Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Reinventing the audiolingual laboratory in the 1990s

Rosemary Lancaster and Caroline Philogene
Department of French Studies, School of European Languages
The University of Western Australia
In the last decade LOTE (Languages Other Than English) teachers of primary, secondary and tertiary students have increasingly responded to the benefits of computer assisted learning in the multimedia classroom. But do theses pedagogically motivated changes mean there is no further role for the audiolingual laboratory? Not so, according to the results of recent initiatives. Over the last three years the course developments I have implemented in the Computer Centre for UWA students of French at the first year level have included the introduction of new language laboratory approaches. In this presentation I and the class tutor will explain our reasons for retaining audiolingual learning alongside, and indeed within the ambit of our multimedia, cultural studies and communicative language programmes. In particular, we will discuss the problems and benefits of aural training and, relatedly, the laboratory's exciting potential for inclusive and interactive learning. Lastly we will illustrate our objectives and strategies by referring to a variety of lesson types and class activities.

Introduction and theoretical rationale

Despite the wide-spread implementation since the 1970s of the communicative approach to secondary language learning, listening is a skill that has not enjoyed as much special attention as have spoken skills. Perhaps this is partly a knee-jerk reaction to some of the now-perceived limitations of the 1960s audiolingual teaching style. At a time when students are being encouraged to interact and express themselves spontaneously, unhindered by the correctness of grammatical details, a method that isolates students by placing them into individual booths where they engage in repetitive drills can seem contrary to overall communicative goals.

Added to this is the fact that listening is in itself a difficult skill to acquire, although it accounts for half the time we spend using a language. While the communicative method recognises the importance of modern forms of message transmission to the extent that computer, film and video exercises are now common media teaching tools, it is worth remembering that students habitually find the radio and the telephone uncomfortably daunting to use. Sheer listening, unaided by visual supports, is, it seems, hard to master on the language learning scale.

Yet we know that good listeners make good speakers; that comprehending what is said prompts us to respond in a meaningful way. Any comprehensive communicative course will wish to improve learners' listening abilities; indeed, pioneer listening theorists such as Asher, Lynch and Brown have gone so far as to claim it is the foundation skill on which the other macro-skills can be acquired.

In constructing a new language and cultural studies course for first year ex-high school students of French at the University of Western Australia, I found myself wondering whether to abandon audiolingual classes in favour of computer-centred ones. At the same time I was loath to omit from the course the obvious value of helping students to listen well. I finally decided to offer both on alternate weeks, and to evaluate the students' progress and reactions. Nevertheless it was clear that the audiolingual programme would have to be reinvented if it was to integrate appropriately with the rest of the course's structure and aims. It is this aspect of the course that I shall context and discuss in detail here. To do this I was greatly aided by my research assistant, Dr Mark Pegrum, who developed the new materials, and for its implementation by the class tutor, Ms Caroline Philogène, who will discuss a range of lesson techniques, described further on.

First let me begin by referring to Shannon Johnston's useful summary of listening theories and the distinctions she sees theorists have made between two types of listening processing. This, she claims, in what she calls the "no wonder factor", may explain why students find that searching for meaning in what is being heard while it is being heard is hard. Basically, says Johnston, the problem stems from the fact that two types of mental processing, "bottom-up" and "top-down", need to complement one another if effective listening is to proceed. "Bottom-up", she reminds us, refers to the way we naturally segment the spoken stream of language as it is being received, discerning within it in an on-line way phonetic and lexical features, morphological and syntactic structures, and divisions into word, phrase, clause and sentence boundaries. Yet such processing, complex but habitual in native speakers, is characteristically insufficient in itself for second language learners to comprehend adequately. Vocabulary gaps and unfamiliarity with the foreign language's structural features can impede effective reception, as can the speed and the syntactic incoherences that typify normal speech flow. Chunks of texts can be missed and fatigue and frustration can ensue. What is needed to aid comprehension is "top-down" or global processing. In the "top-down" process listeners understand by seeking intent, using expectations, predicting and inferring meaning. So such fundamentals as having prior knowledge or experience of the subject in hand, recognising the cultural context, being prepared for what is to be said, being physically involved (in a two-way or group conversation for example, or by using visual apprehension to support the auditory) come into play. Now, given this is so, communicative language approaches, which value social interaction, cultural awareness and overall comprehension rather than sophisticated grammatical know-how, are likely to enhance listening in the audiolingual classroom. In my own course planning this was my view.

Teaching objectives and strategies

Before passing on to some concrete examples I would like to specify some of the particular teaching rudiments to which I adhered. Let me say from the outset that traditional audio-lingual strategies - situation-based dialogues, drills and expansion activities - were not jettisoned out of hand. The role of repetition and practice of structures is still important in the communicative style and these were specifically tailored to aspects of the weekly language programme. Rather the aim was to reinform the format by enriching it with up-to-date and varied materials and pertinent cultural content and by incorporating into the classroom more opportunities for participatory activities and interactive exchange. The goal was to be as holistic as possible in the spatial confines of the laboratory, to ensure improved listening with the support of appropriate mental, physical and visual stimuli. The fact that the students were concurrently studying cultural studies gave me plenty of interesting cultural material to construct classes around issues and topics that were already being explored.

