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It’s been quite a while since I last wrote about the ‘grammar-translation method’, and I’ve had to realize that I’ve neglected the first part of the equation: I haven’t tackled the way grammar plays a part in this approach to teaching a foreign language.

For those who need some brush-up on the most famous language teaching approaches, I’m providing a link here to the same material that I linked to my first post about the matter in January. In that post, and in a few more later, we have seen that this method has several shortcomings mainly attributable to differences of meaning of words and phrases, and cultural differences among languages, shortcomings of dictionaries that are sometimes also a consequence of those differences, and the fact that concentrating our methods on translation, we slow down cognitive processes of the learner. But if the overwhelming use of translation is detrimental or at least very problematic for learning, what is the value of concentrating on grammar at the same time, or perhaps at different times?

The first further problem with the method is that classes are taught in the students’ mother tongue, with little active use of the target language. How can proponents of the method justify this? How is it possible for the learner to speak the foreign language without speaking it? First hearing it, and then trying it, that is. As I have pointed out earlier, this method harks back to early times of the school system, in most parts of Europe no later than the 1930’s, when Latin, and to a lesser extent, classical Greek, was widely taught without a view to speaking it. The aim was to understand the wisdom of the thinkers of old, not to converse with them, not even about them. Students had to take the wisdom as it was.

Is this possible in today’s world? Obviously, language teachers in the Netherlands and in China still think so. In the Netherlands, learning Latin and ancient Greek is a tenet of the best education, and modern languages are sometimes still taught with similar approaches, as I pointed out earlier. In China, the approach is still prevalent in English teaching due to a lack of sufficient exposure to native speakers and media, which are in abundance in the Netherlands, which in the latter accounts for acquisition of English after and outside school.

The main problem with mother-tongue instruction and omission of the target language is that without sufficient oral input, and then practice, no language habit can be formed properly. The development of understanding written texts and writing skills are hindered by the lack of general language skills and are thus unduly slow, and without a sizeable oral pattern to follow, speech production becomes distorted and often very different from native patterns. This is coupled with a lack of attention to pronunciation practice. In short, the learner becomes, or stays for a long time, incapable of taking part in conversation with skilled speakers of the target language, let alone native speakers.

Sadly, this is coupled with little attention paid to the meaning and content of texts. This seems to be nonsense, because the application of this method concentrates on texts. However, as the focus is on translation, discussion is beyond this approach. No wonder – discussion is next to impossible in the target language, and why should the students discuss a text the understanding of which they already proved by translating it? The purpose has been reached, and it was not internalizing, or evaluating the meaning: it was translation.

Of course, translation is not bad per se, but in a modern language class, it could still be followed by discussions, couldn’t it? This depends on who applies the method, but whoever it is, s/he has to speak himself/herself and make the learner speak too. Not within the proper tenets of this approach.

On the other hand, elaborate grammar explanation, providing rules for putting words together, emphasizing the correct forms and inflection of words can be considered a clear strength of this method. Indeed, learners usually demand for more, or clearer grammar, parents ditto, and if something is unclear about what they consider grammar, there is trouble for the teacher responsible. And with good reason.

One reason is that most learners have to sit for a language examination sooner, or later, and such an exam consists to a large part of manipulating sentence patterns. How can the learner do that properly if s/he does not receive proper grammar explanation? On the other hand, proponents should be warned that a number of international tests for English, for example the TOEFL test, cannot be taken on grammar – these tests try the candidate on their oral skills. The oral part of the Dutch test for foreigners is another such example. However, the grammar-translation method does not per se deal with oral skills, and not at all with listening, originally.

The trouble is that teachers applying this method rarely go further than explaining grammar extensively. Grammar input is fine, but being satisfied with grammar is not enough at all. Grammar explanations are followed, therefore, with pattern practice if the teacher is somewhat familiar with the somewhat later audio-lingual approach and behaviourism, probably concentrating only on writing tasks, as it lends itself most easily to correction.

