Grammar Translation Method

Abstract 

This paper starts with a brief historical background and general concept of Grammar Translation Method followed by various sub-headings like theory of learning, syllabus, objectives, teacher and learner roles, procedures and so on. At the same time, it also analyzes the relevance of this method at present highlighting on ‘critique in relation to teaching EFL in Nepal’.

Context

As an ELT student, I studied various ELT methods out of which GT method was one of them. During my participation in ELT workshops and conferences in the recent past, I heard linguists vehemently criticizing GT method as a failure in ELT that changed my concept regarding this classical ELT method. Even I read severe criticisms on this method in some books. Nevertheless I found this method applicable to some extent while practically implying it in to my real classroom teaching situations. Thus I present brief overview of this method to an analysis of it in terms of its relevance of teaching EFL/ESL in Nepal in the literature that follows.

Background (Historical)

Language teaching has a long history although it has just emerged into its own as a profession only in the 20th Century. A glance back in history reveals existence of few research-based language teaching methods prior to 20th Century. ‘Foreign’ or second language learning in schools in those days was synonymous to the learning of Latin or Greek languages. During 16th Century, ‘Latin’ as a promoter of intellectuality through ‘mental gymnastics’ became an indispensable subject matter of learning and teaching in higher education. ‘Latin’ was taught in grammar schools in those days through rote learning of grammar rules, rhetoric memorization of vocabulary and of declensions and conjugations, translation of texts, doing written exercises like writing sample sentences, parallel texts and dialogues. Latin language teaching was mainly based on classical method.

With the emergence of classical method as the pioneering method to learn and teach Latin, other more languages began to be taught in educational institutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the similar trend of teaching Latin as the textbook consisted of statements of abstract grammar rules, lists of vocabulary and sentences for translation. Later in late 19th Century, this classical method to teach classical Latin and Greek language (Chastain, 1988 as cited in Freeman 2008, p11 ) came to be known as Grammar Translation Method (GT). Since then, GT remained as a pioneering standard methodology for foreign language teaching. It was known as Prussian method in the United States (Kelly, 1969 as cited in Richards and Rogers 2009, p5). This method dominated European and Foreign language teaching from 1840s to the 1940s. The principal characteristics of GT method according to Prator and Celce-Murcia (1979, p3 as cited in Brown, H.D. 2000, p16) can be enumerated as below;

  1. Classes are taught in the mother tongue, with little active use of the target language.
  2. Much vocabulary is taught in the form of list of isolated words.
  3. Long elaborate explanation is taught in the form of lists of isolated words.
  4. Grammar provides the rules for putting words together, and instruction often focuses on the form and inflection of words.
  5. Reading of classical texts is begun early.
  6. Little attention is paid to the content of texts, which are treated as exercises in grammatical analysis.
  7. Often the only drills are drills in translating disconnected sentences from the target language into the mother tongue.
  8. Little or no attention is given to pronunciation. (p 3)

Approach: Theory of language and learning

GT method can be reviewed and described in terms of the levels of approach, design and procedures although Richard and Rogers (1986, p5) substantially argue that GT is a method with no theory. Anthony according to Anthony refers to theories about the nature of language and language learning that function as the source of practices and principles in language teaching.

Theory of language

The approach or method in language teaching has its theoretical views of language and the nature of language proficiency. Theory of language has to do with an account of basic unit of language structure and the nature of language proficiency. Language teaching method has three different theoretical views of language and the nature of language proficiency. They are; (i) structural view (ii) functional view, and (iii) interactional view. GT method embodies structural view as it sees language in terms of its structure, phonological units, grammatical units (e.g. Clauses, phrases, sentences), grammatical operations (e.g. Adding, shifting, joining, or transforming elements) and lexical items (e.g. Function word). Theoretically language for GT method is all about translation, learning vocabulary lists and grammatical rules.

