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Communicative language teaching rose to prominence in the 1970s and early 1980s as a result of many disparate developments in both Europe and the United States. First, there was an increased demand for language learning, particularly in Europe. The advent of the European Common Market led to widespread European migration, and consequently there was a large population of people who needed to learn a foreign language for work or for personal reasons. At the same time, children were increasingly able to learn foreign languages in school. The number of secondary schools offering languages rose worldwide in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a general trend of curriculum-broadening and modernization, and foreign-language study ceased to be confined to the elite academies. In Britain, the introduction of comprehensive schools meant that almost all children had the opportunity to study foreign languages.
This increased demand put pressure on educators to change their teaching methods. Traditional methods such as grammar translation assumed that students were aiming for mastery of the target language, and that students were willing to study for years before expecting to use the language in real life. However, these assumptions were challenged by adult learners who were busy with work, and by schoolchildren who were less academically able. Educators realized that to motivate these students an approach with a more immediate payoff was necessary.
The trend of progressivism in education provided a further pressure for educators to change their methods. Progressivism holds that active learning is more effective than passive learning, and as this idea gained traction in schools there was a general shift towards using techniques where students were more actively involved, such as group work. Foreign-language education was no exception to this trend, and teachers sought to find new methods that could better embody this shift in thinking.
The development of communicative language teaching was also helped by new academic ideas. In Britain, applied linguists began to doubt the efficacy of situational language teaching, the dominant method in that country at the time. This was partly in response to Chomsky’s insights into the nature of language. Chomsky had shown that the structural theories of language prevalent at the time could not explain the creativity and variety evident in real communication. In addition, British applied linguists such as Christopher Candlin and Henry Widdowson began to see that a focus on structure was also not helping language students. They saw a need for students to develop communicative skill and functional competence in addition to mastering language structures.
In the United States, the linguist and anthropologist Dell Hymes developed the concept of communicative competence. This was a reaction to Chomsky’s concept of the linguistic competence of an ideal native speaker. Communicative competence redefined what it meant to “know” a language; in addition to speakers having mastery over the structural elements of language, according to communicative competence they must also be able to use those structural elements appropriately in different social situations. This is neatly summed up by Hymes’s statement, “There are rules of use without which the rules of grammar would be useless.” Hymes did not make a concrete formulation of communicative competence, but subsequent authors have tied the concept to language teaching, notably Michael Canale.
An influential development in the history of communicative language teaching was the work of the Council of Europe in creating new language syllabuses. Education was a high priority for the Council of Europe, and they set out to provide syllabuses that would meet the needs of European immigrants. Among the studies used by the council when designing the course was one by the British linguist, D. A. Wilkins, that defined language using “notions” and “functions”, rather than more traditional categories of grammar and vocabulary. Notional categories include concepts such as time, location, frequency, and quantity, and functional categories include communicative acts such as offers, complaints, denials, and requests. These syllabuses were widely used.
Communicative language-learning materials were also developed in Germany. There was a new emphasis on personal freedom in German education at the time, an attitude exemplified in the philosophy of Jürgen Habermas. To fulfill this goal, educators developed materials that allowed learners to choose what they wanted to communicate freely. These materials concentrated on the various different social meanings a given item of grammar could have, and were structured in such a way that learners could choose how to progress through the course themselves. The materials were used in teacher training courses and workshops to encourage teachers to change to using a communicative syllabus. Two similar projects were also undertaken by Candlin at Lancaster University, and by Holec at the University of Nancy.
Meanwhile, at the University of Illinois, there was a study that investigated the effects of the explicit teaching of learning strategies to language learners. The study encouraged learners to take risks while communicating, and to use constructs other than rote memorized patterns. At the study’s conclusion, students who were taught communicatively fared no worse on grammatical tests than students that had been taught with traditional methods, but they performed significantly better in tests of communicative ability. This was the case even for beginners. As a result of this study, supplemental communicative activities were created for the French CRÉDIF course Voix et Visages de la France. These materials focused on classroom autonomy, and learners were taught various phrases they could use to negotiate meaning, such as “What’s the word for …” and “I don’t understand”.
CLT is usually characterized as a broad approach to teaching, rather than as a teaching method with a clearly defined set of classroom practices. As such, it is most often defined as a list of general principles or features. One of the most recognized of these lists is David Nunan’s (1991) five features of CLT:
These five features are claimed by practitioners of CLT to show that they are very interested in the needs and desires of their learners as well as the connection between the language as it is taught in their class and as it used outside the classroom. Under this broad umbrella definition, any teaching practice that helps students develop their communicative competence in an authentic context is deemed an acceptable and beneficial form of instruction. Thus, in the classroom CLT often takes the form of pair and group work requiring negotiation and cooperation between learners, fluency-based activities that encourage learners to develop their confidence, role-plays in which students practise and develop language functions, as well as judicious use of grammar and pronunciation focused activities.
In the mid 1990s the Dogma 95 manifesto influenced language teaching through the Dogme language teaching movement, who proposed that published materials can stifle the communicative approach. As such the aim of the Dogme approach to language teaching is to focus on real conversations about real subjects so that communication is the engine of learning. This communication may lead to explanation, but that this in turn will lead to further communication.
Classroom activities used in communicative language teaching include the following:
However, not all courses that utilize the Communicative Language approach will restrict their activities solely to these. Some courses will have the students take occasional grammar quizzes, or prepare at home using non-communicative drills, for instance. William Glasser's "control theory" exemplifies his attempts to empower students and give them voice by focusing on their basic, human needs: Unless students are given power, they may exert what little power they have to thwart learning and achievement through inappropriate behavior and mediocrity. Thus, it is important for teachers to give students voice, especially in the current educational climate, which is dominated by standardization and testing (Simmons and Page, 2010).
One of the most famous attacks on communicative language teaching was offered by Michael Swan in the English Language Teaching Journal in 1985. Henry Widdowson responded in defense of CLT, also in the ELT Journal (1985 39(3):158-161). More recently other writers (e.g. Bax) have critiqued CLT for paying insufficient attention to the context in which teaching and learning take place, though CLT has also been defended against this charge (e.g. Harmer 2003).
Often, the communicative approach is deemed a success if the teacher understands the student. But, if the teacher is from the same region as the student, the teacher will understand errors resulting from an influence from their first language. Native speakers of the target language may still have difficulty understanding them. This observation may call for new thinking on and adaptation of the communicative approach. The adapted communicative approach should be a simulation where the teacher pretends to understand only what any regular speaker of the target language would and reacts accordingly (Hattum 2006).