The Grammar Translation Method

Orrieux, C. (1989: 79) History of Ancient Civilizations 

 “Latin and Ancient Greek are known as “dead languages”, based on the fact that people no longer speak them for the purpose of interactive communication.  Yet they are still acknowledged as important languages to learn (especially Latin) for the purpose of gaining access to classical literature, and up until fairly recently, for the kinds of grammar training that led to the “mental dexterity” considered so important in any higher education study stream.”    

Morris, S. (1996: 12) Techniques in Latin Teaching 

 “Latin has been studied for centuries, with the prime objectives of learning how to read classical Latin texts, understanding the fundamentals of grammar and translation, and gaining insights into some important foreign influences Latin has had on the development of other European languages.  The method used to teach it overwhelmingly bore those objectives in mind, and came to be known as the Classical Method.  It is now more commonly known in Foreign Language Teaching circles as the Grammar Translation Method.” 

The Grammar Translation Method

Howatt  in  his book,  The Empirical Evidence for the Influence of L1  in  Interlanguage (1984: 98) points out The Classical Method (Grammar translation Method) was originally associated with the teaching of Latin and – to a much lesser extent – ancient Greek.            

The aim of teaching Latin and Greek was (and is) obviously not so that learners would be able to speak them. The aims were/are rather to develop : 

          Logical thinking 

          Intellectual capacities to attain a generally educational and  civilizing effect 

          An ability to read original texts in the languages concerned , at least in the better learners.           

Interestingly, Howatt (1984: 131) also states:  “Grammar and Translation are actually not the distinctive features of GT, since they were already well-accepted as basic principles of language teaching. What was new was the use of invented, graded sentences rather than authentic literary texts in order to make language learning easier.”  

Key features 

According to Prator and Celce-Murcia in Teaching English as a Second Foreign Language (1979:3), the key features of the Grammar Translation Method are as follows:  

1)  Classes are taught in the mother tongue, with little active use of the target language.  

2)  Much vocabulary is taught in the form of lists of isolated words. 

3)  Long elaborate explanations of the intricacies of grammar are given.  

4)  Grammar provides the rules for putting words together, and instruction often focuses on the form and inflection of words.  

5)  Reading of difficult classical texts is begun early. 

6)  Little attention is paid to the content of texts, which are treated as exercises in grammatical analysis.  

7)  Often the only drills are exercises in translating disconnected sentences from the target language into the mother tongue.  

8)  Little or no attention is given to pronunciation.             

Typical Techniques 

Diane Larsen-Freeman, in her book Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (1986:13) provides expanded descriptions of some common/typical techniques closely associated with the Grammar Translation Method. 

The listing here is in summary form only.  

1)  Translation of a Literary Passage                                         

(Translating target language to native language) 

2)  Reading Comprehension Questions                                         

(Finding information in a passage, making inferences and relating to personal experience)  

3)  Antonyms/Synonyms                                                         

(Finding antonyms and synonyms for words or sets of words).  

4) Cognates                                                                           

(Learning spelling/sound patterns that correspond between L1 and the target language)  

5)  Deductive Application of Rule                                     

(Understanding grammar rules and their exceptions, then applying them to new examples)  

6)  Fill-in-the-blanks                                                                    

(Filling in gaps in sentences with new words or items of a particular grammar type).  

7)  Memorization                                                                   

(Memorizing vocabulary lists, grammatical rules and grammatical paradigms)  

8)  Use Words in Sentences                                                          

(Students create sentences to illustrate they know the meaning and use of new words)  

9)  Composition                                                                          

(Students write about a topic using the target language)    

Disadvantages  

  • The Grammar Translation Method may make the language learning experience uninspiring and boring.
  • The Grammar Translation Method may also left the students with a sense of frustration when they travel to countries where the studied language is used  (they can’t understand what people say and have to struggle mightily to express themselves at the most basic level)

  • This method neither approaches nor encourages the students’ communicative competence.

 Reasons why it still used 

The Grammar Translation Method is still common in many countries – even popular.  Brown in his book Incremental Speech Language (1994) attempts to explain why the method is still employed by stating: 

“This method requires few specialized skills on the part of teachers.”  

“Grammar rules and Translation Tests are easy to construct and can be objectively scored.” 

“Many standardized tests of foreign languages still do not attempt to test communicative abilities, so students have little motivation to go beyond grammar analogies, translations and other written  exercises.”   

Conclusions             

The Grammar Translation Method was developed for the study of “dead” languages and to facilitate access to those languages’ classical literature.  That’s the way it should stay.  English is certainly not a dead or dying language, so any teacher that takes “an approach for dead language study” into an English language classroom should perhaps think about taking up Math or Science instead.  Rules, universals and memorized principles apply to those disciplines – pedagogy and communicative principles do not.  

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