Grammar Translation Method

I’ve read several times that, in the “post-methods era”, a new direction in ELT is “principled eclecticism”. In order to be a principled eclectic, however, some understanding of various approaches and methods, and their principles, seems necessary. Also for those who are not that far in their ELT career, for example those who are currently on teacher training courses, some insight into various approaches and methods in ELT over the decades is useful, if not a requirement.  Thus I’ve decided to start a series of blog entries looking at various approaches and methods in detail. The aim is to provide a basic guide or overview of the backgrounds and main principles of various approaches and methods, without passing judgment.

I’m going to start with the Grammar Translation method, as many books and courses on this topic do.

If you feel that anything is unclear, or that I’ve missed any key points, please add your comments below!

Grammar Translation Method

History

–          In the 17th – 19th centuries and emerging belief was that language learning could/should be modeled on the study of classical Latin literature, and include an analysis of grammar and rhetoric.

–          The method advocates the rote learning of grammar, the study of declensions/conjugations, learning by translating, writing example sentences, and highlighting parallels in bilingual texts.

–          Studying Latin was said to develop intellect and was an end in itself, as it required ‘mental gymnastics’

–         In the 18th century, people began learning ‘modern’ languages  in schools. Contrary to what we know today, speaking was not the main goal and there was little relation between the language learnt and the  lang of ‘real’ communication.

–        In the  19th century, the standard way of learning languages was through grammar. Textbooks by Seidenstücker or Plötz, for example, aimed to codify languages into frozen rules of morphology and syntax to be explained and memorized. The immediate aim was the application of these rules in exercises invented for this purpose, which often mechanical translation.

–          This ‘method’ (and offspring of German scholarship) became  known as the Grammar Translation Method, and dominated language teaching from the 1840s to 1940s.

–          Some of the commonly known ‘excesses’ of the methods were introduced due to the desire to prove that learning modern foreign langauges was as intellectual as studying classics.

–          Despite being shunned by so many theorists and teachers, the method is still used today, especially where teachers wish to  focus in on reading skills for literature, though there seem to be very few strong advocates of the method nowadays.

Principles

–          The main goal is being able to erad literature in the foreign language, and this skill is trained through the analysis of grammar  and the translation of (mainly literary texts.

–          No systematic attention is paid to speaking / listening

–          The vocabulary taught is selected based on what occurs in the reading texts

–          Practice is highly controlled and is based on sentences – because translating an entire text would be too difficult for most learners.

–          Emphasis is placed on accuracy of the translations / sentences produced in the foreign language.

–          Grammar is taught deductively

–         Learners’ L1 is often the medium of instruction.

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8 thoughts on “Grammar Translation Method

  1. Interesting that I came across your post about the grammar translation method. I just did a research paper for one of my undergrad courses, in which I investigated this particular method. There is a lot that I like about this method, but of course the fact that it does not address one of the more important aspects of language, the speaking part, has definitely been one of the reasons to discredit this approach.

    Anyway, just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading more about the grammar translation. After my BA in linguistics, I am pursuing my MA in TESOL, so I am definitely following your blog! I am sure you have a wealth of knowledge to share 🙂

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    1. Thank you for your comments! In general I’m thinking of MA TESOL and similar students are the ‘target audience’ for the blog! So please do recommend it to your co-students! And let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d find help to see here! Clare

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  2. I’d add this largely to wanderlustrick’s remark above: this method does not only fails to address one aspect of language – it fails to address most. If you think about it, no speaking means that listening is also neglected, there is no communication or interaction, and strangely, no thinking or creativity either. Translation is to its own end. But teaching grammar has survived it, and is largely responsible for a lot of misunderstanding in schools and courses.

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  3. ZJShen-PSimon – Thank you for your comment. I agree, in it’s pure form this method is no longer in line with our aims as teachers to improve learners’ communicative competences. As one way of many of pointing out typical interference errors, though, a diluted form might be useful, don’t you think?

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  4. No, Claire, I don’t think so. I’m convinced that translation as a whole has no place in language teaching except for a few cases of vocabulary doubts, no diluted form can find that sufficient. As to grammar, it is a necessity, but even diluted forms find all fault in production in insufficient grammar coverage. thus taking precious lot of time and attention away from communication, that is, interaction and task solving and all stuff that students even with insufficient grammar at most stages can solve.

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    1. Perhaps it all depends on the language-learning goals of the students, and of course on whether you have a monolingual group of learners. I find spending a few minutes on translation a good way to highlight and fix (and prevent) interference errors, or other mistakes stemming from trying to avoid interference but not knowing how to express something a learner has in mind in their L1. Of course I agree with you that interaction and communication is the most important thing in a language classroom, I just think that translation is also a helpful tool in some cases! I’m not advocating the use of the grammar-translation method, but smaller translation tasks focusing on specific language points that repeatedly pop up as troubling for learners. I’m not sure where / who you teach, but I’d be happy to share some of my materials for Germans learning English, if it’s of interest, to demonstrate what I mean 🙂

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      1. Hi, Claire, I agree, I can accept this kind of limited use. In some cases. That’s why there’s a teacher in class, to sniff it out where the basic problems lie and what needs to be addressed, through translation as well if necessary.

        Thanks, I haven’t been allowed to teach for four years because, as the Dutch say, “how can you teach English if you are not fluent in Dutch?” Just like I did in China, and like the English native speakers do in Middle- and Eastern Europe and in Asia, which shows how important translation actually is … When we talk and learn our respective languages, we use translation occasionally, just to speed things up.

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