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 it was felt that translation itself was an academic exercise rather than one which would help learners use language. 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 worldwide 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. Still, foreign language study is seen as a mental discipline, the goal of which may be to read literature in its original form or to be a form of intellectual development. The primary approach is to analyse and study the grammatical rules of the language, usually in an order roughly matching the traditional order of the grammar of Latin. Then, practise manipulating grammatical structures through translation into and from the mother tongue.

The method is based on the written word, and texts are widely available. A typical approach would be to present the rules of a particular grammar item, illustrate its use by including the item several times in a text, and practise using the item by 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 had remarkable success over the years. 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).

Certain types of learners respond very positively to a grammatical syllabus as it can give them both a set of clear objectives and a 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 approach can give learners an essential foundation to build their communicative skills.

Applied wholesale can also be boring for many learners. 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. However, using the more enlightened principles of the Communicative Approach and combining these with the systematic approach of Grammar Translation may be the perfect combination for many learners. On the one hand, they have motivating communicative activities that help to promote their fluency; on the other, they gradually acquire a sound and objective basis in the language's grammar. This combined approach is reflected in many of the published EFL course books 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 has nothing more than a selection of communicative phrases that are perfectly adequate for essential communication but will be found wanting when the learner is required to perform any sophisticated linguistic task.