For centuries, the grammar-translation method was It.
It was the go-to way to teach a language to anyone.
These days, students and educators alike often describe it as “inefficient,” “incompetent” and “tedious.”
Doesn’t sound very motivating for a learner, does it?
Mainly known for its rote memorization, drills and narrow focus on reading, its reputation has taken quite a dive over the years.
So how exactly has this trusted language teaching staple fallen so far from grace?
And even more importantly, despite its clear limitations, why should it still definitely have a place in your open-minded, modern language classroom?
The truth may surprise you.
The fact is, the grammar-translation method still offers great advantages to learners that will help them a lot in the long run.
In this post, we’re going to show that using this classic method in a conscientious way can be hugely beneficial.
Let’s find out how.
The Grammar-translation Method: An Underdog Story
Five hundred years ago, Latin was widely used in religion, government and trade. However, in the 16th century, French, Italian and English became dominant in spoken and written communication.
As Latin transitioned from being a language heard on the streets into a language subject, studying it took on a different reasoning. Whereas before, it was learned for purposes of communication, studying Latin became an intellectual pursuit instead. Investing time in it developed mental prowess, it was believed. And knowing Latin, quoting Virgil or Cicero, was proof of great learnedness.
The grammar-translation method became the system used to teach dead languages like Latin (and Greek) for an academic and intellectual function. Because nobody spoke it in daily affairs, proper pronunciation, diction, etc. were not the marching orders of the day. You wouldn’t be using it to buy apples at the market, in any case. Only what was written by those who used it previously mattered. So the method was focused on developing students’ reading and writing abilities. Language learning mattered little outside the walls of academia.
Over time, though, people were beginning to see the utility of learning different languages—not just dead ones, but those existing and actively used on Main Street. This was a more practical type of language learning. Rather than studying language for its own sake, one could use it for a variety of reasons—in conducting business, in travels, even in romance.
So when this more practical type of language learning began to be tackled in schools, guess which methodology they borrowed to develop curriculums.
Right. The grammar-translation method, also called the classical method.
And everybody is familiar with its bread-and-butter: the lovable language textbook.
I’m certain that sometime in your past, as a student yourself, you held a language textbook, opened it and saw a chapter-by-chapter elucidation of the different grammatical rules of the target language. (What do the plural forms of nouns look like? How does one conjugate such and such verb?) You saw several examples to illustrate a particular grammatical point and some exceptions to be wary of. Sound familiar?
Grammar is at the forefront of this language learning method. Grammatical analysis, morphology and syntax are closely studied and students are drilled over and over. Classes are, of course, conducted in the students’ native tongue.
Another go-to material of the grammar-translation method is the notorious vocabulary word list. We all know what it looks like: one column of words is written in the target language and the second column is in English, with a “=” between them.
Students would be taught vocabulary, often rote, because they would need vocabulary going into the “translation” part of the method. In this step, students are asked to translate words, phrases and paragraphs from the target language to their native language and vice versa.
Over the decades, the inherent weaknesses of the grammar-translation method began to make themselves obvious. Since it was initially conceived to prioritize reading and writing skills, the spoken and communicative aspects of language skills were often left untouched. Students became good at memorizing rules and translating text, but their skills were often found wanting when actually tasked to engage in even the most rudimentary conversation with a native speaker.
So different methods were devised in order to hone speaking, listening and communication skills.
Instead of being taught about the language, students were encouraged to actually use it in various contexts and tasks. Grammar began to sometimes take a back seat to comprehension. Instead of being taught explicitly, it’s now often learned inductively through repeated exposure to the target language.
But in the haste to correct the shortcomings of grammar-translation, many swung too far to the other side, leaving the old way wholesale, even its wonderful virtues. And so we have a throwing the baby out with the bathwater situation.
In this post, I’ll talk about three important reasons why the grammar-translation method should still have a place in your language classroom, and how you can give it that place.
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3 Compelling Reasons Why the Grammar-translation Method Still Deserves a Place in Your Classroom
1. It’s a good starter kit for language learning
For all its admitted limitations, the grammar-translation method is still a good way to start the journey of any language learner.
Because of its central casting of the learning of vocabulary.
It would really be very difficult for students to make serious headway with any language, using any technique/method, if they did not first, at the very least, have a basic vocabulary on which to build.
Granted, the presentation of vocabulary can do with some major overhauls from the olden days: Instead of a dry word list, vocabulary can be presented with pictures of the actual objects in full color. FluentU lets your students start learning words with video and multimedia flashcards from the very beginning of their language journey. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
There is something to be said about occasionally learning vocabulary rote, though. This method is often criticized as lacking experiential and contextual depth. While I personally do share this sentiment, I also make a little room for the practice of simply memorizing vocabulary, especially the first sets of words learned by language learners.
