The Grammar-Translation Method : Really all that Bad?

When it comes to teaching languages, the grammar-translation method has become the child nobody loves or wants to acknowledge.  But is it really hell on toast?  No, it ain’t.  There, I said it.  Leave it to Seeroi to be the one to defend something he doesn’t even like, but hey, somebody’s gotta stand up for the downtrodden.

Before getting into a whole deep analysis, let’s talk booze, if for no other reason than it’s a whole lot more interesting than grammar.

So I went to a gaijin bar last Saturday, which I rarely do anymore, since I’m always hanging out with old drunk Japanese dudes in izakayas.  But for some reason I was walking by this place and I saw a Guinness sign and I remembered, Hey, I love that beverage.  So in I went.

Just in case you’ve never been to Japan or live in a cave or something, a “gaijin bar” is what the Japanese call a tavern full of drunk English teachers.  For some reason, the bars always resemble Irish pubs, despite the fact that there’s only about four Irish people in the whole nation.  Yet another mystery of the Orient, I know.

The thing about English teachers is they’re loud.  And you know who you are, so don’t try to deny it.  Also, they like to drink horrible booze in horrible ways, like shots of tequila.  Personally, I hate tequila, ever since that time in college when I drank a bottle of Jose Cuervo, walked halfway home in the pouring rain thinking I was Jesus, stopped off at a Laundromat, and tried to dry my body by climbing into the clothes dryer.  That doesn’t work very well, let me tell you.  I finally got a ride home in the back of a squad car, which actually is way more convenient than a taxi.  True story.  Painfully true.

Anyway, what was my point?  Oh yeah.  That I don’t really like tequila or gaijin bars.  I’d just as soon avoid them, but I can also see they serve a purpose.  If nothing else, I don’t have to worry about hordes of college guys slamming Irish Car Bombs in my izakayas.  I feel the same way about the grammar-translation method.  It may be a rough way to accomplish what you’re after, but it’ll do in a pinch.

What is the Grammar-Translation Method?

The grammar-translation method is widely hated by EFL/ESL instructors, even without clearly defining what the method is.  It often serves as a catch-all for the repetitive, overly academic, and terminally boring language classes most of us sat through in school.  Classes are also primarily conducted in the native language of the teacher and the students, a big no-no the EFL/ESL world.

At its core, the grammar-translation method seems to embody five concepts:

1. Learning grammar rules

2. Translating back and forth between the target language and the student’s native language

3. Memorizing lists of words

4. Utilizing exercises and tests in constrained ways

5. Explicit error correction

I say “seems to,” because there isn’t actually a “How to teach the grammar-translation method” book.  The “method,” as such, is not prescriptive, but rather descriptive.   The description dates back to a 1903 book, in which the author describes the horrible, boring classes children of former centuries were forced to endure, presumably while on break from working at their looms.

Criticisms of the Grammar-Translation Method

Critics point out that the method typically creates a teacher-centric classroom, with no opportunity for speaking practice.  Okay, often true.  And that learning tedious grammar rules and long lists of vocabulary does not prepare students to communicate in real-world situations. Again, largely true.  But is it really the devil incarnate, or have we overlooked some of the benefits?

Criticism of the Criticisms

If you do a quick search for “Grammar-translation Method,” you’ll probably notice something striking.  Anyway, I did.  A lot of descriptions of the method (whatever one conceives it to be) use roughly the same verbiage, which sounds like everyone’s just parroting everyone else.  Also, there’s no shortage of hyperbole.  Here’s one example:

The Grammar Translation Method is an old method which was originally used to teach dead languages.

Hmm.  “Old method,” “originally used,” and “dead language” all add a little spin to help reinforce the writer’s point.  Of course I love that, because it’s just the kind of thing that I’d do.  So let me try:

The Grammar Translation Method is a well-established method which has long been used to teach some of the world’s great languages.

So that’s a fun game.

Now look, I’m not actually arguing that the method is all peas and carrots, only that some of the criticisms might be overblown.  Man, when I gotta be the voice of reason, you know you’re in trouble.  Here’s another one:

Error correction:  If a student’s answer of a question is incorrect, the teacher selects a different student to give the correct answer or s/he replies himself/herself.