A teacher applying this approach tends to believe in the importance of his/her authority and his own knowledge of the language, and feel safe when s/he can come up to all students to point out problems. It may sometimes be a result of his own educational background, but as a result in his turn, he may find it difficult to face students with their own opinions, which he would have to, should he apply parts of other approaches and allow for discussions, or even oral practice.

The great problem is that most teachers applying this method attack the first, and then every grammatical mistake committed by the learner. A lengthy revision of the rules may follow, perhaps not in order to drive home the notion that the faulty student was lazy, or inattentive, or, god forbid, stupid when s/he did not follow and apply the original rules, but it may all lead to this feeling. Besides, there is little time for follow-up activities, with which the teacher would feel uncomfortable anyway, but s/he can finish the lesson with a good feeling of accomplishment because he can’t be accused of not properly explaining the grammar points of the day. But his approach severely hinders practice vital in approaching the desired skills, behaviours, listening and understanding, pronunciation, thinking, evaluating, debating, and fluency in general.

Compared to this, where do we stand with respect to accuracy, which adherents to this method strive for?

When it is time for some practice, the method originally allows for drills which are exercises in translating disconnected sentences from the target language into the mother tongue, and vice versa. I believe that most teachers of today are beyond using this approach, though it can’t be discounted. But most are already tainted with behaviourism well enough to apply pieces of the later audio-lingual method. This is where the four skills have originally become well-known from, and this is where habit-formation really began.

Well, teachers of this mixed kind have no problem with audio-lingualism as that method also emphasizes minimalizing errors, disregards content which the grammar-translation teacher is uncomfortable with, and emphasizes structural practice on a determined sequence based on reading texts, all of which bodes well with him. What does not, viz. pronunciation and use of target language, is conveniently overlooked in preference to first giving detailed grammar explanations, which the audio-lingual method overlooks, but has still become the buzz-word since. I advocate a mixed approach, so why cannot grammar-translation teachers do so?

Because one-sided use of the familiar and prevalent grammar practice books is boring, time-consuming and superfluous. However, testing even today often makes it the only valuable option for teaching. The only problem is, the learner is cheated of his/her time, even if s/he plays along.

As to drilling, if we come to think about it, a 20-item oral drill takes about a tenth of the time required to write the same amount of fill-in sentences and checking them with everybody around class. Yes, the teacher should have good ears to follow most sentences pronounced, but everybody has the chance of uttering target-language sentences and still practicing grammar. To achieve that, though, we have to start practicing. Don’t overdo explanations, but go over to practice quickly even if you consider yourself a conservative. Written fill-ins can easily be done at home and be checked only if necessary, but after ample oral practice, it won’t often be.

Naturally, this can only be done after we have started to speak the target language in our instructions and expect same from the learner, helped with occasional pronunciation practice if necessary. After several rounds of oral manipulation and similar exercises aimed first at accuracy and grammar, students will achieve bouts of enhanced fluency with certain structures they have practiced. With more confidence and different grammar points following, the range will widen.

Of course, grammar and practice of grammatical differences between the given languages is important. Unfortunately, several dozens of authors have long inundated the international market with hundreds of grammar guides and grammar practice books, thereby reinforcing the importance of this trait in language classes.  This overshadows the fact that, even done in the very best ways, sheer grammar practice is utterly boring in itself and is met with hostile resistance in the class sooner or later. It can only form the basis of some degree of accuracy. Today’s learner does not care very much about that, however. Most people find it sufficient if they are understood and they understand others, even if they can’t recognize when this urge leads them to misunderstandings. Fluency is far more important than accuracy, and grammar practice itself can’t yield good listening and understanding, and can’t lead to successfully expressing ourselves. This, on the one hand, may force changes in the language. It may still, on the other, lead to good levels of language use. There are several ways leading to heaven – accuracy can also be achieved by exposure to good language use. And because oral language use leaves room for far quicker exchanges and far more exchanges of ideas among people than grammatization, it can lead to the same level of language use in a couple of years as grammar practice in a decade, while far more ideas and a wider understanding of the world are used than with grammar.

