In Praise of Grammar-Translation

The teaching of foreign languages has come on leaps and bounds in the period following World War II. Advances in applied linguistics, psychology, education and technology have all combined to make the late twentieth century one of the most exciting times for foreign language teaching (FLT). English teaching and the field of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) benefited most from these new approaches to teaching. The Grammar-Translation Method was the predominant method for a long period of time. It focused on the use of translation as a route into the foreign language as well as the memorisation of grammatical rules.

The Direct Method was developed in opposition to Grammar-Translation. No translation was used here and neither was the mother tongue. Other methods included the Silent Method, the Audio-Lingual Method and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) which has gained ground in recent years and is perhaps one of the most popular approaches nowadays. It was itself a response to the Audio-Lingual Method. In the communicative approach the focus is interaction and the use of authentic texts. This approach led to Task-based Language Learning which has also become extremely popular. In this approach grammar and linguistic elements are not the focus, but rather the task that needs to be realised in the language interaction situation.

With the foundation and strengthening of applied linguistics as a genuine academic discipline and the growth of TEFL as a truly marketable business (including the publication of foreign language learning textbooks), Grammar-Translation became marginalised and forgotten by many. Some of the key terms in FLT now include communication, task realisation and learner autonomy. No place for grammar or translation. Many of the criticisms directed at Grammar-Translation were genuine; there was too great a focus on authenticity (rather than fluency) and the mother tongue (rather than the target language).

However, as with all trends, CLT has perhaps swung too far. Many believe that regimented language learning which is often not highlighted in CLT (but is present in Grammar-Translation) is particularly useful for beginners. Learner autonomy is valuable in language learning but guidance and periodicity is equally important, also present in Grammar-Translation. The early twenty-first century has seen some call for a more hybrid (mix-and-match) approach to foreign language learning where the best ‘bits’ of various approaches are utilised.

Another point is the teaching of translation proper. Is is possible to use a purely communicative approach in translation training? Task-based Language Learning certainly can be used to teach translation but can we use it exclusively? Many teachers are lauding these new hybrid approaches which combine Task-based Language Learning with short ‘doses’ of Grammar-Translation which not only present authentic foreign language texts to students and trainees but also highlight the differences between languages and cultures. Thankfully, the old Grammar-Translation Method has left us. Perhaps it is time for a new one.

Out with the old, in with the new…?


12 thoughts on “In Praise of Grammar-Translation

  1. Any method has its own area of applicability. The tendencies come and go, there are comebacks and breakthroughs, being sort of intellectual fashion of a period. A language is more that a method. Using a method exclusively leaves certain tasks out of scope. The communication method develops what is most needed for simultaneous translation which runs rather on intuition. But the grammar method is basic for those who work with printed matter, so why deny this or that?
    During WW2 the Russians prepared German-speaking personnel from scratch. The method was CLT + AUL, meaning they would take a group of students, and prohibit them speaking Russian. The students were to learn an amount of German phrases by heart daily. The outcome was, in 6-8 months the students became fluent speakers. The only remaining task of the intelligence was to match individual pronunciation with certain territorial ones, and to develop a legend for each spy based on this match. The task of those spies was to infiltrate the German army and collect target information from conversation. However, those guys were not used to translate German documents.
    I mean the best approach should include the development of the target language intuition including the understanding of the ethnic and cultural details, and an introduction of the grammatical studies. What worked for me was some investigation into the idiomatic and situational usage that i did on my own as my teachers were either quite conservative or too progressive. That situational / idiomatic research has opened a lot in terms of both sides, grammar and communication.

  2. First of all, teaching method should be adjusted to the abilities and skills of the learner. What seems to be the perfect choice in case of one person not necessarily has to produce a desired result in case of another person. Trends and fashions in the choice of teaching methods should be taken into account, but they should never become decisive factors as the learner’s personality and tastes is what really matters. Perhaps, a combination of several teaching methods and open-mindedness would be successful.

  3. As years of experiments have proven us, there is no perfect method. The process of learning a language, since it is very complex, requires developing many different skills. Depending on our personal strenghts and weakness as learners, some of the methods will surely make learning a little bit easier and more effective, but it does not change the fact that every learner has to work very hard before they acquire fluency. In my personal opinion one should not be taught translation unless they become advanced or even fluent in a foreign language. Translation is about totally different things so I guess that kind of approach would just make a big mess in the learners’ heads.

  4. The recurring question of which method is the best poses a serious challenge to ESL teachers. Involving different approaches into the teaching process is surely the best option (or at least it sounds like one), but I doubt if it is really possible for it to be consistently realized.
    I find it much more reasonable to believe that there are different methods for teaching, yet there is basically one method for learning – memorisation.

  5. I would turn Rebus’s comment sideways.

    There are many ways of learning. Teachers have only two main jobs: 1. to facilitate students’ finding their own way that works,
    2. not getting in the way when learning is happening.

    For languages, I know how to go about it, and following a teacher’s agenda (when it diverges from my tried and true ways) is extra effort for no real gain.

  6. I have recently compared a number of English coursebooks, prepared for lower secondary schools, in addition to choose the best one for my students. I was very surprised to find out that one of very popular publishing houses offers almost all the exercises in favour of Grammar-Translation method. Although the material was changing throughout the book, the tasks reminded similar. The rules of Grammar-Translation method were followed. On the other hand, the older coursebooks were based on many teaching methods. I was wondering how is it possible nowadays to publish a coursebook on the basis of one teaching method. I think that students in lower secondary school should be taught in such a way not to bore them. They need to be actively engaged in a lesson. Otherwise, it will be hard to teach them anything. Therefore, the coursebook with similar exercises from the beginning to the end I will make the real process of teaching impossible.

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