A discussion on the use of the grammar translation method in English teaching.
Grammar translation (hereafter GT) was originally associated with the teaching of Latin and – to a much lesser extent – ancient Greek. Interestingly, as Howatt (1984:131) points out, '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.
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
to develop intellectual capacities and to have a generally educational and civilizing effect
to develop, at least in the better learners, an ability to read original texts in the languages concerned
to improve the standard of learners' L1
(This last point is certainly true for English. There's a long tradition of setting Latin up as a model for English, and trying to squeeze English into the framework of Latin grammar, even among those professionally engaged in working with languages – as recently as a few years ago, one correspondent seriously suggested in a letter to The Linguist ('the official journal of the Institute of Linguists') that a thorough knowledge of Latin is an essential requisite for being able to use English properly! And in the introduction to one Latin primer I've got, the author writes that pupils who drop Latin after one or two years 'will not have wasted their time, for they will have spent many lessons in learning how their own language works.')
There have been various criticisms of the use of GT for the teaching of modern languages, and particularly English. Let's have a look at some of these objections and see if they really justify consigning GT to the dustbin of history.
- GT emphasizes the written language at the expense of the spoken. But being able to speak, and to understand the spoken language, are higher priorities than reading and writing for most learners.
Even if we strive to provide plenty of speaking practice, it's probably a good idea to include time for writing as a regular thread in lessons. Writing gives learners time to be reflective, to experiment and see the results of their attempts, to stop and consider 'Is this OK?', 'Is this really what I want to say?', 'Is there a better way of expressing this?' – and to consult dictionaries, grammar books, other learners and the teacher to help them answer their questions and doubts. Sometimes we might specify the content of writing exercises precisely, and on other occasions we can give a more open-ended instruction such as: 'Write some of the sentences that we've been practising (orally) in this lesson' or 'Write a paragraph using some vocabulary that was new for you in this lesson.'
- GT uses a graded grammatical syllabus, and assumes that learners will progress towards mastery of the language by gradually accumulating an accurate command of each item in the syllabus. But most learners, and especially adults, want/need to start using the language straight away; they haven't got time to learn it first and only then start using it.
We can adopt a two-track approach, where some activities are geared towards promoting fluency in the use of whatever English the learners have acquired, and other activities focus on particular items of grammar, providing clarification and practice. We should not expect these items to become acquired immediately and used accurately ever after; they will need to be recycled, focused on again, and used repeatedly in various contexts and in combination with other parts of the grammar.
- GT treats language as a stock of potential sentences: abstract grammatical frames with slots that can be filled by any vocabulary, in principle. But more recent views emphasize language as a set of tools and materials for constructing discourse, in which the sentence plays a subordinate role or in which – especially in spoken language – it isn't possible to identify sentences, as such. Recent views of language also highlight the importance of lexical 'chunks' of various kinds.
Nevertheless, the sentence is an important and useful unit of language. There's a lot to learn about the construction of sentences; of course it's also important to know how to combine them. And yes, learners need to build up a repertoire of lexical chunks, but note that these range from fixed expressions like 'Long time no see', which doesn't relate to any standard grammar structure, to open-ended items like 'It's/was the best/most interesting/most frightening book/film/place I've ever read/seen/been to', which looks suspiciously like a grammatical frame with lexical slots to fill! And apart from that, although fixed and semi-fixed lexical expressions will successfully see us through quite a lot of situations, there are other times when we want to express more original ideas – or express old ideas in a more original way – and then we need to be able to construct what we say from scratch, out of the basic building blocks.
- In GT, the prime importance attached to illustrating grammar can lead course-writers to include sentences which are unnatural, stilted, unlikely, remote from reality and so on. But recent decades have seen a rising expectation that language presented to learners should be 'authentic' and/or immediately usable for communicative purposes.
Let's not forget that the purpose of being in a language classroom isn't primarily to communicate; it's to learn the language. Here's a sentence for translation from one of my Russian textbooks:
The astronaut gives a model of the sputnik to the student.
