Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Grammar-Translation Method

“It has been said that the Grammar-Translation Method teaches students about the target language, but not how to use it” (Larsen-Freeman, 2008).

The Grammar-translation Method was popular in the 18th century towards the first half of the 20th century as the main method for teaching classical languages such as Roman and Latin and later for teaching other foreign languages. However, many techniques of this method are still widely practiced around the world until our day. The main aim of this method is to enable students to translate literary texts from the target language into their mother tongue and vice versa. For this reason, learners are taught the grammar explicitly and given lists of bilingual vocabulary items to memorize. The teacher focuses mainly on teaching reading and writing skills and gives little emphasis on listening and speaking. The language of instruction is the students’ native language as communication in the target language isn’t the goal of this method.

The teacher is the authority and source of all information in class; meanwhile, students are being told what to do and have little to contribute. The most dominant tasks are reading and translating texts word for word into the students’ first language followed by answering comprehension questions. The most prominent interaction pattern is teacher-students. Neither pair nor group work is encouraged. Students often work individually on controlled practice activities such as gap-fills, matching, sentence completion, and translation. As accuracy is given great importance, errors are perceived negatively; the teacher makes sure that the learners’ answers are accurate and correct all the time.

Why is the Grammar-Translation Method still popular today?

Since the advent of the communicative approach in the 1970s, several published textbooks attempted to place more emphasis on listening, speaking, and pronunciation. Communication in the target language is the aim of many English-learning coursebooks which include communicative exercises that advocated pair and group work. Nevertheless, many teachers still practice the Grammar-Translation Method even the coursebook they are using encourages communicative language teaching and learning. 

I have observed many colleagues teach different levels where they translated reading, listening, grammar, and vocabulary exercises word for word. Their main concern was that if students didn’t understand every word, they would not be able to learn English. Similarly, many students, especially adults taught previously in this way, feel insecure if they don’t get every word translated. I observed many of those students study mainly English grammar and vocabulary for years but not being able to communicate well. They are usually weak on using the target language in real-life language use. What a pity!

Understanding how the language works doesn’t guarantee successful use of it out of class. I believe that students must use the language to learn it. Learning how to communicate in English is like any skill that you need to practice over and over to master it. You don’t need to know how the car functions to be able to drive. All you need to know is how to drive and that happens by practice.

When can teachers use the Grammar-Translation Method?

The grammar-Translation Method could be used when the target language is spoken out of class, where learners have the chance to practice it in the target community. I don’t mind learning and being taught Turkish this way as long as I live in Turkey where I need Turkish everywhere for shopping, banking, transportation, and so on. Another reason for using this method is teaching for an upcoming exam. The students’ level is below the contents and grammar of the syllabus and they are going to be assessed soon. The teacher has no time but to help students prepare for the exam by explaining the grammar explicitly and translating the important exercises that might be similar to the ones on the exam. The third reason for using this method is when students desire to learn Latin or Roman!

How not to use the Grammar-Translation Method?

Read more about the other language teaching approaches and apply the techniques that best suit your students. Avoid using the students’ L1 as much as you can and negotiate the importance of using the target language more in class. Encourage pair and group work more; reduce your teacher talking time in favor for more student talking time. Aim for accuracy and fluency and tolerate students’ errors unless they cause communication breakdowns. Facilitate more free production activities which resemble real-life language use and support peer-correction. Give your students some of your authority by asking them to provide the correct answers on the white board and involving them in preparing certain activities. Let them decide what homework tasks to do and to what extent you should correct them when they participate.  

My experience with the Grammar-Translation Method

I took German classes at university for three semesters and scored 98, 100, and 99 on three exams, which indicated the fact that I worked hard to obtain those scores; yet I don’t remember being able to communicate or even perform basic tasks in the target language. The main reason was the method the teacher used in class. He translated every word in the syllabus. Little emphasis was given to speaking and listening exercises and very little or no emphasis on pronunciation. For those gloomy reasons, I make sure to place more emphasis on communication skills in my general English courses. On the other hand, in English for Specific or Academic Purposes courses, emphasis is placed on students’ needs and demands.

I am not against using the students’ mother tongue in teaching English. We can’t ignore the advantages of sharing one language with our students. There are times when translating a word, chunk, or grammar point could save time for more practice later in the class. However, overusing the mother tongue deprives students of maximum exposure to the target language and doesn’t motivate them to use it themselves.

For those who are still not convinced that the Grammar-translation Method is outdated, inefficient method, consider the following quotation:

The Grammar-Translation Method is still widely practiced, it has no advocates. It is a method for which there is no theory. There is no literature that offers a rationale or justification for it or that attempts to relate it to issues in linguistics, psychology, or educational theory” (Richards & Rodgers, 1999).

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2008). Techniques and principles in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J., C. & Rodgers, T., S. (1999).  Approaches and methods in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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