The grammar-translation method: Is it really all that bad?


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:

  1. Learning grammar rules
  2. Translating back and forth between the target language and the student’s native language
  3. Memorizing lists of words
  4. Utilizing exercises and tests in constrained ways
  5. 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.

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Didn't bother reading beyond the first paragraph. An article on teaching and translation which opens using "ain't" and "gotta" ?

2 ( +8 / -6 )

Interesting article, I've had the same situation where I'm trying to get out a complex sentence in Japanese only for the other person to have a superior complex and decide to correct the tiniest of pronunciation errors and for whatever reason keep saying the word over and over until I say the word 100% correctly to their satisfaction, in the mean time I've totally lost my train of thought and what I was trying to say... and were they really interested in what I was saying anyway?

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A lot of learning carried out at schools is in a way like the grammar translation method, in that one is taught formal structures and given some practice at applying them, before being tested on them in Geography, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, and (without the application perhaps) in History.

While people often complain about grammar-translation method and the "exam English" that it promotes, few complain about "exam history" or "exam maths." As people like Illich point out the point is not in the content itself. A lot of what we learn is schools is to test the ability to learn formal structures and apply them, which is the sort of things that people to when they become accountants, salespeople, and others that work in companies. Education teaches us to be good company people and includes a strong element of competition so that the best companies can choose those that are best at learning-structures-and-applying-them. This is the case with English too.

The strange thing about English (or any foreign language) is that one may actually use it. But still, according to my surveys of Japanese provincial towns, the opportunities are few and far between. The future will be different, I thought, but the massive translation industry, and the growing better and better automated translation industry, together with even volunteer guides, and the growth of other languages (particularly Chinese) may mean that opportunities for English use do not increase all that much.

If the opportunity or requirement to speak increases then the grammar translation method will continue to fail to produce conversationalists. But at the same time, oral communication with strangers is not something that the Japanese are all that into anyway, so perhaps they should say hi, and write an email later. I find that Japanese often do write English well.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

there isn’t actually a “How to teach the grammar-translation method” book.

There are/were quite a few. Many textbooks are paired with the teacher's book.

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.

That's your personal pet criticism. The main criticism of the translation method is totally different.

creates a teacher-centric classroom,

Not at all. If the method is used in schools that are anyway teacher-centric, that just doesn't change anything. But the bulk of students using this method never put the feet in classroom. It's still the main method for self-study, distance learning, tutor system study. The student does homework, then the teacher/computer/answer book corrects.

no opportunity for speaking practice.

That's not the objective at all. The method was developed for Greek and Latin. "Salute Ken !..." You really want us to chat in Latin like at a bishop congress in the Vatican ? Then it was used by students that wanted to read publications in a second language. There was a big need because at some time, if your native language was Japanese, you had not many books of medicine, science, foreign history, etc, in your language. So you would learn Chinese or Dutch, to read about the new science, to study, and to translate for your compatriots. And roughly, that still exists now. The Japanese chefs learn to read recipe books in French or Italian, what they care about chatting ? The Japanese scientist wants to read reviews in English. Idem. The case of the guy that want to learn a little to chat with locals during his holidays was not common. And it is still not the majority. When I ask students in Japan, even now, what they would want to do of the language, I don't get so many "I want to communicate with native speakers". And if they do, that's not the first objective, and these days it is e-mail communication mostly, because they don't travel so much. Other goals : learn something (for personal development), read books/papers, understand TV/songs/movies.

grammar rules and long lists of vocabulary does not prepare students to communicate

The real problem. It's using what you know. Well, try and you will see. Memorize all the grammatical structures of a language, and 10 000 most common words, 500 expressions, the proverbs. Then open you get 100% right at the test. Can you read a book ? You will see it's difficult, you're very slow. But then, if I ask you to write something, that will take you ages to look for the right forms in the "data base" you carry in your head. Let's make on sensence : dog ? I browse animal list >>> ushi, neko, INU. I need a particle >>> ga ? ha ? ni ? wo ? so the rule is... so, it's HA. has ? to have >>> motsu, aru, iru ... so in case it is an object, a person....but I needed a GA . You play with a puzzle. The problem is you need 1000 years to write a page. So if you have 100 person learning with the grammar/translation method, you will get 98 that will memorize the data, they will get good marks at the knowledge tests. Only 50 will, painfully, become able to use the data to decipher (= to read). Maybe only 5 that will have a "quick brain" allowing them to use it to read and write. 50% of partial success rate was not so bad. But that was probably the maximum as the language students were persons with extremely good study capacities (memorization capacities already traine, regularity in doing exercises...). There were other points, but this one is the biggest.

