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In applied linguistics, the grammar translation method is a foreign language education method derived from the classical (sometimes called traditional) method of teaching Greek and Latin. The method requires students to translate whole texts word for word and memorize numerous grammatical rules and exceptions as well as enormous vocabulary lists. The goal of this method is to be able to read and translate literary masterpieces and classics.
History and philosophy
Throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, the education system was formed primarily around aconcept called faculty psychology. In brief, this theory dictated that the body and mind were separate and the mind consisted of three parts: the will, emotion, and intellect. It was believed that the intellect could be sharpened enough to eventually control the will and emotions. The way to do this was through learning classical literature of the Greeks and Romans, as well as mathematics. Additionally, an adult with such an education was considered mentally prepared for the world and its challenges. In the 19th century, modern languages and literature began to appear in schools. It was believed that teaching modern languages was not useful for the development of mental discipline and thus they were left out of the curriculum. As a result, textbooks were essentially copied for the modern language classroom. In the United States of America, the basic foundations of this method were used in most high school and college foreign language classrooms and were eventually replaced by the audio-lingual method among others.
Classes were conducted in the native language. A chapter in a distinctive textbook of this method would begin with a massive bilingual vocabulary list. Grammar points would come directly from the texts and be presented contextually in the textbook, to be explained elaborately by the instructor. Grammar thus provided the rules for assembling words into sentences. Tedious translation and grammar drills would be used to exercise and strengthen the knowledge without much attention to content. Sentences would be deconstructed and translated. Eventually, entire texts would be translated from the target language into the native language and tests would often ask students to replicate classical texts in the target language. Very little attention was placed on pronunciation or any communicative aspects of the language. The skill exercised was reading, and then only in the context of translation.
The method by definition has a very limited scope of objectives. Because speaking or any kind of spontaneous creative output was missing from the curriculum, students would often fail at speaking or even letter writing in the target language. A noteworthy quote describing the effect of this method comes from Bahlsen, who was a student of Plötz, a major proponent of this method in the 19th century. In commenting about writing letters or speaking he said he would be overcome with "a veritable forest of paragraphs, and an impenetrable thicket of grammatical rules." Later, theorists such as Vietor, Passy, Berlitz, and Jespersen began to talk about what a new kind of foreign language instruction needed, shedding light on what the grammar translation was missing. They supported teaching the language, not about the language, and teaching in the target language, emphasizing speech as well as text. Through grammar translation, students lacked an active role in the classroom, often correcting their own work and strictly following the textbook.
The Grammar Translation Method
A number of methods and techniques have evolved for the teaching of English and also other foreign languages in the recent past, yet this method is still in use in many part of India. It maintains the mother tongue of the learner as the reference particularly in the process of learning the second/foreign languages. The main principles on which the Grammar Translation Method is based are the following:
- Translation interprets the words and phrases of the foreign languages in the best possible manner.
- The phraseology and the idiom of the target language can best be assimilated in the process of interpretation.
- The structures of the foreign languages are best learned when compared and contrast with those of mother tongue.
In this method, while teaching the text book the teacher translates every word and phrase from English into the learners mother tongue. Further, students are required to translate sentences from their mother tongue into English. These exercises in translation are based on various items covering the grammar of the target language. The method emphasizes the study of grammar through deduction that is through the study of the rules of grammar. A contrastive study of the target language with the mother tongue gives an insight into the structure not only of the foreign language but also of the mother tongue.
The grammar translation method has two main advantages.
- The phraseology of the target language is quickly explained. Translation is the easiest way of explaining meanings or words and phrases from one language into another. Any other method of explaining vocabulary items in the second language is found time consuming. A lot of time is wasted if the meanings of lexical items are explained through definitions and illustrations in the second language. Further, learners acquire some sort of accuracy in understanding synonyms in the source language and the target language.
- Teacher’s labor is saved. Since the textbooks are taught through the medium of the mother tongue, the teacher may ask comprehension questions on the text taught in the mother tongue. Pupils will not have much difficulty in responding to questions in the mother tongue. So, the teacher can easily assess whether the students have learned what he has taught them. Communication between the teacher and the learner does not cause linguistic problems. Even teachers who are not fluent in English can teach English through this method. That is perhaps the reason why this method has been practiced so widely and has survived so long.
Along with its advantages, the grammar translation method comes with many disadvantages.
- It is an unnatural method. The natural order of learning a language is listening, speaking, reading and writing. That is the way a child learns his mother tongue in natural surroundings; but, in the Grammar Translation Method the teaching of the second language starts with the teaching of reading. Thus, the learning process is reversed. This poses problems.
- Speech is neglected. The Grammar Translation Method lays emphasis on reading and writing. It neglects speech. Thus, the students who are taught English through this method fail to express themselves adequately in spoken English. Even at the undergraduate stage they feel shy of communicating using English. It has been observed that in a class, which is taught English through this method, learners listen to the mother tongue more than that to the second/foreign language. Since language learning involves habit formation such students fail to acquire a habit of speaking English. Therefore, they have to pay a heavy price for being taught through this method.
- Exact translation is not possible. Translation is, indeed, a difficult task and exact translation from one language to another is not always possible. A language is the result of various customs, traditions, and modes of behavior of a speech community and these traditions differ from community to community. There are several lexical items in one language, which have no synonyms/equivalents in another language. For example, the meaning of the English word ‘table’ does not fit in such expressions as 'table of contents’, ‘table of figures’, ‘multiplication table’, ‘time table’ and ‘table the resolution’, etc. English prepositions are also difficult to translate. Consider sentences such as ‘We see with our eyes’, ‘Bombay is far from Delhi’, ‘He died of cholera’, 'He succeeded through hard work’. In these sentences ‘with’, ‘from’, ‘of’, and ‘through’ can be translated into the Hindi preposition ‘se’ and vice versa. Each language has its own structure, idiom and usage, which do not have their exact counterparts in another language. Thus, translation should be considered an index of one’s proficiency in a language.
- It does not give pattern practice. A person can learn a language only when he internalizes its patterns to the extent that they form his habit. But the Grammar Translation Method does not provide any such practice to the learner of a language. It rather attempts to teach language through rules and not by use. Researchers in linguistics have proved that to speak any language, whether native or foreign, entirely by rule is quite impossible. Language learning means acquiring certain skills, which can be learned through practice and not by just memorizing rules. The persons who have learned a foreign or second language through this method find it difficult to give up the habit of first thinking in their mother tongue and then translating their ideas into the second language. They, therefore, fail to get proficiency in the second language approximating that in the first language. The method, therefore, suffers from certain weaknesses for which there is no remedy.
The grammar translation method stayed in schools until the 1960s, when a complete foreign language pedagogy evaluation was taking place. In the meantime, teachers experimented with approaches like the direct method in post-war and Depression era classrooms, but without much structure to follow. The trusty grammar translation method set the pace for many classrooms for many decades.
- Bahlsen, Leopold (1905). The Teaching of Modern Languages, 12, Boston: Ginn & Co..
- Chastain, Kenneth. The Development of Modern Language Skills: Theory to Practice. Philadelphia: Center for Curriculum Development,1971.
- Rippa, S. Alexander 1971. Education in a Free Society, 2nd. Edition. New York: David McKay Company, 1971.
- Rivers, Wilga M. Teaching Foreign Language Skills, 2nd Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Language teaching methods
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