Well, this probably isn't an event that happens – or has happened – very often, and it's particularly unlikely that you'd need to report it in the present tense. But that doesn't mean it's useless. If you try to translate it, perhaps get it wrong, try again, and get it right, it can actually help you to pay attention to, and understand, a couple of pretty fundamental things about Russian grammar. Apart from that, the absurdity of it can help to make it memorable. Here's another example:
The English engineer asks the captain to hand this important letter to the Commander of the Fleet.
The fact that it's so decontextualized and fraught with mystery invites you to visualize your own context, and to endow the sentence with your own personal authenticity. What's in the letter? Did the engineer write it, or did someone else give him it? Does he know what's in it? What will the consequences be when the Commander reads it? Why are we told that the engineer is English? Does it mean that the captain and the Commander aren't English? Maybe they're Russian? So what's the English engineer doing there? And so on. On the other hand, of course, it's also quite possible to illustrate the same grammar in sentences which are more obviously useful:
The architect showed a model of the new premises to the staff this morning.
The English visitor asked me to hand you this letter – he says it's important.
- In GT, language is learned by conscious memorization of grammar rules and vocabulary. But nowadays memorization isn't highly regarded; internalization through exposure, experience and use is preferred.
People have different learning styles; some people like memorizing words, phrases, sentences, patterns and rules, and find that they can draw productively on memorized material, at least in situations where they have time to stop and reflect before speaking or – especially – writing.
- In GT, language is practised by manipulating grammar and vocabulary to write correct sentences with prescribed content – often through translation. But more recent approaches attach more value to oral practice and the expression of personal meanings.
See point 1 above about the value of writing – not instead of, but as well as, speaking. And there's no reason why writing can't be personalized, even translation – for example, imagine the sentence below is in your learners' L1. Their exercise is to translate it into English, and fill the gaps with whatever's true for them:
My favourite kind of music's ..... and I'm quite keen on ..... too, but I really can't stand .....
- In GT, the teacher and the learners speak mainly in the L1. But nowadays it's widely recommended that L2 use should be maximized.
Maximized, maybe, but that doesn't mean used all the time, at whatever cost. Why bother giving instructions for a complicated activity in English that an elementary class have no hope of understanding? Or if you think the instructions won't be too far above their level, how about giving them as a kind of oral parallel text – each step first in L1, then in English? And when the class want to talk about English, they'll be able to do this in a much more sophisticated way in their L1, unless their English is really advanced.
Of course, you have to teach entirely in English if the members of your class don't speak the same language. A multilingual class can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.
- In GT the teacher explains, translates, conducts practice, and corrects mistakes, and learners interact with the teacher, not with each other. But nowadays it's widely recommended that the teacher should play a less prominent role, guiding learners to make their own discoveries, eliciting language and explanations from them, encouraging them to co-operate, help and correct each other, and generally fostering learner independence.
These two contrasting teacher modes are actually two ends of a spectrum, and one of the most important skills of a teacher is to be able to act anywhere along that spectrum, depending on what's appropriate – being as prominent as necessary, but not more so.
- In GT, translation is a basic technique. But nowadays it's widely believed that translation as a mental process interferes with learning – it's better to think in English – and that translation as an overt activity is only relevant for specialists who wish to work as translators or interpreters.
For one thing, translation isn't only a job done by specialists. Imagine A and B on holiday, or on business, in a country where A knows the language but B doesn't. B is quite likely to ask for translations from A: 'Ask them if we can have breakfast a bit earlier tomorrow', 'What does that sign on the door say?', 'How do you say 'I'm a vegetarian'?' etc.
More fundamentally, a lot of learners translate mentally as an inherent part of the process of language learning, making comparisons and contrasts between the language they're learning and their L1. They know intuitively that their L1 is one of the most vital resources they've got, and not merely an impediment. So why not help them to do it more efficiently, more correctly, more insightfully, and to notice what's similar and what's different in the two languages?