Criticism of the criticisms

I'd prefer "reaction to the criticism". As the big problem I described was a recurrent fact. So they had to find the cause, if possible. And modify the method. What do you suggest ?

.boring classes children of former centuries were forced to endure, presumably while on break from working at their looms.

Very likely that the children working in factory were taking language classes. The translation/grammar method was exclusively for the little elite that would go further than elementary school. Well, one thing that may interest you is there was another method of the past to teach foreign languages to the mass. For instance, in Algeria in 1850, the local languages were Algerian Arabic and some dialects. And the French colons settled, bringing the schools, and succeeded in teaching French to the whole population. By 1900, everybody was bilingual and they had been only 5 years to school (7 to 11 year old). And how did the English teach English to India ? You could research on that for a next article...

4 ( +5 / -1 )

An article for the teacher community... I tried to read it but got bored very quick.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

You will never learn a language using the grammar-translation method. There, I've said it.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )


Say what? You mean to imply that "ain't" and "gotta" violate the rules of grammar? Is you sure?

By the way, love your name. You should meet my friend Deez Nutz.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

timtak brought up a very good point. The same approach is used in many other subjects as well. That is the reason, why the majority of people on this planet suck at math or science and are not more capable than a clever ten year old child. You can even see it, when you teach at universities, as I have been done for more than three years. Students mostly learn the primitive examples that we use to teach them by heart, but lack the ability to see their knowledge in a greater context. The "grammar translation method" doesn't teach application in context.

Now, from where do we get the application in context? From exercising the things we have learned in difficult and lengthy exercises. These exercises must be based on the new materials and they must be done inside of the system. This means in terms of science that you do not need to refer mostly to older references, but that based on a few hints in addition to what you studied recently, everything should be solvable. In languages that means writing in casual as well as formal style, writing about conversations of characters and getting the corrections for what you have written without open criticism in front of all and with suggestions about how to improve. And direct conversation, of course. Which means extra work for teachers, which is why they don't want to change the method.

Everything starts with some kind of "grammar translation method", but it doesn't stop there. That's the difference between good and bad teaching.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I disagree with the analogy with other subjects. In other subjects there is usage, not just a passive noticing of facts. You go on field trips in Geography, do comprehension questions, do experiments in the sciences, comprehension questions again, in history the facts should be a given and the test should be how you apply your knowledge of them, in Maths you're using and manipulating numbers all the time to do calculations. They're nothing like the grammar translation method at all.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The grammar-translation method: Is it really all that bad?

If you use google translate, then yeah!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

It really doesn't matter what method you use as long as you understand.

After two years of grammar translation French, I did an exchange. A French kid stayed at our house for three weeks and then I went to his house for three weeks in Pas de Calais. After six weeks, other kids thought I was French.

I'm not saying how great I am - I am, but I'm not saying it!

All I had was the grammar translation method and it gave me the background. A bit of exposure and actual practice gave me fluency.

Nothing wrong with grammer (giggle) translation!

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Learning grammar rules

Of course a certain amount of grammar study is necessary in learning a language, no one will argue that point but the question becomes, "How much grammar?" A Just a minimal amount in the beginning. I always look for a simple approach to grammar , just enough for simple spoken expression. Most grammatical errors are not as detrimental as you might think. The the speech of the majority of native speakers of any language is full of grammatical errors that do not really effect communication.

Syntax, on the other hand, is often the cause for misunderstanding. Syntax is NOT grammar it is a separate study. Word order accounts for far more misunderstandings than does the conjugation of verbs, confusion with prepositions, countable and uncountable etc, or in the case of Japanese, the misuse of post-positions and other particles and so on. Sometimes more stress is placed on grammatical errors than is really warranted. As far as sounds and syntax go I have had an interesting experience. I have a Korean friend who is 82 years old. We both study Chi Kung together and for the first few months we never spoke. But one day she heard me speaking Japanese to another student. Since my Korean is almost non-existent and she is weak in English, from that time on Japanese became our "lingua franca". She had been educated under the Japanese and is totally bi-lingual. Our teacher who is Korean but born after the Korean conflict of course learned English and not Japanese. She said something that we though hilarious. She said "It sounds like Korean!!!..except all the words are in the wrong place."

Translating back and forth between the target language and the student’s native language.

