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Teaching approaches: the grammar-translation method

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article discussing the grammar-translation approach to language learning.

At the height of the Communicative Approach to language learning in the 1980s and early 1990s it became fashionable in some quarters to deride so-called "old-fashioned" methods and, in particular, something broadly labelled "Grammar Translation". There were numerous reasons for this but principally it was felt that translation itself was an academic exercise rather than one which would actually help learners to use language, and an overt focus on grammar was to learn about the target language rather than to learn it.

As with many other methods and approaches, Grammar Translation tended to be referred to in the past tense as if it no longer existed and had died out to be replaced world-wide by the fun and motivation of the communicative classroom. If we examine the principal features of Grammar Translation, however, we will see that not only has it not disappeared but that many of its characteristics have been central to language teaching throughout the ages and are still valid today.

The Grammar Translation method embraces a wide range of approaches but, broadly speaking, foreign language study is seen as a mental discipline, the goal of which may be to read literature in its original form or simply to be a form of intellectual development. The basic approach is to analyze and study the grammatical rules of the language, usually in an order roughly matching the traditional order of the grammar of Latin, and then to practise manipulating grammatical structures through the means of translation both into and from the mother tongue.

The method is very much based on the written word and texts are widely in evidence. A typical approach would be to present the rules of a particular item of grammar, illustrate its use by including the item several times in a text, and practise using the item through writing sentences and translating it into the mother tongue. The text is often accompanied by a vocabulary list consisting of new lexical items used in the text together with the mother tongue translation. Accurate use of language items is central to this approach.

Generally speaking, the medium of instruction is the mother tongue, which is used to explain conceptual problems and to discuss the use of a particular grammatical structure. It all sounds rather dull but it can be argued that the Grammar Translation method has over the years had a remarkable success. Millions of people have successfully learnt foreign languages to a high degree of proficiency and, in numerous cases, without any contact whatsoever with native speakers of the language (as was the case in the former Soviet Union, for example).

There are certain types of learner who respond very positively to a grammatical syllabus as it can give them both a set of clear objectives and a clear sense of achievement. Other learners need the security of the mother tongue and the opportunity to relate grammatical structures to mother tongue equivalents. Above all, this type of approach can give learners a basic foundation upon which they can then build their communicative skills.

Applied wholesale of course, it can also be boring for many learners and a quick look at foreign language course books from the 1950s and 1960s, for example, will soon reveal the non-communicative nature of the language used. Using the more enlightened principles of the Communicative Approach, however, and combining these with the systematic approach of Grammar Translation, may well be the perfect combination for many learners. On the one hand they have motivating communicative activities that help to promote their fluency and, on the other, they gradually acquire a sound and accurate basis in the grammar of the language. This combined approach is reflected in many of the EFL course books currently being published and, amongst other things, suggests that the Grammar Translation method, far from being dead, is very much alive and kicking as we enter the 21st century.

Without a sound knowledge of the grammatical basis of the language it can be argued that the learner is in possession of nothing more than a selection of communicative phrases which are perfectly adequate for basic communication but which will be found wanting when the learner is required to perform any kind of sophisticated linguistic task. 

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Readers' comments (15)

  • The grammar-translation method had a great influence around Turkey up until 2000s. There was Mr. Brown and Mrs. Brown and these two characters are back to Ottoman empire history. They have a tradition on language teaching for over 100 years. They have been main characters on middle school textbooks up until 90s. Later on some multimedia like cassettes and cds took the place. I can not forget "Sue" on Hotline intermediate English books. That was fantastic years. Thank you for the great resources in your site.

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  • Hello futurist,

    Thank you very much for your comment. We are pleased this article brought back some good memories for you and are so happy you enjoy our site!

    Best wishes and happy teaching,

    The onestopenglish team

  • Yes, very much indeed. I was studying English in the 80s at secondary school in the USSR and then at the teacher-training university in the 90s in Russia. Those times I had never been to any English-speaking country nor met any native-speakers, but I dare say that I had and still have a good command of the language.

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  • Translation is very important for lower level learners A1 to A2. However, I remind them that we can never translate word for word from one language to another, especially where we have "faux amis" and other expressions. I always tell them that they should translate in good and correct French, after understanding the general idea of a text or sentence.
    At the beginning of my teaching practice, I didn't pay much attention to translation. I discovered that as we went along, the learner hasn't actually understood one part but hasn't signalled this. Later, the learner could read the text but in fact he/she has become completely lost in what effectively has simply become a maze of words.
    However, a combination of translation and communicatiive approach is best.

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  • The comment by 110940 on an eclectic approach is apt and to the point. The advantage of the GT approach is simply that it constitutes a component of a complete eclectic approach. For example, a GT method is necessarily complemented by a variety of communicative activities. In fact, I would argue that in GT the teaching of a particular grammar point is necessarily followed by communicative exercises exploiting the newly learned grammatical point.

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  • The comment by Allg characterising the GT method as a matter of 'direct translation' needs to be discussed. Though DT is a danger of the GT method, it can easily be avoided by supporting the use of the method by encouraging frequent communicative exercises encouraging frequent use of what has been taught. In the case of lexical choices, the domain of 'faux amis' deserves particular attention.

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  • I'm now a retired U prof having been active in carrying out comparative research on the GT and communicative methods between 1970 and 2005. There has been an enormous amount of similar research carried out by many other applied linguists.

    The findings of such research have largely been in favour of the GT approach.

    In my case, I was particularly concerned with the largely unsupported advocacy of Mike Long of the communicative approach and published numerous articles in this vain and in doing so became something of a persona non-grata - an unfortunate syndrome of the dangers of critiquing the current 'flavour' of the period

    I would be very happy to discuss the issues involved with anyone inclined to do likewise.

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  • Hi there,
    This article was published on 30th July 2006.
    Thanks to everyone for your comments.
    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglish team

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  • Citation Request: Can someone please supply me with the date when this article was published?

    Many thanks.

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  • The use of direct translation word for word has been causing problems to many of my students here in Italy. They become so taken by translating while speaking that they actually spend a minute trying to translate a word that is completely un-necessary for comprehension. All my new students have no idea what paraphrasing is and how helpful it can be, especially as most of my students want to be able to communicate for both travel and work. The importance of language learning for them is communicating and getting their point across and translating word for word doesn't seem to be the way to go.

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  • I learned French this way having taken my degree in the 70's but had the very fortunate exposure of living the language at the same time by sharing my life with a French teacher. More communicative than this I cannot imagine. I believe a proper balance of the two perhaps weighted towards the communicative could profit a certain profile of student.

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