As people began noticing the roundness of the earth and how that made it conducive to trade, foreign languages emerged in schools as fluffy extras (author's side note: electives, specials, the name may have changed but the mentality toward languages has not). During the 18th Century students learned "modern" languages using the Latin model - grammar translation and reading. This eventually became known as the Grammar-Translation Method.
Hello 19th Century - the boom of the Industrial Revolution. As everyone was trying to find a better way to make a widget, methodology about teaching languages joined them. Latin began to fall by the wayside as modern languages such as German and French gained traction. In 1883, the MLA (Modern Language Association) was created to provide "...opportunities for its members to share their scholarly findings and teaching experiences with colleagues and to discuss trends in the academy ("About the MLA"). This began making serious research out of learning languages. Psychology was also coming into being as a science, so all those 19th century intellectuals paved the way to what is now known as the "Direct Method", no translation, no L1, always a dialogue (Berlitz, anyone?)
As we moved into the roaring 20th Century, languages became part of educating more than just the members of the highest social classes; languages were now for those college-bound students. Some psychologists made headlines and we got the Audio-Lingual Method (sequenced skills, drills, manipulation of language but devoid of meaning). You all know it: I have a blue shirt. I have a red shirt. No, I have a yellow shirt but Pablo has a green shirt. The sixties were all love and peace, so language approaches reflected that. Enter community/counseling learning, the Silent Way, Suggestopedia. I'm not making this stuff up. Oh, and Russian became important because of, well, you know, Sputnik and that Cold War.
Asher ushered in Total Physical Response (which looks similar to Suggestopedia but better). Reducing the importance of grammar as a stand-alone in languages came about after this. Practical uses of the language dominated and research started influencing methods and approaches. A focus on proficiency began in the 1970s. Yes, that's right. Those crazy hippies wanted us to be proficient. New approaches emerged such communicative language teaching and functional-notional syllabi, and for all of you Krashen fans, there is the Natural Approach.
So where does that leave us, 15 years into the 21st Century? (Did I really say 15? Oh. My. Goodness.) Words like "Global Readiness" and "21st Century Skills" pave the way to approaches that are proficiency-oriented for meaningful and relevant instruction. Students no longer want to learn to decline nouns but rather do something with their language skills. We have national standards, P21, and the coolest technology to access languages in ways our grandparents couldn't.
We methods instructors often use the term "eclectic" to describe today's methods and approaches; mixing the good parts of historical approaches and bringing them up to date. No one approach works as the end-all and be-all of teaching, and no one method does the job effectively by itself. Although current SLA (second language acquisition) research has changed the way we approach teaching and learning, the goal here is to look at each one in terms of "how can I use or tweak this to add to my toolbox?" and "when is an appropriate time to use this method?" What is YOUR Eclectic approach?
Jill Kerper Mora has done a fantastic job at describing each of the more popular methods on her website here: http://moramodules.com/ALMMethods.htm
A briefer version can be found from Frankfurt International School: http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/support/method.htm
"About the MLA." About the MLA. Web. 29 Jan. 2015. <http://www.mla.org/about>.
"Second and Foreign Language Teaching Methods." Second-language Teaching Methods. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.
"Teaching Approaches: Total Physical Response." Onestopenglish. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.