Wolfgang Butzkamm

Bilingual method

(In: Michael Byram [Hrsg.]: Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning. London and New York: Routledge, 84-87.)

  A method of language teaching developed by C.J. Dodson (1967/1972) to improve the *audio-visual method as it was advocated in the 1960s. Its architecture is best understood as a traditional three-phase structure of presentation - practice - production. A lesson-cycle starts out with the reproduction / performance of a basic dialogue, moves on to the variation and recombination of the basic sentences (semi-free use of language) and ends up with an extended application stage characterised by the free, communicative exploitation of the previous work. Well-ordered activities are to take the students up to a conversational level in the shortest possible time.

In audio-visual courses basic dialogues are presented and practised over several months on a purely oral basis. Dodson, however, proposed a well-tested procedure where the printed sentence is presented simultaneously to the oral utterance from the beginning. Teachers may read out the dialogue to the class just once with books closed, but as soon as they get the class to say the lines after them, books should be open and the class is allowed to glance at the text in between imitation responses as they listen to others, and look up when they speak themselves. Dodson showed that provided the class is instructed to make the spoken sentence the primary stimulus, the imitation of sentences could be speeded up, without degradation of intonation and undue interference from the printed text. Having the printed word to glance at (whilst at the same time relying on the auditory image of the sentence just heard), pupils find it easier to segment the amorphous sound stream into manageable units and so retain the fleeting sound image. The retention benefits of the mutual support of script and sound outweigh possible interference effects (e.g. where ‘knife’ would be pronounced with an initial k-sound by German learners of English).

Audio-visual textbooks present dialogues with a picture strip on the left. The pictures (also available on slides) are designed to closely match the meaning of the dialogue sentences. It was claimed that at long last the necessary media (slides and audio tapes) had been made available to do justice to *direct method principles and teach without relying on the mother tongue. Pictures and slides, along with the teacher’s drawings and realia should clarify the meaning of new words and structures.

By contrast, Dodson provides the most direct form of access to meaning possible by using oral mother-tongue equivalents at sentence level to convey the meaning of unknown words or structures. Interference from the mother tongue is avoided because the teacher says each dialogue sentence twice, with the mother tongue version sandwiched between:

Teacher (or tape): Would you mind if I brought a friend?

Teacher : Könnte ich vielleicht einen Freund / eine Freundin mitbringen?

Teacher: Would you mind if I brought a friend?

Teacher points to pupil(s) to repeat the sentence after him.

It is the direct succession of the (second) foreign language stimulus and the imitation response which prevents interference.

Not word, but utterance equivalents are given - either whole utterances or meaningful parts of an utterance. The teacher chooses the closest natural equivalent which accomplishes what probably no other method of semanticising can do so directly and so sensitively, i.e. conveying the precise communicative value of the utterance. Whereas an isolated word equivalent is neutral in terms of intonation, teachers can now show how the utterance is meant by using their voice and body (intonation, stress, gestures), both for the original sentence and for the equivalent. Moreover, natural, idiomatic translations include, for instance, typical German modal particles (‘ denn’, ‘ doch’, ‘ schon’, ‘ ja’) which contribute to the full meaning of an utterance. To choose a literary example:

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.

Willst du schon gehen? Der Tag ist ja noch fern.

All in all, through these synergistic effects the teacher is able to create a total language event that immediately brings home to the pupils what and how an utterance is meant. This is very different from traditional bilingual word lists and from *audio-lingual parallel texts. The mother tongue thus proves to be the ideal means of getting the meaning across as completely and as quickly as possible. Bringing differences to light, contrasting and comparing, is seen as the most effective antidote to interference errors. Pupils who hear the French ‘ anniversaire’ without at first linking it to ‘birthday’ would simply not understand. Dodson was able to show by controlled experiments that a combination of printed word, mother tongue equivalents, and picture strip (for retention of meaning, not for meaning conveyance), can bring a class more quickly to a point where they can act out a basic situation as freely and naturally as possible.

Through this technique of meaning-conveyance, authentic, literary texts become available even to beginners - quite an important side-effect. There need not be the demotivating content vacuum so typical of beginners’ materials.

The bilingual method proceeds step by step under careful guidance with continual feedback, ensuring that prerequisite sub- or part skills are acquired before a final stage of free and spontaneous language use, all within an integrated lesson cycle. Learners are led from knowing nothing about any language situation to complete mastery of this situation, from a mastery of one situation to a mastery of sentence variations and combinations, and from a mastery of known situation combinations to forays into new, unknown and unforeseeable communication situations. It is argued that free, message-oriented use of new language, when attempted too early in the lesson cycle and on too flimsy a basis, would only undermine the pupils’ confidence.


