linguistics have mainly experienced three stages: traditional grammar, structuralism and functionalism. They are closely related to each other and generated the change of language teaching theories. I. TRADITIONAL GRAMMAR

A.

Definition of Traditional Grammar
What is traditional grammar? This can be a hard question to answer. One opinion about traditional grammar is that it includes two concepts. One is narrow; another is broad. ―Narrowly speaking, traditional grammar refers to the grammar theories originated from ancient Greece and Rome, which became popular in the end of the 18th century before the birth of historical comparative grammar and dominated the research of grammar and language teaching for a long time in Europe. It values the old language model, emphasizes written language, neglect oral language. It tries to purify language and settle language. So it’s called prescriptive grammar, which was adopted by most school in their language class. In this case, it’s called school grammar as well. Broadly speaking, traditional grammar includes the scholarly traditional grammar that originated from the end the 19th century as well. Some of this kind of grammar emphasizes the principal of historical comparative study of language; some emphasizes contemporary language phenomena. Generally speaking, both of them take the attitude of descriptivism, trying to describe the change of language and the use of language objectively.‖ (Yin, 1990, p. 1)

Longman dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics has given a similar definition: Traditional grammar is ―a grammar which is usually based on earlier grammars of Latin or Greek and applied to some other language, often inappropriately‖. And it has given an example to illustrate this: ―Some grammarians stated that English had six CASES because Latin had six cases. These grammarians were often notional and prescriptive in their approach. Although there has been a trend towards using grammars which incorporate more modern approached to language description and language teaching, some schools still use traditional grammars‖. B.

Grammar Translation Method
The direct influence language teaching received from traditional grammar theory is grammar translation method of language teaching. A typical lesson conducted under the guidance of this method bears the following characters: (1) The ultimate purpose of foreign language teaching is to read materials written by foreign language, such as reading foreign classics, so written language is emphasized rather than oral language. The goal of foreign language learning is to translate that foreign language into one’s mother tongue. If a student can do this, he or she has become successful in foreign language study.

(2) Because oral language ability is not the goal of this kind of teaching, it results in many learners who have learnt even more than ten years buy still couldn’t use it to communicate with native speakers of the language he or she had learnt.

(3) Teachers are the absolute authorities in the class. Students are just absorbers, busy with writing down every detail of the knowledge teachers give them. The class is always teacher-centered. (4) Langue form, i.e. grammar, is emphasized. Students are always encouraged to grasp this part. In order to make students understand this part clearly, teachers always use their native languages to conduct the lessons. They usually use example sentences to illustrate the grammar rules they have just taught, students are required to follow the example to make sentences by using the grammar.

© 2014 ACADEMY PUBLISHER

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JOURNAL OF LANGUAGE TEACHING AND RESEARCH

(5) The contents of texts are usually neglected. Instead the texts are often used as the material for teachers to explain those long and detailed grammatical problems.
(6) Students are required to start to read classics at an early stage. (7) Students usually only do one kind of exercise. That is translation. C. Evaluation of Grammar Translation Method
Today, when we look back to reevaluate grammar translation method again, it gets the following judgments: (1) It exaggerated the function in the learning of a foreign language. (2) It emphasized too much on the knowledge of language, ignored the training the language skills. (3) The whole process of foreign language teaching is mechanical, out of the touch of real language environment, no practical meaning.

(4) It pays attention only to written language instead of spoken language. Anyhow, people shall never forget that grammar translation method have already done so much for foreign language teaching. Its contribution is still great.

II. STRUCTURALISM
A.

Why Did Structuralism Come into Being?
Some scholars gradually became not satisfied with structuralism when they got to see clearly about the flaws of traditional grammar. They thought it blocked the way of further research of language. It eventually would cause negative effect on language development and the development of linguistics. They looked for new approaches to language study, and this brought about structuralism (structural linguistics). B.

What Is Structuralism?
According to Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, Structuralism is ―an approach to linguistics which stresses the importance of language as a system and which investigates the place that linguistic unit such as sounds, words, sentenced have within this system‖. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, called as the father of modern traditional linguist, is widely respected as the founder of structuralism. He is a major modern linguist who made preparations for structuralism. Saussure affirmed th...

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