To this end certain strategies for creating new exercises were deemed necessary:

Supportive activities in the audiolingual laboratory


On the surface, songs may seem a rather traditional listening medium, yet they can be used very flexibly and can have tremendous student appeal. As a general rule we chose those that belonged to the 1990s, providing as supportive cues transcripts, brief explanations of difficult expressions, photos of the singers, clozed activities, even maps of the countries or areas of the singers' origins. At the same time we endeavoured to exploit our choices as opportunities to recontextualise and enrich some of the broader cultural issues broached in the overall first-year programme. For example, during the French feminism module in the cultural studies programme and while students were being introduced to feminist and Francophone web sites in the multimedia laboratory, we chose the songs of some recent fervently nationalistic African women singers that raise issues - followed up in taped dialogues and group discussions - about cultural identification, the distinctiveness of African music and the place of French as the official language in post-colonial Francophone countries; we even had students finally role-play a conversation between a French person and an African migrant from the Third World. Differently again, and during the seven-week module on the media, the hard-hitting message of the precocious tiny tot singer, Jordy, expounding the hardships of being a child in an adult world led into paired debates about parental control, the commercial exploitation of children and the status of children in contemporary society. This said, listening filled up a good-two thirds of the time.

The photo gallery

Incorporating slides into a number of lessons was our main visual innovation and we used them extensively to spatialise data explored in the listening exercises and to create an ambience in keeping with the week's theme. At the simplest level it was a question of illustration and orientation: slides of Senegal and the Congo during the French African sequence were exotically interesting; group guessing of a selection of Parisian monuments and well known Parisian identities, as well as a visual journey through the Parisian photographs of the celebrated Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson, integrated well with the seven-week cultural studies "Literary Paris" module, where students consider different representations of Paris, even the construction of a myth of the city, as represented in a range of textual genres. In both these cases the listening segments interrelate with the visuals. In the case of the African singers, the bold lyrics express identification with the pictured indigenous land. In the case of the Parisian module, and at a point where the students are considering the cabaret song as a distinct popular literary genre, we present three different singers' renditions of the Edith Piaf's famous song, "La Vie en rose", as evidence of changing musical interpretations as well as an example of the popular song's characteristic themes and form.

Sometimes it is the auditory that situates the visual rather than the other way around. In a week that considers current French publicity strategies, students begin by listening to a joke and a taped dialogue about advertising, then view the slides of a range of recognisable French brand names (Peugeot, Moët, Cartier, Gaultier, Chanel); finally they fill in a survey form (results returned the next week), rating what brands they think are the most widely known. Can I just mention in passing that results show that, typically, the favourite is Chanel, closely followed by Yves Saint-Laurent, Evian and Citroën.

Cooperative learning: Group and pair work

All our audiolingual lessons end with a participatory activity, with students either talking to one or two randomly selected partners on the head-phones or else discussing an issue in small groups within the laboratory. In this way the two-way process of listening and speaking takes place in a sharing environment where individual ideas and opinions are expressed and exchanged. In general, these moments of peer interaction are used to explore aspects of topics that relate to any of the on-going multimedia, cultural studies and language programmes. In one week of the seven-week "Literary Paris" module, and at a point where students are analysing a range of literary and artistic works inspired by the Eiffel Tower, the laboratory sequence integrates thematically in a step-by-step fashion: students listen to one of Jacques Brel's famous folk songs about Parisian landmarks; look at slides of Parisian monuments, while listening to the tutor's commentary; listen to a dialogue about a rich American who has bought the Tower; break up into pairs to discuss what they consider to be Paris's most emblematic buildings; finally role-play a heated conversation between two French citizens, one in favour of selling the Tower and one who is opposed to the idea. In another class, Mylène Farmer's song entitled "Disenchanted", leads on to related dialogues, a mini-discussion on why young people today have been called the "disenchanted generation", and lastly a role-play between a young woman of twenty and an elderly man of eighty, the former defending her peers for their social disenchantment, the latter criticising young people for their laziness and self-pity.

While the changes described above have met with considerable success, with student class attendance increasing markedly and ratings showing that audiolingual activities are perceived to be as useful and as enjoyable as computer-directed ones, there is much work to be done. In 1999 we plan to rearrange the laboratory by removing the wooden partitions and glass windows from the booths, installing video screens for further visual input and creating a pleasant space for a round table in which students can participate in follow-up discussions, even while others students are using the headphones. In this way we believe that the laboratory will become more user-attractive and physically better suited to implementing our on-going innovations.


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Please cite as: Lancaster, R. and Philogene, C. (1999). Reinventing the audiolingual laboratory in the 1990s. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 215-219. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/lancaster.html

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