The tradition of second language learning dates back at least to the second century B.C. Roman students who studied Greek started with alphabet, then combined sounds into words, words into sentences, and sentences into discourse. The learning was based on ancient texts, which provided voluminous vocabulary items, which unfortunately was not alphabetized or grouped (Bowen, Madsen and Hilferty 1985). One may assume that vocabulary was deemed important at the time since the art of rhetoric was so highly prized by the Romans.
The medieval period brought prominence to the study of grammar, as it was customary to learn Latin. Studying vocabulary was less important than studying syntax of a language. Latin grammar would focus on rules, giving a rise to prescriptive approaches to studying language during the Age of Reason. The principles developed in the period would emphasize the purity of Latin grammatical forms, outlawing features in languages such as English that were in common use (double negative, ending a sentence with a preposition). This period also attempted to produce the first standardized dictionaries by Robert Cawdrey, Samuel Johnson.
The main method in teaching a foreign language from the beginning of the nineteenth century was Grammar-Translation. Grammar-Translation focused on developing writing and reading skills, neglecting the students’ speaking abilities. A typical lesson would introduce one or two grammar rules as well as a list of vocabulary that was to be translated from L1 to L2. Often obsolete and out of use, the vocabulary was selected to illustrate a specific grammar rule. One of the main problems with this method was that it focused on the analysis of the language instead of its use, which led to the development of a new approach. The end of the nineteenth century produced what became to be known as the Direct Method, which emphasized listening as well as oral skills, focusing on use of the second language. Since the method imitated how a native language was learned, it was believed that vocabulary would be acquired naturally through the interaction during lessons. The method had its problems, namely it required teachers to be proficient in the target language and its implementation in a public school system was too expensive.
World War II prompted American army to develop its own method, so-called “Army Method”, drawing on the research of behavioral psychology and American structural linguists. Through intensive oral drills, the method focused on pronunciation and sentence patterns, abandoning analysis of the target language. After World War II it was still continued and came to be known as Audio- Lingual Method.
The 40s to 60s developed Situational Approaches, which grouped lexical items according to what would be required in a particular situation (at the table, at a restaurant, etc.).
In the 1950s Noam Chomsky supplanted the behaviorist idea of habit formation with the idea that language is innate and as such it is governed by cognitive factors. In 1972 Hymes introduced concept of communicative competence, which emphasized sociolinguistic and pragmatic factors, which promoted appropriateness of language rather than its accuracy. This led to the development of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), which focused on the message and fluency at the expense of grammatical correctness. This modern approach to language teaching treats vocabulary as an essential part of language.