When it comes to teaching languages, the grammar-translation method has become the child nobody loves or wants to acknowledge. But is it really hell on toast? No, it ain’t. There, I said it. Leave it to Seeroi to be the one to defend something he doesn’t even like, but hey, somebody’s gotta stand up for the downtrodden.
What is the grammar-translation method?
The grammar-translation method is widely hated by EFL/ESL instructors, even without clearly defining what the method is. It often serves as a catch-all for the repetitive, overly academic, and terminally boring language classes most of us sat through in school. Classes are also primarily conducted in the native language of the teacher and the students, a big no-no the EFL/ESL world.
At its core, the grammar-translation method seems to embody five concepts:
- Learning grammar rules
- Translating back and forth between the target language and the student’s native language
- Memorizing lists of words
- Utilizing exercises and tests in constrained ways
- Explicit error correction
I say “seems to,” because there isn’t actually a “How to teach the grammar-translation method” book. The “method,” as such, is not prescriptive, but rather descriptive. The description dates back to a 1903 book, in which the author describes the horrible, boring classes children of former centuries were forced to endure, presumably while on break from working at their looms.
Criticisms of the grammar-translation method
Critics point out that the method typically creates a teacher-centric classroom, with no opportunity for speaking practice. Okay, often true. And that learning tedious grammar rules and long lists of vocabulary does not prepare students to communicate in real-world situations. Again, largely true. But is it really the devil incarnate, or have we overlooked some of the benefits?
Criticism of the criticisms
If you do a quick search for “grammar-translation method,” you’ll probably notice something striking. Anyway, I did. A lot of descriptions of the method (whatever one conceives it to be) use roughly the same verbiage, which sounds like everyone’s just parroting everyone else. Also, there’s no shortage of hyperbole.
Here’s one example:
The grammar translation method is an old method which was originally used to teach dead languages.
Hmm. “Old method,” “originally used,” and “dead language” all add a little spin to help reinforce the writer’s point. Of course I love that, because it’s just the kind of thing that I’d do.
So let me try:
The grammar translation method is a well-established method which has long been used to teach some of the world’s great languages.
So that’s a fun game.
Now look, I’m not actually arguing that the method is all peas and carrots, only that some of the criticisms might be overblown. Man, when I gotta be the voice of reason, you know you’re in trouble. Here’s another one:
Error correction: If a student’s answer of a question is incorrect, the teacher selects a different student to give the correct answer or s/he replies himself/herself.
So humiliating students is part of the method? Again, Hmm, I say, only this time I mean it. Sounds more like the way a given teacher chose to implement the method rather than the method itself.
You know, I’ve seen Japanese students fairly bludgeoned to death with that style of teaching. It’s terrible, I agree. But I’ve also seen the same five points accomplished by skillful teachers in ways that are useful and engaging. There are lots of teaching styles that accomplish error correction without simultaneously humiliating people. Just as there are ways to teach grammar that involve games and student input. Maybe that’s a modification on the original method. Fair enough. The light-bulb has changed a lot of the years too, and it’s still a light-bulb. Whatever. What I’m suggesting is that rather than vilify the method entirely, try to understand where it succeeds and use what works.
The act of balancing
According to world-famous linguist/egoist K Seeroi in Why are Japaneses so Bad at English?, one reason students can’t speak English is that they don’t have sufficient opportunities for practice. And certainly, to the extent that people are silently studying lists of words and grammar rules, their speaking time is necessarily limited. But there’s no reason that the grammar-translation method can’t be used as a supplement to a more communicative approach. Learn grammar rules and vocabulary for a third of the class, then practice using them in spoken conversation for the remainder. Or make one out of every five classes a grammar class. We live in a universe abounding with options. Actually, here’s a little more scholarly paper (not mine, sigh) that argues for a balanced approach.
The last word
Okay, there’s never going to be a last word, because everybody’s got a different teaching style and idea of what’s best. But before disposing of baby with bathwater, let’s consider how we might implement the five points in a way that leverages their strengths.
1. Learning grammar rules
Okay, you don’t want to go crazy on this, because you risk loading people up on theories that they fail to carry forth into practice. At the same time, it’s useful to know some rules. とおり follows verbs and どおり follows nouns. Learning a few basic rules can help to avoid internalizing a ton of simple mistakes.
2. Translating back and forth between the target language and the speaker’s native language
“How do you say _____ in English/Japanese?” is a pretty common question. If you speak more than one language, you’ll probably field this question a lot. It can be instructive to practice translating, even fun. You just gotta pick the right material and use the right approach. Maybe you want to take it easy on the Beowulf.
3. Memorizing lists of words
This doesn’t have to be super-boring, and the payoff is good. It’s often implemented as a writing activity, but there’s no reason it can’t be part of conversation practice or a blended approach.
4. Utilizing exercises and tests in constrained ways
“It ain’t no fun ___ the homies can’t have none.” Now fill in the blank. These are great group activities. That there are plenty of creative exercises that can reinforce grammar in practical and student-centered ways.
5. Explicit error correction
I’m not a fan of direct correction, because corrections are difficult for students to remember and apply, and having your errors handed to you on a stick is de-motivating as hell. On the other hand, if you see a lot of students making the same mistake, you might need to point it out to the class as a whole. Or create another activity that enables learners to see their own mistakes in a non-confrontational way. A friend of mine teaches the use of the plural for animals with an exercise illustrating that “I like dog” means food, not pets. Me personally, I like flying squirrel. So cute and delicious.© Japan Today