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The Grammar-Translation Method


The grammar-translation method was the dominant foreign language teaching method in Europe from the 1840s to the 1940s, and a version of it continues to be widely used in some parts of the world, even today.

The status of Latin changed during this period from a living language that learners needed to be able to read, write in, and speak, to a dead language which was studied as an intellectual exercise. Thus it was still acknowledged as an important language to learn 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 skills considered so important in any higher education study stream. The analysis of the grammar and rhetoric of Classical Latin became the model language teaching between the 17th and 19th centuries.

Emphasis was on learning grammar rules and vocabulary by rote, translations, and practice in writing sample sentences. The sentences that were translated or written by the students were examples of grammatical points and usually had little relationship to the real world. 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 Though some people tried to challenge this type of language education, it was difficult to overcome the attitude that Classical Latin (and to a lesser extent Greek) was the most ideal language and the way it was taught was the model for the way language should be taught. When modern languages were taught as part of the curriculum, beginning in the 18th century, they were generally taught using the same method as Latin. It is now more commonly known in Foreign Language Teaching circles as the Grammar Translation Method.

It is hard to decide which is more surprising - the fact that this method has survived right up until today (alongside a host of more modern and more "enlightened" methods), or the fact that what was essentially a method developed for the study of "dead" languages involving little or no spoken communication or listening comprehension is still used for the study of languages that are very much alive and require competence not only in terms of reading, writing and structure, but also speaking, listening and interactive communication. How has such an archaic method, "remembered with distaste by thousands of school learners" (Richards and Rodgers, 1986:4) persevered?


It is worth looking at the objectives, features and typical techniques commonly associated with the Grammar Translation Method, in order to both understand how it works and why it has shown such tenacity as an acceptable (even recommended or respected) language teaching philosophy in many countries and institutions around the world.



According to most teachers who employ the Grammar Translation Method to teach English the most fundamental reason for learning the language is give learners access to English literature, develop their minds "mentally" through foreign language learning, and to build in them the kinds of grammar, vocabulary and translation skills necessary to pass any one of a variety of standardized written tests usually required for attending a higher educational institution.

Some teachers who use the method might also claim that it is a very effective way to prepare students for "global communication". Others may even say it is the "less stressful" for students than any other method, because almost all the teaching occurs in students’ native language and they are rarely called upon to speak the language in any communicative fashion.

More conservative teachers from more conservative countries would probably say "because that's the way it's always been done - it's the way I learned and look, now I'm a professor". The point being, the method is institutionalized and considered fundamental. Such teachers are probably even unaware that the method has a name and can be compared alongside other methods.

Therefore, among the goals are to teach translation, to read and understand literary texts in the target language, to make students aware of their native language structure and vocabulary, and to improve students’ mental capacities with grammar exercises.

Key Features


According to Prator and Celce-Murcia (1979:3), the key features of the Grammar Translation Method are as follows:

· Learning Theory: Deductive learning is essential. First, the teacher gives rules explicitly then the rules are reinforced with examples and exercises.

· Language Theory: Language is for understanding the literature. Translation is the way to learn the language. Oral communication is not primarily important. Written language is superior to spoken language. Students also learn the structure of their own native language. Those who study a foreign language become more cultured and intellectual.

· Syllabus: Structural syllabus (i.e., list of structures to be taught during the course) is used. The order of structures starts from the easiest

· Teachers' Role: Teacher is the strict authority. Classes are teacher centred.

· Students' Role:Students are the passive receivers of the new information. The teacher starts the activities and directs them. Students are supposed to memorise the rules and the new vocabulary with their meanings in their native language.

· Interactions:Very often “Teacher –Student” interactions occur. Rarely “Student – Student” interactions also occur.

· Vocabulary Teaching: The most common vocabulary teaching technique is “the memorization of long lists of vocabulary with their equivalents in the students’ native language. Much vocabulary is taught in the form of lists of isolated words. Other techniques are
- Teaching “cognates” (i.e., “cinema –sinema”, “theatre – tiyatro” ..., etc).
- Using synonyms and antonyms

· Grammar Teaching: The teaching of grammar is deductive. The teacher introduces the rules explicitly and wants the students to apply these rules to new examples in exercises. Students are supposed to memorise the rules. Grammar provides the rules for putting words together, and instruction often focuses on the form and inflection of words. In order to explain the rules, the teacher uses comparison and contract between the students’ native language grammar and target language grammar. Long elaborate explanations of the intricacies of grammar are given.

Translation is a common way to clarify the meanings of the new grammar patterns in the target language.

· Culture:Culture is limited to literature and fine arts.

· Pronunciation Teaching: Little or no attention is given to pronunciation.