Theory of language learning

Theory of language learning has to do with an account of the psycholinguistic and cognitive process involved in language learning and with the conditions that allow for successful use of these processes. Since GT method concentrates on translation of literary text from native language to target and vice-versa focuses on grammar rules and vocabulary lists, it follows deductive as a theory of language learning. The learner according to GT method uses his/her cognitive faculty to memorize grammatical rules and vocabulary lists for translation and reading comprehension. Learning grammar rules and vocabulary through memorization is central to language learning according to theory of language learning in GT method. Language is primarily for reading and writing than listening and speaking according to theory of language and learning of GT method.

Syllabus

Syllabus involves content choice and organization which falls under objectives of the method as well. Selection and organization of linguistic or subject-matter content determine what kind of syllabus a particular method incorporates. GT method is primarily based on translation based syllabus where translation through deduction application rules, reading comprehension and memorization is done successfully. The syllabus thus can be called as structural-based syllabus. GT method syllabus prioritizes reading and writing over listening and speaking necessary for developing communicative skills. This method known as one of the traditional methods of language learning has been in the past to teach “dead languages” like Greek and Latin that focused more on reading and interpreting and little on communicating and listening skills. The syllabus of GT method emphasizes highly on the specific rules of English grammar, rote memorization of difficult vocabulary lists and directly translating words and phrases from the learners native language into English and vice-versa. According to the syllabus of GT method, the written literary language is more significant than spoken English. Reading, writing and accuracy in grammar play important role than fluency achieved through interactive communication. Diane Larsen Freeman in her book ‘Teaching and Principles in Language Teaching’ (2000, p19-21) provides expanded descriptions of some common techniques closely associated with syllabus of GT method which can be summarized as below;

  1. Translation of a literary passage (translating target language to native language).
  2. Reading comprehension questions (finding information in a passage, making inferences and relating to personal experience).
  3. Antonyms/synonyms (finding words and synonyms for words or sets of words).
  4. Cognates (learning spelling/sound patterns that correspond for words or sets of words).
  5. Deductive application rule (understanding grammar rules and their exceptions, then applying them to new examples).
  6. Fill-in-the-blanks (filling in gaps in sentences with new words or items of a particular grammar type).
  7. Memorization (memorizing vocabulary lists, grammatical rules and grammatical paradigms).
  8. Use words in sentences (students create sentences to illustrate they know the meaning and use of new words).
  9. Composition (students write about a topic using the target language).

Objectives

Unlike other many language teaching methods, GT method has its own objectives that is the main focus of a method to achieve. Generally the specific learning objective is a product of a method. GT method does not emphasize on oral skills but concentrates on reading and writing skills. This method has a product-oriented objective according to which the learners (students) are supposed to develop translation skills. The primary objective or goal of this method is to make students able to read classical literature or literary texts for intellectual development. The purpose of this method is to develop students’ reading, writing and translation skills through rote learning of vocabulary lists and grammar rules. The fundamental reason for learning language according to this method is to give learners access to English literature, develop their mind ‘mentally’ through foreign language learning and to build in them the kind of reading, grammar vocabulary and translation skills required to pass mandatory written test exams at high school or tertiary levels.

Teacher and learner roles

GT method as a traditional method highly emphasizes the role of teacher. The teacher is considered as the primary source of knowledge, composer of knowledge and meaning. The teacher is responsible for determining the content of what to teach. The teacher remains as the authority in the class where the teacher provides deductive rules of grammar and vocabulary lists for the students to memorize so that it will be helpful for them in reading, writing and translating literary texts from native to target language and vice-versa. The teacher simply asks and instructs students to state the grammar rule. The primary goal of teacher who uses this method is to make students able to read literature in target language. The teacher also plays a role of initiator of interaction in the language classroom. The role of teacher also seems like a facilitator and guide as they check students and present them from making mistakes.

The role of a learner is that of a consumer of knowledge who does whatever his/her teacher instructs him/her to do. However, the seemingly passive learner has to memorize vocabulary lists, grammar rules required for reading, writing and translation skills actively. The learner has to learn about the form of target language. There is very little initiation of interaction from learner’s part. The role of the learner is similar to a translation of language as he/she is supposed to have translated literary text from target language to his/her native language and sometimes vice-versa. Nevertheless, GT method merely teaches students about the target language and native language translation but does not reasonably talk about the ways of using it. Since the learner does not concentrate on listening and speaking the role of learner simply becomes as mere participant, reader, writer, rote-learner and translator.

