The Grammar Translation Method
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In the 19th century, the grammar translation method grew out of the classical method that was used to teach the dead languages of Latin and Ancient Greek. As these languages were already dead, no communication was actually needed in these languages. Rather, the purpose of learning a language was to read texts and to translate between languages.
The method also became known as the Prussian method due to its adherence by German scholars. However, grammar translation dominated language teaching at least in Europe from the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, this hasn’t actually gone anyway with many schools and universities still adopting this method.
The Aim of Grammar Translation
As already stated, the main purpose of grammar translation was not to communicate but to read and translate texts in another language. Further, learning ancient Greek or Latin in this way was seen as a way to develop intelligence and mental discipline. These languages are in fact still studied at many a private school in the UK where they are revered as intellectual languages.
Features of Grammar Translation
As its name suggests, grammar translation places a large emphasis on grammar and translation. A typical lesson involves the presentation of some grammar rule followed by the application of that rule by translating in and out of the target language. Grammar is therefore taught deductively, i.e. a rule is presented and then practised. To some extent grammar is sequenced so that “easier” grammar tends to come before “harder” grammar.
Reading and writing are the key skills being used in grammar translation, with speaking and listening being almost completely neglected. Even the opportunity to listen to the teacher speak the target language is reduced since instructions and explanation is given in L1. It’s likely that the majority of listening is limited to students reading the text out loud or their translated sentences, neither of which seem like particularly desirable models.
The focus of translation is typically at a sentence level, especially in schools where it is considered that translating whole texts would be too challenging. The accuracy of translation is however seen as very important.
In terms of vocabulary development, new vocabulary would be selected from the texts being used. Students are encouraged to use bilingual dictionaries and given bilingual lists of words to memorise.
Criticisms of Grammar Translation
It is not difficult to criticise a method which according to Richards and Rodgers (2014, p. 5) has no advocates since it is not based on any theory.
The most obvious criticism is perhaps the lack of any development of speaking and listening, which is likely to be much more desirable nowadays for many students than reading and writing. Indeed, when it comes to the classroom, speaking tends to be top of students’ agenda since they can read and write till their hearts are content at home.
While the lack of speaking might be the most obvious criticism, there is also the focus on grammatical rules and translation which leads more towards linguistic competence than communicative competence. In other words, students have a lot of knowledge about language, but they can’t use it to achieve communication. Unfortunately (and rather strangely) it is not unusual that students trained in this methodology believe that their problem remains a lack of grammar knowledge.
The translation focus can also be criticised since this is not a real communicative activity. It is impossible to agree with this completely. Many conversations do take place in which one of the interlocutors translates something. However, in the sense that translation is done in grammar translation, this is a fair point. Translating single sentences for no real reason is not in any way communicative.
Further the sentences that appear in translation tasks are often not natural, having been written purely to test students translation abilities. As an example the following are from Grammaire Anglaise A L’Usage Des Franciase by Paul Fuchs (1882):
- Has this tree a great many leaves?
- How many hours has a day?
- Is this wine that you buy as dear as the one that your uncle buys.
Given that this book was written in 1871, it’s actually difficult to criticise all of the sentences contained within as unnatural since what people actually said was most likely very different from today. Nevertheless the three examples above stand out as either being pointless questions or an over-convoluted sentence.
While grammar translation was the dominant method for teaching English until the 1940s, dissatisfaction with grammar translation saw new methods being introduced from the mid-19th century.
When considering historic approaches and methods, it is helpful to think about why people learnt languages at that time. While grammar translation might seem horrendously useless today, at the time it did go some way towards its purpose.
Grammar translation focused on learning a written language through learning grammar rules, memorising vocabulary lists and translating sentences.