The grammar translation method is a method of teaching foreign languages derived from the classical (sometimes called traditional) method of teaching Greek and Latin. In grammar-translation classes, students learn grammatical rules and then apply those rules by translating sentences between the target language and the native language. Advanced students may be required to translate whole texts word-for-word. The method has two main goals: to enable students to read and translate literature written in the target language, and to further students’ general intellectual development.
History and philosophy
The grammar-translation method originated from the practice of teaching Latin. In the early 1500s, Latin was the most widely-studied foreign language due to its prominence in government, academia, and business. However, during the course of the century the use of Latin dwindled, and it was gradually replaced by English, French, and Italian. After the decline of Latin, the purpose of learning it in schools changed. Whereas previously students had learned Latin for the purpose of communication, it came to be learned as a purely academic subject.
Throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, the education system was formed primarily around a concept called faculty psychology. This theory dictated that the body and mind were separate and the mind consisted of three parts: the will, emotion, and intellect. It was believed that the intellect could be sharpened enough to eventually control the will and emotions. The way to do this was through learning classical literature of the Greeks and Romans, as well as mathematics. Additionally, an adult with such an education was considered mentally prepared for the world and its challenges.
At first it was believed that teaching modern languages was not useful for the development of mental discipline and thus they were left out of the curriculum. When modern languages did begin to appear in school curricula in the 19th century, teachers taught them with the same grammar-translation method as was used for classical Latin and Greek. As a result, textbooks were essentially copied for the modern language classroom. In the United States of America, the basic foundations of this method were used in most high school and college foreign language classrooms.
Principles and goals
There are two main goals to grammar-translation classes. One is to develop students’ reading ability to a level where they can read literature in the target language.  The other is to develop students’ general mental discipline. The users of foreign language wanted simply to note things of their interest in the literature of foreign languages. Therefore, this method focuses on reading and writing and has developed techniques which facilitate more or less the learning of reading and writing only. As a result, speaking and listening are overlooked.
Grammar-translation classes are usually conducted in the students’ native language. Grammar rules are learned deductively; students learn grammar rules by rote, and then practice the rules by doing grammar drills and translating sentences to and from the target language. More attention is paid to the form of the sentences being translated than to their content. When students reach more advanced levels of achievement, they may translate entire texts from the target language. Tests often consist of the translation of classical texts.
There is not usually any listening or speaking practice, and very little attention is placed on pronunciation or any communicative aspects of the language. The skill exercised is reading, and then only in the context of translation.
The mainstay of classroom materials for the grammar-translation method is the textbook. Textbooks in the 19th century attempted to codify the grammar of the target language into discrete rules for students to learn and memorize. A chapter in a typical grammar-translation textbook would begin with a bilingual vocabulary list, after which there would be grammar rules for students to study and sentences for them to translate. Some typical sentences from 19th-century textbooks are as follows:
The philosopher pulled the lower jaw of the hen.
My sons have bought the mirrors of the Duke.The cat of my aunt is more treacherous than the dog of your uncle.
The method by definition has a very limited scope. Because speaking or any kind of spontaneous creative output was missing from the curriculum, students would often fail at speaking or even letter writing in the target language. A noteworthy quote describing the effect of this method comes from Bahlsen, who was a student of Plötz, a major proponent of this method in the 19th century. In commenting about writing letters or speaking he said he would be overcome with "a veritable forest of paragraphs, and an impenetrable thicket of grammatical rules."
According to Richards and Rodgers, the grammar-translation has been rejected as a legitimate language teaching method by modern scholars:
[T]hough it may be true to say that the Grammar-Translation Method is still widely practiced, it has no advocates. It is a method for which there is no theory. There is no literature that offers a rationale or justification for it or that attempts to relate it to issues in linguistics, psychology, or educational theory.
The grammar-translation method was the standard way languages were taught in schools from the 17th to the 19th century. Despite attempts at reform from Roger Ascham, Montaigne, Comenius and John Locke, no other methods gained any significant popularity during this time.
Later, theorists such as Vietor, Passy, Berlitz, and Jespersen began to talk about what a new kind of foreign language instruction needed, shedding light on what the grammar translation was missing. They supported teaching the language, not about the language, and teaching in the target language, emphasizing speech as well as text. Through grammar translation, students lacked an active role in the classroom, often correcting their own work and strictly following the textbook.
Despite all of these drawbacks, the grammar-translation method is still the most used method all over the world in language teaching. This is not surprising as most language proficiency books and tests are in the format of grammar-translation method; and henceforth the use of the method continues.
- Chastain, Kenneth. The Development of Modern Language Skills: Theory to Practice. Philadelphia: Center for Curriculum Development,1971.
- Rippa, S. Alexander 1971. Education in a Free Society, 2nd. Edition. New York: David McKay Company, 1971.
- Richards, Jack C.; Rodgers, Theodore S. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Rivers, Wilga M. Teaching Foreign Language Skills, 2nd Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.