The Grammar Translation Method
Some Literature on this Topic
The Grammar Translation Method dominated FLT in the 19th century and in some respects continues to be influential in FLT up to this day. Proponents of this method believe that learning a foreign language is achieved through the constant and fast translation of sentences from the target language into the learner’s first language and vice versa. Correct translations of written texts require (a) knowledge of a vast amount of vocabulary, and (b) knowledge of rules of grammar which allow learners to anaylse and understand the construction of target language sentences, thus preventing their misinterpretation. Word by word translations were popular because by them students could demonstrate that they understood the grammatical construction underlying a specific sentence.
It is typical of this approach, therefore, to place emphasis on the rote memory learning of long lists of bilingual ‘vocabulary equations’, and on the learning of explicit rules of grammar, frequently in form of tables for the declension and conjugation of nouns and verbs. In the eyes of proponents of the Grammar Translation Method vocabulary learning required diligence and the analysis of the grammatical construction of sentences required intelligence. Learners who failed to do translations correctly where therefore blamed for being either not intelligent or lazy or both. In any case, errors were to not be tolerated. And because many people feel, up to this day, that learning a foreign language means learning to translate sentences from the mother tongue into the target language and vice versa, this approach to FLT still has its adherents.
The Grammar Translation Method has its historical origins in the teaching of Latin, which was the dominant language in universities, the public services and intellectual life in general from medieval times up to the 19th century. Knowledge of Latin was needed for the study of the bible and for academic purposes like the study of medical books and legal documents. In Latin studies the focus was, therefore, on the study of written texts. Knowledge of Latin distinguished ‘educated people’ from ordinary folks. Study of the canon of classical texts from well-known ancient authors like Ovid and Cicero was considered morally and aesthetically edifying and superior to anything which the study of modern languages could afford. Speaking Latin played a subordinate role because it was a ‘dead language’ and because there were no authentic living people who could serve as a model for its phonetically correct pronunciation. It was not before the year 1886 that linguists like Wilhelm Vietor, Henry Sweet, and Daniel Jones created the International Phonetic Alphabet for the phonetic description of sounds in different languages.
When in the late 19th century, mainly for political, economic, military, and other practical purposes, some people proposed that in public schools the study of modern languages like French and English should be introduced, it stood beyond question that their teaching had to be based on the methods used for the study of Latin. The focus was on the study of written texts, therefore, and the learners' first language was the language used in foreign language classes. Studying a foreign language was considered something like an intellectual exercise, and the analysis of complicated grammatical constructions and the translation of rows of isolated sentences in both directions was the test by which students could be shamed or show their superior cognitive abilities. Failure to produce correct answers was considered a sign of indolence or inferior intellectual qualities and might provoke physical punishment.
Go to the next page