The Grammar Translation Method – Techniques and Activities

The Grammar Translation Method

What is the Grammar translation Method?

The Grammar Translation Method is an old method that was originally used to teach dead languages which explains why it focuses mainly on the written form at the expense of the oral form. It was designed according to the faculty psychology approach which was very popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. It contended that ” mental discipline was essential for strengthening the powers of the mind”. The way to do this was through learning classical literature of the Greeks and Romans.

History

Traditionally, studying a language was grounded on the principles of Greek and Latin grammar. During the renaissance era, Greek and Roman literature were held in high regard and Latin was taught as a language mainly for reading and writing.  Mastering Latin grammar rules became an educational goal. The invention of printing machines and the development of local languages around Europe increased the need for second or foreign language learning. Grammar was central in language teaching and language teachers adopted the Grammar Translation Method which was based on traditional Latin teaching. The underlying principle of the method was that the target grammar should be described in the student’s native language. Grammar was viewed as a set of rules that govern how sentences should be formed.

The Grammar Translation Method theory

The GTM is based on an idealist philosophy which holds that ideas are absolute and unchanging. According to this doctrine, ideas make up fundamental reality and are even seen as being the only true reality. In other words, the only real things are mental entities, not physical ones. Likewise, truth and values are universal and unchanging. This universal view of learning is the reason why the method insists on translating text that reflects perennial truths. Latin and Greek were held in high esteem and those who could read the Greek and Latin texts were respected and given high social status.

In addition, the method views language learning as consisting of memorizing a set of grammar rules and trying to understand and manipulate the morphology and syntax of the target language. Another feature of the method is that the mother tongue is maintained as the reference system in the acquisition of the second language. It is the vehicle of language teaching.

How is the Grammar Translation Method implemented in the classroom?

  • Using of mother tongue to teach the target language.
  • Grammar is taught deductively.
  • Memorizing vocabulary items that are taught in the form of word lists.
  • Memorizing grammar rules.
  • Elaborate explicit teaching of grammar.
  • Focusing on morphology and syntax.
  • Focusing on reading and writing.
  • Reading of difficult texts early in the course.
  • The practice focuses on exercises in which students translate sentences or texts from their mother tongue to the target language and vice versa.

It is surprising to see that the Grammar Translation Method is still in use in some classrooms. Maybe, it’s because it has some advantages.

Grammar Translation Method activities

The method may be still implemented in today’s classrooms. Depending on whether your school tolerates the use of L1 (i.e., the student’s first language), you may adapt the method accordingly. Assuming that you are a bilingual teacher, here are some activities that you might try:

  1. Ask your students to memorize a rule and apply it to their own sentences.
  2. Invite students to memorize a short list of words each day in English and give their native language equivalent.
  3. Ask your students to pick five vocabulary words they like from a text and then translate them into their mother tongue.
  4. Ask the students to translate different language functions (e.g., inviting, making requests; offering help, asking for clarification, etc.) from their mother tongue to English.
  5. Ask students to identify a certain part of speech (e.g., verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc) from a text. Invite them to translate these words and then use a dictionary to find synonyms and antonyms.
  6. Assign different parts of a text to different groups of students to translate. When they finish, regroup them to produce the final version of the whole text making the necessary changes.
  7. Ask students to translate their favorite quotes, jokes, idioms, or poem from their mother tongue to English or vice-versa.
  8. Ask students to use google translate or any other translation application to translate texts and see to what extent the translation was good, making the necessary changes to improve it.
  9. Ask your students to create a blog with different categories (e.g. poems, quotes, idioms, etc.) to publish their translations.

The Grammar Translation Method advantages and disadvantages

Advantages

  • Translation is the easiest and shortest way of explaining the meaning of words and phrases.
  • Learners have no difficulties understanding the lesson as it is carried out in the mother tongue.
  • It is a labor-saving method as the teacher carries out everything in the mother tongue.

Criticism

  • Language learning does not consist of only memorizing a set of rules and manipulating the syntax and morphology of the target language.
  • The translation of sentences or texts can be sometimes misleading.
  • What the method is good at is “teaching about the language”, not “teaching the language”.
  • The method focuses on grammar at the level of each sentence, that is, the well-formedness of sentences according to prescriptive grammarians. Actual data suggest that sentence-level grammar does not account for many instances of real communication.
  • Speaking or any kind of spontaneous creative output was missing from the curriculum.
  • Students lacked an active role in the classroom.
  • The main focus is on reading and writing at the expense of the speaking and listening skills.
  • Very little attention is paid to real communication.
  • Very little attention is paid to motivating content.
  • Some sentences can be perfectly grammatical, but they may convey no meaning at all. Chomsky’s (1957) example – ‘colorless green ideas sleep furiously’ – exemplifies this perfectly well. Although this sentence is grammatical, it is nonsensical.
  • Grammar is not absolute and fixed. Grammar rules may change not only diachronically through historical linguistic evolution but also synchronically, through dialectal variations

Because of all these disadvantages, teachers tried to find better ways to remedy the pitfalls of the Grammar Translation Method. The Direct Method was the answer.

Reference:

Brown, H. Douglas, 2006. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, Fifth Edition, Pearson ESL.

Richards, Jack C. and Theodore S. Rodgers (1986). Approaches and methods in language teaching: A description and analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Other sources: wikipedia – GTM

12 thoughts on “The Grammar Translation Method – Techniques and Activities”

  1. Mohammed,

    Please refer to the Author, Title, publication and year of the work you cite. In this case you should add:

    H. Douglas Brown, Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, 1994a.

    The (a) is because he published more than one work in the same year.

    Grammar translation can not be considered an “old method” because it is still very much in use in many parts of the world today. Originally it was called the classical method which was originally used to teach Latin and Greek. It was late in the 19th century according to Brown (Ibid.) that the classical method became known as Grammar Translation.

    Faculty psychology wasn’t an approach it was a concept in education.

  2. Hi VOT,

    Thank you for posting your comment. Your comments are always welcome.
    Well Grammar translation was popular in the 19th century. It’s an old method. The method as I mentioned above is still in use in some parts of the world because of some of its merits.
    Faculty psychology is in fact a theory based on the notion that the mind is divided into separate powers or faculties and that these faculties were associated with distinct spatial locations in the brain. The theory was influential in education in the 19th century. Learning Greek and Latin was believed to sharpen mental faculties. And the way these dead languages were taught, that is by using the mother tongue and detailed grammar explanations, was copied to teach modern languages.
    Thank you for reminding me to refer to Douglas Brown’s work. Some of the material presented in this blog consists of my readings of his work as well as of that of Richards and Rodgers. Most of the methods presented here are the gist of these readings. I’ve added a reference to these books at the end of the post. Thank you again for posting your comment and helping me sharpen my faculties!

  3. Hello there,

    I need help on this question ” Where does Methodology derive from?”

    Can anyone help with this question please? Its part of my project research.
    thanks in advance

  4. Hi there,
    I was just wondering, do you still know what pages you used for this piece of writing?

    Thank you!

  5. Thank you so much for publishing this article. Its really helpful. Its written to the point, which helps in understanding better.
    Once again
    Thank you!

  6. Pingback: The Grammar Translation Method – Teaching with Translation

  7. Thank for that information but is that the only off grammar translation method? I need farther information about that if it is possible.

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