It is thus the communicative approach which the teacher should embrace more. Not exclusively, but if he/she pays attention to oral patterns, meaning, task-based practice aimed at achieving certain results in discussion, culturally defined differences of meaning, and to thinking in the target language with a view to exposing various opinions of the students about the world, foreign language production will speed up enormously. This will lead to more confidence in the learner’s own language use, faster development and to better overall language levels.

Now, if this has not been convincing enough for the conventional teacher, let me add that usual grammar practice does not cover what is most important in many languages, and that is vocabulary. It does not explain why certain words are used in certain contexts and exchanges, but others are not, why certain words are used together, while others are not. Only precious few course-books make it possible for learners of English, for example, to understand and practice in which order adjectives can be used, which emphasizers can be used with which which adjectives, what is the system of and how we can use phrasal verbs, just to mention a few problems which remain outside the scope of most grammars and course material. But word partnerships remain seriously outside most course materials even in the British publishing industry, not to mention ways of making the learner think about other cultures, other learners and the world in terms which they understand and find interesting.

Such materials, kinds that ask the proper questions, make the necessary challenges suitable to our times, use authentic materials in an effort to enhance native-like understanding and cross-cultural understanding, are very hard to come by. Authentic listening materials, kinds that the Dutch can come across every day on television, cannot be used in international publishing, because copyrighted material costs would drive prices to near Dutch levels, which only the Dutch can afford to pay. This way, most of the world can only buy cheap, commercialized material which make twelve to the dozen, in which the listening material is read out by actors, and the teacher can only dream of and strive for providing suitable pattern for his/her students with that.

But then he/she had better use better and faster approaches than the grammar-translation method on his/her own. Unduly concentrating on grammatical correctness, neglecting oral communication and interaction may lead the learner to a prolonged period of fumbling uncertainty in the language class, and could ultimately lead him/her to completely losing interest in the target language, unless he/she otherwise finds interest from elsewhere. Grammatical accuracy practice is a necessary part of language development, but if it overwrites oral communicative competency, it takes time away from fluency practice, often completely, and that is detrimental. On the other hand, developing fluency fosters confidence, and provides opportunity to recycle and strengthen the old and newer language patterns, grammar among them. Who would like to overlook this chance? It is also a lot more interesting.

Beware – in the American system of education, there have already huge paradigm shifts taken place towards i-learning, which almost only the most adventurous are ready for in other parts of the world. But it is coming, and you may not be willing to be left behind. How is a teacher prepared to take that step, and to what use, if he/she still bases his/her instruction and methods on age-old, more-or-less discredited paradigms?

My readers may find that my opinion is not based on research. Agreed. I am not a linguist myself. The opinions expressed above, however, are based on my long professional experience. Never being very communicative as a youngster but brought up on grammar, translation and grammar tests, I found my way to university easily based on the written entrance examination at a time when about one fifteenth of the numbers of today made it to higher education in my country. However, I then struggled for a couple of years in surroundings where translation was not used at all; instead, we had to discuss loads of literature orally, for which I was not really prepared enough.

My co-author on this web-site, Ms. Shen has received very little English and Dutch grammar, never learned a foreign language at school in China, yet, she is quite fluent in oral interaction in both languages through her communicative efforts after a few years. Far from being among the best writers, but that aspect is also improving for her.

As a teacher, I have used various materials in increasingly communicative ways and I have always found that those who only concentrate – insist on concentrating – on grammar practice, are soon left lagging behind more adventurous types, those who try to creatively and bravely use even the little that they already have up their sleeves from the beginning. For the latter kind, accuracy has come a bit later, but it comes much earlier than fluency for the grammatically oriented. It may be almost unnecessary to add that when my students were later asked to translate, their production did not depend much on their grammatical, or often not even on their communicative competency – it depended largely also on their native language competencies, the students making all kinds of mistakes in their mother tongue that showed understanding, but an incorrect use of their vernacular.

by P.S.