As kids, we were never given a piece of paper to memorize, true. We had to figure out meaning through context. And that’s why it took us a while to know the difference between words like “water” and “drink.”
But your students don’t have to start like this. They can be given an advantage by memorizing a few starter vocabulary words, just to get the ball rolling.
This way, when you throw out a sentence like “The man is fat,” they won’t be so clueless that you have to explain every single word in that statement, missing out on a lot of other, more important teaching opportunities in the meantime.
Here’s a good way to go: Before every chapter or lesson, provide a vocabulary handout. A piece of paper with six measly words on it will do. Ten should be the max. Make the list interesting. Add some colors or pictures to go with the words. You can even just draw funny stick figures to illustrate meaning—for “sad,” you could draw the classic face with the upside-down smile.
This initial vocabulary, while learned rote, will pave the way for other methods, like the natural and audio lingual methods, to effectively make their own contributions to the learning process. Your students can later greatly expand their vocabulary from those few words they memorized initially.
And you can cement that rote learning and go on to make it more memorable by bringing in the necessary context and tasks that are so important to their long-term learning.
2. It takes out the guessing game
The good thing about grammar rules is that they can be applied to a whole array of contexts and situations. Sure, there are exceptions, but the rules allow you to see the bigger picture.
The grammar-translation method, because of its focus on the rules, takes much of the trial-and-error out of learning. Instead of needing to be divined from numerous and varied contexts, the regulations are placed on a silver platter, where they await application.
They stare your students in the face and let them know if an error has been committed, allowing them to immediately self-correct. Knowing the rules provides a certain rationale for your students of why this word form and not the other one is used. Without the rules, they’d be in an endless loop or wild goose chase trying to figure out why a Spanish verb is conjugated this way and not that way.
With English plurals, for example, there is a rule that says, “If a word ends with Y, change the Y to I and add ES.” So for the word “competency,” its plural form would be “competencies.”
That’s it! Isn’t that quick and painless?
Let your students know that if they know the rules, they can trust that they’ll end up with a grammatically sound statement. And you can lock in that learning with activities from creative lesson plans and save everyone huge amounts of time.
Just like with vocab memorization, though, the presentation of grammar rules could do with a whole lot of revision. So one thing you can do, for example, is to give your students a “cheat sheet” for grammar rules (one cheat sheet per grammar topic). Textbooks are not only heavy, they are psychologically heavy. They look formal and daunting. A single sheet is much more approachable.
Let the size be as small as half of a 3×5 index card. This should force you to weed out rules that are rarely observed even by native speakers. Don’t cram students’ brains with the minutiae that only rarely come up in the language. Let these cheat sheets be about the “greatest hits,” the most common rules that do the most good for your students.
3. It supports that all-important reading skill
The slide of the grammar-translation method has to a certain extent had a negative effect on the view educators and students hold of reading and writing in the target language. Speaking and conversation skills have more often received the attention they deserve, but sometimes this has been to the detriment of engaging with a language’s written form.
To be able to converse in a language is definitely important, no question about that. But the ability to read and comprehend its written form is just as imperative—especially in today’s world. Having that ability just makes everything easier. Imagine a tourist pushing to no avail a door that clearly says, “Pull.” But written language isn’t just for tourists who need to look at road signs or scan a menu, it’s for every language learner.
Much of the useful information on the World Wide Web is in written form. And it’s often not in English. Today’s technology offers so much information and knowledge, but much of that information and knowledge is in other languages.
I’m not just talking about foreign language websites, either. There are rich social media discussions that your students can participate in if they can engage meaningfully with native speakers. One cannot understand and appreciate, much less participate, in those affairs if not decently versed in a language’s written form.
So while speaking and conversing are vital, there is also a need to be fluent in the written form—especially when we’re talking about living languages, unlike Latin. There are native speakers who are writing in modern languages every day.
To give your students the benefit of studying the written language through the grammar-translation method in a modern classroom exercise, ask them to translate online material in the target language.
This can be a newspaper article, a movie synopsis, a traditional recipe, even a sliver of the comments section of a popular blog.
An exercise like this will help drive home the point that, hey, reading is just as important! That there is a way of looking at things, a way of seeing the world that can only be fully appreciated when you don’t just speak the language but are also able to digest literature in the language.
Those three reasons should encourage you not to give up wholesale on the grammar-translation method.
As a complete method, it’s for sure far from perfect, but it absolutely does have virtues that a language teacher can and should exploit to the hilt.
I wish you luck and productivity in your language class today!
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