The generative principle and communication

Learners create new sentences by interchanging words and structures already consolidated previously: *Humboldt’s idea that language is a way of ‘making infinite use of finite means’. The teacher’s cues for possible substitutions and extensions are given in the native language. This bilingual technique prevents pupils from giving ‘empty’ responses, and sentence variations become concept variations which exploit the communicative potential of a given structure. This is an important improvement on conventional pattern practice whose sole focus was the automatization of structures. It is syntactic and semantic manipulation at the same time, a cognitive engagement in mental gymnastics, which prevents the process from becoming mechanical. Again, the teacher can use voice and body language to support meaning. Paradoxically, the new foreign language pattern is hammered home by using the familiar first language one. A literal and often ungrammatical translation - called Spiegelung /mirroring - may be added just once if the new structure is not transparent to the learner:

Teacher: Ich will ja nur eine Tasse Tee.

(Alles ich will ist eine Tasse Tee)

Pupil: All I want is a cup of tea.

Teacher: Ich will ja nur eine Tasse Kaffee.

Pupil: All I want is a cup of coffee.

Teacher: Ich will ja nur eine ruhige Klasse.

Pupil: All I want is a quiet class.

Pupils are trained to take these linguistic leaps which are at the same time concept leaps. With the right type of substitutions, the teacher can help the students to perceive the structure as valid and relevant to their communicative needs. Finally, students take over, make up their own sentences or chain sentences together, and may thus venture into new situations. The native language (and to some extent the teacher ) is no longer needed, and the exercise becomes monolingual. Dodson terms this stage ‘independent speaking of sentences’ and regards it as the vital semi-creative intermediate step to genuine message-orientated communication.

Dodson concentrates on a careful sequence of steps so that a growing command of words and structures gradually leads to message-oriented communication where people exchange messages and mean what they say. If the practice stopped before that point, the students would be cheated. About one third of the whole teaching-time should be allocated to genuine communicative activities. For every lesson cycle, the transition must be made from role-taking to role-making, from bilingual exercises to foreign-language-only activities, from guided use to free use, from studying the language to studying topics meaningful in their own way. This constant fluctuation between focus on linguistic form and ist use for message delivery is paramount in the method. Bilingual method techniques fit well into a modern *communicative approach.

Dodson’s seminal work dealt the death blow to the short-sighted notion of the mother tongue as nothing but a source of interference. It is, above all, a scaffold on which to build further languages. Teachers can banish the native language from the classroom, but cannot banish it from the students’ minds. It would even be counterproductive since it would mean trying to stop them thinking altogether. However, in spite of Dodson’s experiments and subsequent confirmation by other researchers (see especially Meijer 1974, a book-length study of a year-long experimental comparison of methods with Dutch pupils of French), in many countries orthodoxy still says that the mother tongue should be avoided except for occasional glosses of difficult words. The problem lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.


Wolfgang Butzkamm


(See also: audio-visual method, direct method, generative principle, medium- and message-oriented communication)


Dodson, C.J. (1967/1972) Language Teaching and the Bilingual Method, London: Pitman.

Meijer, T. (1974) De globaal-bilinguale en de visualiserende procedure voor de betekenisoverdracht. Een vergelijkend mehtodologisch onderzoek op het gebied van het aanvangsonderwijs frans, Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit.


Further Reading

Alexander, L. and Butzkamm, W. (1983) ‘Progressing from imitative to creative exercises. A presentation of the bilingual method’ British Journal of Language Teaching, 21: 27 - 33.

Butzkamm, W. (1980) Praxis und Theorie der bilingualen Methode, Heidelberg: Quelle & Meyer.

Butzkamm, W. and Dodson, C.J. (1980) ‘The Teaching of Communication: From Theory to Practice’, IRAL 4. 289-309

Caldwell, John A.W. (1990) ‘Analysis of the theoretical and experiential support for Carl Dodson’s bilingual method’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 11, 6: 459 - 479.

Dodson, C.J. (ed.) (1985) Bilingual Education: Evaluation Assessment and Methodology, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Ishii, T. et al. (1979) ‘Experiment on the acquisition and retention of sentence-meaning and the imitation performance’, Journal of the Kansai Chapter of the Japan English Language Education Society, 3: 52 - 59.

Sastri, H. N. L.(1970) ‘The Bilingual Method of Teaching English - an Experiment’, RELC Journal, 2: 24 - 28.

Walatara, D. (1973) ‘An Experiment with the Bilingual Method for Teaching English as a Complementary Language’, Journal of the National Science Council of Sri Lanka, 1: 189 - 205.