· Teaching Materials: Texts from the target language literature are used. The teacher may either write the text or use an authentic literary text. Reading of difficult classical texts is begun early. Little attention is paid to the content of texts, which are treated as exercises in grammatical analysis.

· Role of L1: L1 (i.e., students’ native language) has an important function in teaching vocabulary and grammar. Since oral communication in the target language is not important, classroom instructions are given in the mother tongue, with little active use of the target language.

· Evaluation: Translation is an important technique to test students’ progress in the target language. In addition, “fill-in-the-blank” type test items are also used. Synonyms, antonyms, and cognates can be asked to test vocabulary in formal tests. Reading passages and comprehension questions about the passages can also take place in tests as the reading section.

· Error Correction: The teacher corrects the errors strictly. Errors are not tolerated. Accuracy is emphasised strictly. Accuracy means grammatical correctness.

· Student's Feelings: There is no information about how GTM deals with students’ feelings. V Therefore, we cannot consider this method as a humanistic approach.


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.

· Translation of a Literary Passage

(Translating target language to native language, Often, the only drills are exercises in translating disconnected sentences from the target language into the mother tongue. Students translate a passage from the target language into their native language. The passage provides the focus for several classes: vocabulary and grammatical structures in the passage are studied in the following lessons.)

· Reading Comprehension Questions

(Students answer questions in the target language based on their understanding of the reading passage, finding information in it,, making inferences and relating to personal experience. First, they answer information questions whose answers they can find in the passage. Second, they answer inference questions based on their comprehension of the passage although the answer cannot be found in the passage directly in the passage. Third, they answer questions that require students to relate the passage to their own experience.)

· Antonyms/Synonyms

(Finding antonyms and synonyms for words or sets of words. Students are given one set of words and are asked to find antonyms in the reading passage. A similar exercise could be done by asking students to find synonyms for a particular set of words ).

· Cognates

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

· Deductive Application of Rule

(Understanding grammar rules and their exceptions, then applying them to new examples. Grammar rules are presented with examples. Exceptions to each rule are also noted. Once students understand a rule, they are asked to apply it to some different examples.)

· Fill-in-the-blanks

(Filling in gaps in sentences with new words or items of a particular grammar type. Students are given a series of sentences with words missing. They fill in the blanks with new vocabulary items or necessary items of grammatical feature.)

· Memorization

(Memorizing vocabulary lists, grammatical rules and grammatical paradigms)

· Use Words in Sentences

(Students create sentences to illustrate they know the meaning and use of new words. In order to show that students understand the meaning and use of a new vocabulary item, they make up sentences in which they use the new words.)


· Composition

(Students write about a topic using the target language. The teacher gives the students a topic to write about in the target language. The topic is based upon some aspect of the reading passage of the lesson. Sometimes, instead of creating a composition, students are asked to prepare a précis (pronounced as /preısı/).



Many people who have undertaken foreign language learning at high schools or universities even in the past 10 years or so may remember many of the teaching techniques listed above for the Grammar Translation Method. They may also recall that the language learning experience was uninspiring, rather boring, or even left them with a sense of frustration when they traveled to countries where the language was used only to find they couldn't understand what people were saying and struggled mightily to express themselves at the most basic level.

Very few modern language teaching experts would be quick to say that this is an effective language teaching method, and fewer would dare to try and assert that it results in any kind of communicative competence. As Richards and Rodgers (1986:5) state, "It is a method for which there is no theory. There is no literature that offers a rationale or justification for it that attempts to relate it to issues in linguistics, psychology, or educational theory." And yet the Grammar Translation Method is still common in many countries - even popular. Brown attempts to explain why the method is still employed by pointing out

"It requires few specialized skills on the part of teachers. Tests of grammar rules and of translations are easy to construct and can be objectively scored. Many standardized tests of foreign languages still do not attempt to tap into communicative abilities, so students have little motivation to go beyond grammar analogies, translations, and rote exercises." (1994:53)

However, even as early as the mid-19th, theorists were beginning to question the principles behind the grammar-translation method. Changes were beginning to take place. There was a greater demand for ability to speak foreign languages, and various reformers began reconsidering the nature of language and of learning. Among these reformers were two Frenchmen, C. Marcel and F. Gouin, and an Englishman, T. Pendergast. Through their separate observations, they concluded that the way that children learned language was relevant to how adults should learn language. Marcel emphasized the importance of understanding meaning in language learning. Pendergast proposed the first structural syllabus. He proposed arranging grammatical structures so that the easiest were taught first. Gouin believed that children learned language through using language for a sequence of related actions. He emphasized presenting each item in context and using gestures to supplement verbal meaning. Though the ideas of these and other reformers had some influence for a time, they did not become widespread or last long. They were outside of the established educational circles, and the networks of conferences and journals which exist today did not exist then to spread their ideas.

Date: 2016-01-03; view: 2678

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