The teacher simply instructs students by initiating a task for the students to do reading, writing, and translation by rote memorization of vocabulary lists and deductive grammar rules. The role of teaching learning instructional materials according to this method is to provide literary texts and encourage students to do translation activity. The texts also incorporate vocabulary lists and grammar rules for the students to memorize necessary for developing reading, writing and translation skills rather than listening and speaking.

Procedure

Procedure refers to classroom techniques, practices and behaviors that operate in language teaching. The tactics and strategies used by teachers and learners in GT method is typical. The teacher instructs students to read literary texts and after they have finished reading that they are asked it to translate into their native language (i.e., Nepali). Then the teacher asks questions to the students in their native language if they have any questions. Similarly the students (learners) do as per the teacher’s instruction. The learners memorize grammar rules and vocabulary lists provided by the teacher and develop their reading, writing and translation skills. The teacher gives reading passage in the target language and suggests students to learn about new words, their synonyms and antonyms, their sound patterns. The teacher supplies correct answer if the students make errors or do not know an answer. The students are instructed to translate from one language to another. They memorize native-language equivalents for target language vocabulary words.

My Experience

Even though GT method was considered as a traditional method that merely emphasized on vocabulary, grammar and translation, I was taught more or less using this method by my teacher during my high school. My English teacher used to give us literary texts to translate from Nepali into English and vice-versa. He used to provide us lists of vocabulary like single word, synonym, antonym, grammar rules to memorize and develop vocabulary and grammar. When I worked as a teacher also, I applied this method in one or the other. I did not theoretically focus much on translation activity for my student but I practically applied this method while teaching English. I provided some grammatical rules, vocabulary words and phrases for the students to learn through memorization. Though the teachers of language teaching have been using other new methods, these days this traditional time-honored, standard method is still relevant and put into practice in some educational institutions.

Critique in relation to teaching EFL in Nepal

Since language teaching has come a long way these days, the relevance of GT as a standard method to teach EFL in Nepal has considerably disappeared. Gone are the days when method like GT used to be the most popular in ELT in Nepal. Though GT method has its benefits with its glorious past, it has become obsolete these days since classical language and classical literary texts are no more subject matter to teach to the students. GT method has become an unnatural method that merely focuses on reading and writing thereby ignoring listening and speaking totally speech for interactive communication.

Retrospecting on the past scenario of language teaching in Nepal, GT method had a significant influence for long. But with the emergence of other like from direct, AL, TPR, silent, natural to communicative (CLT), task-based (TBL) and content-based language teaching, GT method started losing its long influence in language teaching in Nepal as it merely focused on limited scope objectives. The non-native of English country like Nepal benefitted a lot for some years from this method. Since this method failed to encourage the students’ communicative competence, this led a sense of frustration in students as they could not develop their communicative skills in target language as expected. GT method merely confined to translation activity and did not concentrate on communicative-based, content and task-based language teaching and learning. Nevertheless, GT method’s emphasis on grammar rules and vocabulary might be reasonably helpful providing basic foundation upon which they can build their communicative skills. GT method can be useful to some extent in teaching literary texts in literature course in Nepal.

Conclusion

GT method was a rigorous pioneering method that dominated Europe and foreign language teaching during 19th Century, but was questioned later in mid 19th Century due to expansion in commerce that demanded interactive communication among people which GT method neglected. Due to the emergence of so many methods, this method disappeared. However it still prevails in some college level where students study literary texts as their primary focus of foreign language study. In this post-method era or the era of the death of methods, eclectic approach should be taken into account for foreign or second language teaching.

References

Larsen-Freeman, Diane.2008. Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (2nd ed.). New Delhi: Oxford University Press

Richards and Rogers. (2009). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd ed.). New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, H.S. (2000). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (4th ed.). New York: Pearson Education

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