The Grammar-Translation Method

Historical Background

The Grammar-Translation Method was prevalent in foreign language classrooms from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century. It was first introduced in Latin and ancient Greek classrooms in the early 19thcentury, replacing more communicatively-oriented methods as Latin ceased to be a spoken language. As there was no longer a strong justification for teaching oral skills in the classical languages, the Grammar-Translation Method espoused the goal of developing the ability to read and translate classical texts. By the mid 19th century the method had been adopted for teaching modern languages by German scholars such as Karl Pl├Âtz and Johann Seidenst├╝cker, and it quickly spread to classrooms throughout Europe and the United States.

Throughout its history, the Grammar-Translation Method was criticized by advocates of more "direct" methods, who claimed that languages ought to be learned by actually speaking and listening to them rather than merely studying about them. One critic went so far as to claim that the Grammar-Translation Method sought to "know everything about something rather than the thing itself"(Rouse, 1925; quoted in Kelly, 1969, p. 53). However, the Grammar-Translation Method continued to be one of the primary methods used in U.S. classrooms, although it was partially supplanted in the 1930s by the so-called "Reading Method," which replaced the classical texts of the Grammar-Translation method with texts written specifically for foreign language students based on word frequency studies, and encouraged students to avoid consciously translating what they were reading (Rivers, 1981).

During World War II it became evident that neither the Grammar-Translation Method nor the Reading Method was producing students capable of speaking foreign languages well enough to communicate with allies or to understand enemy communications. The U.S. government therefore turned to methods that were grounded in the linguistic and psychological theories of the time, which were later adapted for use in public schools as the Audiolingual Method. By the 1960s the Audiolingual Method had replaced the Grammar-Translation Method for teaching foreign languages in most U.S. classrooms. However, grammar-translation techniques continue to be used throughout the world in teaching classical languages and occasionally modern languages, especially less commonly-taught languages.

Theory of Language Learning

Advocates and practitioners of the Grammar-Translation Method do not appear to have ever articulated any theoretical basis for the method (Richards & Rodgers, 2001). However, the method is clearly based on the assumption that language consists of structures and lexicon, and is learned by studying those elements and using them to translate sentences and longer texts.

The goals of the method are to develop the ability to read literature in the target language, as well as to develop "an excellent mental discipline, a fortitude of spirit and a broad humane understanding of life" (Titone, 1968, p. 26). "Mental discipline" is thought to be fostered through the analysis of complex grammatical structures. A secondary goal is to improve students' understanding of their native language through practice in grammatical analysis.

Classroom Activities

In accordance with the goal of developing a thorough understanding of grammar, each chapter of a grammar-translation textbook focuses on one or more grammatical aspects, often accompanied by detailed exceptions to the rules. Each chapter also contains a list of vocabulary words designed to prepare students to translate specific sentences or texts; thus, the vocabulary is generally not clustered around any specific theme.

The lesson culminates in a series of exercises that require students to translate from their native language to the target language and vice-versa. The exercises may involve excerpts of literary texts, or they may simply consist of individual sentences designed to illustrate the grammar points at hand. Emphasis is placed on grammatical accuracy.

Inasmuch as the primary emphasis is on the development of reading and translation skills, little attention is generally given to teaching speaking or listening, especially in the classical languages. In the case of modern languages, however, meticulous attention may be given to explaining phonological rules, particularly in textbooks published since the mid-20th century.

As is evident, Grammar-Translation lessons are heavily centered around the textbook and follow its content quite closely. The teacher's role is to explain the material in the chapter and to correct students' translations. The language of instruction is generally the students' native language.

Notes on the Video

The lesson in the video shows a first-year class in Attic Greek (a dialect of ancient Greece) taught by Dr. Bill Tortorelli of Brigham Young University. As the lesson consists partly of a review of verb forms, it does not depict all the phases of a "typical" grammar-translation lesson; nevertheless, it illustrates how some of the method's techniques may be effectively used when the goal is to develop grammatical understanding and translation skills. The lesson begins with a review of tense and aspect, followed by a discussion of verb conjugation and practice translating sentences that exemplify the verb forms being studied.

References and Additional Resources

Chastain, K. (1988). Developing second-language skills: Theory and practice. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Kelly, L. G. (1969). 25 centuries of language teaching. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rivers, W. M. (1981). Teaching foreign-language skills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rouse, W. H. D. (1925). Latin on the Direct Method. London: University of London Press.

Titone, R. (1968). Teaching foreign languages: An historical sketch. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.