For a lot of people, thinking in English is a distant prospect, rather than something that can be expected from the start. One learner, in a taped dialogue journal (quoted by Ho 2003) says: 'My high school teacher often said that we should learn to think in English. I just don't understand how. Would you please teach us how to think in English?' How would you answer this request?
- GT insists on accuracy from the start. But observation of language learning suggests that accuracy actually comes last – if ever!
Still, accuracy might come faster if teachers try to nudge learners towards it, without expecting them to be consistently accurate. If you're learning English in an English-speaking country, you might always ask the time by saying – 'What time it is?'.
People will understand you, answer you and probably not correct you, and you might never notice that they say 'What time is it?' But in a classroom, if a teacher corrects you sometimes – not by saying 'Why can't you remember this? I've told you so many times!', but simply by pointing out that there's something not quite right – you will notice the difference between the target form and what you said, and you'll be more likely to move towards the target form.
I once observed a lesson where one learner repeatedly said 'Let's go to swimming/skiing/cycling' etc. and was repeatedly corrected to no apparent effect until he eventually said 'Let's go to swimming ..... no, let's go swimming without 'to'!'
So although there's certainly some substance in all these objections, I don't think there's any reason to condemn GT utterly.
On a personal note, I learned two foreign languages at school through a methodology that was basically GT, and always got high marks, and passed exams, and read literature in those languages, and so on. When I first went to countries where the languages are spoken, I found that:
- it was hard to understand what people were saying.
- it was hard to marshal my knowledge and to formulate what I wanted to say at a reasonable speed.
- there were lots of essential everyday words and expressions that I simply didn't know.
But I soon began to be able to tune in to what I heard, and at the same time draw on my school knowledge, and to speak more and more fluently and accurately. So my conclusion would be that what I learned at school didn't score very highly as regards having immediate 'surrender value', but it was a great long-term investment. It would have been ideal if it had been supplemented – not replaced – by other things, like listening practice, more speaking, everyday situational language, etc.
GT is a 'pre-theoretical' approach, in that it developed before the age of theory-formation in the linguistics, psychology and pedagogy which have informed later approaches such as audio-lingualism, the communicative approach, suggestopedia and so on. But this is no reason to discredit it. After all, there's more to language teaching than applying theory. One of the pioneers of modern English language teaching (Palmer 1922) looks forward to a time when scientific progress will have led us the most effective way of teaching. Well, it hasn't happened yet, and there's not much sign of it happening. Suggestopedia, community language learning and total physical response are all based on principles that can make at least some claim to be scientific, but they could hardly be more different from each other.
People have been learning foreign languages, more or less successfully, ever since the Tower of Babel, using all sorts of methods and techniques, with and without teachers, books and so on. Perhaps it's useful to think in terms of methods to the extent that some of them will be better suited than others to particular learning styles, or particular cultural and educational traditions, but at the same time it's vital to remember that there are much more fundamental factors that determine success in language learning. What are they? Well, here's my shopping list. I think you need:
- data (samples of the language, plus - maybe - information about the language)
- opportunities to experiment with the data
- feedback – to confirm that you're heading in the right direction, or to re-direct you if you aren't
GT can fulfil these requirements to different extents for different people. The best thing, as always, is to shop around. Or, if you prefer, don't put all your eggs in one basket.
I also think that people who start off being taught through any well-defined method tend to (need to, in fact) outgrow that method, to rely more on their own resources and, in fact, to develop their own private methodology. If you look at ten or twenty people in a GT class, or any other kind of class, you might get the impression that they're all doing more or less the same thing. But if you could look inside their heads you'd probably find all sorts of very different things going on. And in particular, whatever the apparent methodology of the class, I bet you'd always find a large number of learners trying to understand the grammar, and translating to themselves.
Ho Y. (2003) 'Audiotaped dialogue journals: an alternative form of speaking practice' in ELT Journal 57/3
Howatt A.P.R. (1984) A History of English Language Teaching (OUP)
Palmer H.E. (1922) The Principles of Language-Study (OUP)