The Grammar Translation Method

Posted: May 17, 2011 in Materi Bahasa Inggris

The Grammar Translation Method
Overview | Objectives | Key Features | Typical Techniques | Comments
Latin and Ancient Greek are known as “dead” languages, based on the fact that people no longer speak them for the purpose of interactive communication. Yet they are still acknowledged as important languages to learn (especially Latin) for the purpose of gaining access to classical literature, and up until fairly recently, for the kinds of grammar training that led to the mental dexterity considered so important in any higher education study stream.

Latin has been studied for centuries, with the prime objectives of learning how to read classical Latin texts, understanding the fundamentals of grammar and translation, and gaining insights into some important foreign influences Latin has had on the development of other European languages. The method used to teach it overwhelmingly bore those objectives in mind, and came to be known (appropriately!) as the Classical Method. It is now more commonly known in Foreign Language Teaching circles as the Grammar Translation Method.

It is hard to decide which is more surprising – the fact that this method has survived right up until today (alongside a host of more modern and more “enlightened” methods), or the fact that what was essentially a method developed for the study of “dead” languages involving little or no spoken communication or listening comprehension is still used for the study of languages that are very much alive and require competence not only in terms of reading, writing and structure, but also speaking, listening and interactive communication. How has such an archaic method, “remembered with distaste by thousands of school learners” (Richards and Rodgers, 1986:4) perservered?

It is worth looking at the objectives, features and typical techniques commonly associated with the Grammar Translation Method, in order to both understand how it works and why it has shown such tenacity as an acceptable (even recommended or respected) language teaching philosophy in many countries and institutions around the world.

Most teachers who employ the Grammar Translation Method to teach English would probably tell you that (for their students at least) the most fundamental reason for learning the language is give learners access to English literature, develop their minds “mentally” through foreign language learning, and to build in them the kinds of grammar, reading, vocabulary and translation skills necessary to pass any one of a variety of mandatory written tests required at High School or Tertiary level.

Some teachers who use the method might also tell you that it is the most effective way to prepare students for “global communication” by beginning with the key skills of reading and grammar. Others may even say it is the “least stressful” for students because almost all the teaching occurs in L1 and students are rarely called upon to speak the language in any communicative fashion.

More conservative teachers from more conservative countries are even likely to be put out by anyone merely questioning the method, and a typical response could be “because that’s the way it’s always been done – it’s the way I learned and look, now I’m a professor”. The point being, the method is institutionalized and considered fundamental. Such teachers are probably even unware that the method has a name and can be compared alongside other methods.

Top | Objectives | Key Features | Typical Techniques | Comments
Key Features

According to Prator and Celce-Murcia (1979:3), the key features of the Grammar Translation Method are as follows:

(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 lists of isolated words.

(3) Long elaborate explanations of the intricacies of grammar are given.

(4) Grammar provides the rules for putting words together, and instruction often focuses on the form
and inflection of words.

(5) Reading of difficult classical texts is begun early.

(6) Little attention is paid to the content of texts, which are treated as exercises in in grammatical

(7) Often the only drills are exercises in translating disconnected sentences from the target language
into the mother tongue.

(8) Little or no attention is given to pronunciation.

Top | Objectives | Key Features | Typical Techniques | Comments
Typical Techniques

Diane Larsen-Freeman, in her book Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (1986:13) provides expanded descriptions of some common/typical techniques closely associated with the Grammar Translation Method. The listing here is in summary form only.

(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 antonyms and synonyms for words or sets of words).

(4) Cognates
(Learning spelling/sound patterns that correspond between L1 and the target language)

(5) Deductive Application of 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)

Top | Objectives | Key Features | Typical Techniques | Comments

Many people who have undertaken foreign language learning at high schools or universities even in the past 10 years or so may remember many of the teaching techniques listed above for the Grammar Translation Method. They may also recall that the language learning experience was uninspiring, rather boring, or even left them with a sense of frustration when they traveled to countries where the language was used only to find they couldn’t understand what people were saying and struggled mightily to express themselves at the most basic level.

Very few modern language teaching experts would be quick to say that this is an effective language teaching method, and fewer would dare to try and assert that it results in any kind of communicative competence. As Richards and Rodgers (1986:5) state, “It is a method for which there is no theory. There is no literature that offers a rationale or justification for it that attempts to relate it to issues in linguistics, psychology, or educational theory.”

And yet the Grammar Translation Method is still common in many countries – even popular. Brown attempts to explain why the method is still employed by pointing out

“It requires few specialized skills on the part of teachers. Tests of grammar rules and of translations are easy to construct and can be objectively scored. Many standardized tests of foreign languages still do not attempt to tap into communicative abilities, so students have little motivation to go beyond grammar analogies, translations, and rote exercises.” (1994:53)


I myself studied Swedish as a foreign language at university level in Australia, and I was taught according to a rather conservative approach that involved both the Grammar Translation Method and the Audiolingual Method. At the end of three years study I could read and write Swedish rather well, had studied several novels and poems by famous Swedish literary figures, and could pass a grammar test with scarcely a problem. Ironically, when I went to study in Sweden at the end of that period, I was endlessly frustrated with my strage accent and lack of colloquial vocabulary, the constant stumbling through menial utterances – and yet always impressed Swedes with my correct application of grammar/sentence structure and my familiarity with their literature and the cultural aspects that accompanied it. In hindsight, I would have to say that I found that the language learning process highly stressful and frustrating, but in the end it paid off. The end justifies the means? Personally I wish the “means” could have been more effective and enjoyable from the outset.

I also studied Old Norse and Old English at university level – of course using the Grammar Translation Method. I found these languages much more interesting and far less stressful, because my goal from the outset was to learn how to read and access the literatures in their original forms. I was learning Swedish primarily in order to learn how to communicate with Swedes and function happily in Sweden.

My personal conclusion is simple: the Grammar Translation Method was developed for the study of “dead” languages and to facilitate access to those languages’ classical literature. That’s the way it should stay. English is certainly not a dead or dying language (understatement of the century!), so any teacher that takes “an approach for dead language study” into an English language classroom should perhaps think about taking up Math or Science instead. Rules, universals and memorized priciples apply to those disciplines – pedagogy and communicative principles do no


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