So humiliating students is part of the method?  Again, Hmm, I say, only this time I mean it.  Sounds more like the way a given teacher chose to implement the method rather than the method itself.

You know, I’ve seen Japanese students fairly bludgeoned to death with that style of teaching.  It’s terrible, I agree.  But I’ve also seen the same five points accomplished by skillful teachers in ways that are useful and engaging.  There are lots of teaching styles that accomplish error correction without simultaneously humiliating people.  Just as there are ways to teach grammar that involve games and student input.  Maybe that’s a modification on the original method.  Fair enough.  The light-bulb has changed a lot of the years too, and it’s still a light-bulb. Whatever.  What I’m suggesting is that rather than vilify the method entirely, try to understand where it succeeds and use what works.

The Act of Balancing

According to world-famous linguist/egoist K. Seeroi in Why are Japaneses so Bad at English?, one reason students can’t speak English is that they don’t have sufficient opportunities for practice.  And certainly, to the extent that people are silently studying lists of words and grammar rules, their speaking time is necessarily limited.  But there’s no reason that the grammar-translation method can’t be used as a supplement to a more communicative approach.  Learn grammar rules and vocabulary for a third of the class, then practice using them in spoken conversation for the remainder.  Or make one out of every five classes a grammar class.  We live in a universe abounding with options.

The Last Word

Okay, there’s never going to be a last word, because everybody’s got a different teaching style and idea of what’s best.  But before disposing of baby with bathwater, let’s consider how we might implement the five points in a way that leverages their strengths.

1. Learning grammar rules

Okay, you don’t want to go crazy on this, because you risk loading people up on theories that they fail to carry forth into practice.  At the same time, it’s useful to know some rules.  とおり follows verbs and どおり follows nouns.  Learning a few basic rules can help to avoid internalizing a ton of simple mistakes.

2. Translating back and forth between the target language and the speaker’s native language

“How do you say _____ in English/Japanese?” is a pretty common question.  If you speak more than one language, you’ll probably field this question a lot.  It can be instructive to practice translating, even fun.  You just gotta pick the right material and use the right approach.   Maybe you want to take it easy on the Beowulf.

3. Memorizing lists of words

This doesn’t have to be super-boring, and the payoff is good.  It’s often implemented as a writing activity, but there’s no reason it can’t be part of conversation practice or a blended approach.

4. Utilizing exercises and tests in constrained ways

“It ain’t no fun ___ the homies can’t have none.”  Now fill in the blank.  These are great group activities.  That there are plenty of creative exercises that can reinforce grammar in practical and student-centered ways.

5. Explicit error correction

I’m not a fan of direct correction, because corrections are difficult for students to remember and apply, and having your errors handed to you on a stick is de-motivating as hell.  On the other hand, if you see a lot of students making the same mistake, you might need to point it out to the class as a whole.  Or create another activity that enables learners to see their own mistakes in a non-confrontational way.  A friend of mine teaches the use of the plural for animals with an exercise illustrating that “I like dog” means food, not pets.  Me personally, I like flying squirrel.  So cute and delicious.

And Back to the Pub

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s not to drink an entire bottle of tequila.  Because doing a whole lot of anything is usually a bad idea.  Same for the bar, same for the classroom, I always say.  Mixing things up will teach you a lesson you’re guaranteed to remember the next day.  So just provide your students a little grammar, plenty of conversation, and then at the end, a couple shots of tequila.  Guaranteed they’ll be speaking in tongues in no time.


12 Replies to “The Grammar-Translation Method : Really all that Bad?”

  1. It has been long debated whether translation should be used as a means of teaching in language acquisition. Some people propose using grammar translation method in language teaching, arguing that communication is more important and hence, the target language should be used as a media language. However, others consider the use of translation as a good practice for learners to shift between the mother tongue and the foreign language. By translating the target language into learners’ mother tongue, the learners are much quicker to understand and remember the meanings.