This will happen in the early stages of learning but will soon disappear because if communication is slowed to a crawl due to translation, for one thing, the native speaker will soon lose interest in the conversation. In a class we use it but the instructor usually tries to get away from it fairly quickly. Like musical dictation it is a fine written technique for study and in preparation for actual playing situations..

Memorizing lists of words

This manner of learning vocabulary appears, at first, to be the fastest and most logical way to learn vocabulary but in the end it is the most time consuming and least effective way to learn new words. This is because the returns from rote memory learning are at most, 25% but on average really only 15 to 20%. That's little return on your investment in say, a list of 100 words with a minimum of 25 repetitions per word to remember only 15 or 20 words out of a hundred. Learning through context may seem tedious at first but in the end it pays bigger dividends and takes less time. I remember, and this was years ago, tales about Japanese students who memorized the dictionary page by page and after memorizing a page they would tear it out and eat it. Good thing those pocket dictionaries were made of very thin paper. I never saw a student do that but I guess it made for interesting conversation.

Utilizing exercises and tests in constrained ways Explicit error correction

These two techniques are time tested and proven and will probably always be effective tools in language learning.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I agree with Ken -this piece of writing sure is a little 'crazy'

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I understand what the article is saying and I support it mostly. In my opinion, the biggest problem is actually that because 'translating is wrong' and just 'applying grammar rules to correct sentences' is also wrong, lost of Japanese don't know how to write a single correct English sentence. This makes it very hard for them when they have to talk. If you can't write it down with all the time given in the world (and without a dictionary), it will be very hard to say it correctly within limited time. (The only exception is if you are in the country where the language is spoken) Whether it is through this method or not, Japanese people should learn how to write correctly in English. Learning grammar through spoken language is very difficult. The problem is that they don't want to write, they want to talk and thus they skip this step and end up in a situation that is too difficult for them in which they are trapped forever until they study abroad and get a little better at speaking and cover up their grammar mistakes in fluency.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Hi Ken,

As usual I assume your article is tongue-in-cheek, but honestly please drop this subject, because you're wrong on so many levels it really isn't amusing.

First, there are lots of textbooks on grammar-translation method, just go to google books and you'll find hundreds. Grammar-translation method is very well defined and well understood. Subsequent theories were developed in opposition to grammar-translation method, and so where grammar-translation method is used in the modern era it is hardly ever "pure" grammar-translation method, but rather has taken on board many of the criticisms and as such is a moderated grammar-translation method that incorporates a more student-centered approach, more speaking opportunities, etc. In short it is no longer grammar-translation method, but rather merely a melange of teaching approaches that includes elements of grammar-translation method... or at least that's the situation in most Western classrooms. In Japan they use the teacher-centered, non-communicative grammar-translation method almost exclusively, which is the problem.

Finally, the lists of words memorised are largely useless. English professionals are familiar with the concept of word frequency, i.e. how often a word is used in day-to-day English, and that a good way to equip students is to match vocabulary to level and expected career, hence it would be useless to teach a Junior high student (who might leave school to start working the next year) the word "hypothesis" since it is a very low frequency word outside of academic and scientific circles, but it would be an important word to teach a student at an academic Senior High who was aiming for University since it would be used frequently in that context. Looking at the list of words used in Japanese textbooks ... well, they're mostly low frequency words and as such are a complete waste of time. This criticism has nothing to do with the grammar-translation method and lots to do with the lack of representation of native speakers at the policy-making level in the Japanese education department.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

There is no magic method to make people learn a language they don't actually need. In the classroom, this grammar-translation method is as good any other, generally speaking. But I do suggest a variety.

Also, its not so much the tool, but how its used. A teacher with skills, dedication and imagination can make it more productive than, ahem, MOST teachers I have seen.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

studying rugby to learn how to swim.


1 ( +1 / -0 )

So if frequency of use is the most useful order to learn words, that means the first words you should learn in Japanese is そうですね?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The grammar translation method is a well-established method which has long been used to teach some of the world’s great languages.

The grammar translation method is a well-established method THAT has long been used to teach some of the world’s great languages.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

FadamorMay. 18, 2012 - 04:00AM JST So if frequency of use is the most useful order to learn words, that means the first words you should learn in Japanese is そうですね?

;) Darn right. If you don't learn that word really early then you'll be puzzled by a good 30% of the responses you receive, and people will be giving you odd looks when you keep saying, "Hai!" like you're a school student being scolded by a teacher.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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