    1. I’ve heard the mantra of “no English in the classroom,” and I used to follow it. There certainly seem to be pros and cons. Staying fully in English allows a sort of spell to be cast, where learners truly believe that English is the only language available, and acquire information directly, without translation. I love that for intermediate learners and above.

      With lower level students, however, I’ve found that a lack of translation sometimes leads to misunderstandings and can distract from the points of the lesson. Sometimes it’s easier just to say “this means this,” everybody understands it, and we can move on.

      1. Yes more advanced learners do fine with straight English but lower levels need to rely on heavily on translation as direct method fails to stimulate interest. I find translating English songs to teach 11 to 17 year olds in the Philippines very effective–kids just love it, especially if they knew the song to start with. Some of my materials include: Where is the Love by Black Eyed Peas (wonderful message for kids) where they learn a bit of American slang as well, much to their delight, Leader of the Band by dan fogelberg (beautiful lesson on balance of parental love and and discipline) etc. Translating songs is so fun!

  2. I’ve tried a couple different alcoholic drinks, but they all tasted like flavored hand sanitizer. Is sake any different?

    1. To ensure I could authoritatively reply to your comment, I also tried a couple of alcoholic drinks this morning. And I can safely say, God no. I’m pretty sure the active ingredient in Purell is sake. I mean, it’s basically just rice and water that somebody left sitting around for a really, really long time. Still, it seems to go well with Japanese food. Sake, I mean. But maybe hand sanitizer too.

  3. I run an English course at home and most of my students are primary students. Today, two of them (grade 3) came and told me that they’re going to have a conversation test this Friday and wanted me to help them with it. I took a look at the script given by their teachers and it simply a short conversation with the English text on one page and the translation on the other. I asked my students how does their teacher usually test them in conversation test? and their answer is by giving them the Bahasa Indonesia and asking them to translate it into English. My students don’t understand the content of the conversation, they only memorize. Once I asked them randomly, they cannot answer. I do agree that grammar-translation method is still important to use, but is it really effective to use it at primary level? Since English is foreign language in my country, the students practically don’t use it other than at school during the English lesson, which is only once a week (45 minutes). I’m indeed struggling to make my students use their English…

    1. Thank you for writing. This is a subject of great interest to me, since I also instruct primary students (in addition to older students and adults). I wrote this article not because I want to defend the grammar-tranlation method per se, but because I think teachers haven’t even agreed on what it is.

      (PS: This is a long reply, but I promise I address your concerns at the bottom!)

      There are a lot of newly-minted English teachers in Japan who are shocked to discover how English education is conducted. For them, the “grammar-translation method” equates to a boring, teacher-centered class. I don’t disagree that many classes are exactly that. But is that the grammar-translation method at work?

      First of all, I have to ask: What exactly is the grammar-translation method? In my research, I have yet to discover anything that describes what the “method” is, beyond a general description indicating that some translation and learning of grammar occurs. Certainly, I have yet to see anything along the lines of:

      “Step 1: Students read a passage in the target language. Step 2: Teacher drills unfamiliar words with students by using picture cards and short explanations in the native language. Step 3: Students form groups and try to construct sentences using the new vocabulary and as-yet unfamiliar grammar. Step 4: Teacher provides the corrected sentences on the board and explains the new grammar. Step 5: Students individually write translations the text in their native language.”

      Something like that. Just off the top of my head, that looks like a “method” or a template for instruction. But what people are criticizing as the grammar-translation method isn’t anything in particular at all. It’s some amorphous idea about what constitutes an ineffective lesson.

      By contrast, the concept popular among native-speaking English teachers is to simply dive into direct instruction and conversation practice. The idea is that students will improve their speaking skills by actually applying the language in spoken, quasi-realistic situations. This has the side benefit of side-stepping the two things that few native English teachers can actually do, namely grammar and translation.

      I don’t disagree that this is effective. It works. But so does teaching grammar, and so does translation. Honestly, everything works. (See for more on this idea.) The truth is that learning a language is a lengthy, multifaceted process amenable to a variety of approaches.

      And after all that, the truth is that it’s not the method; it’s the teacher. A good teacher cares whether or not students understand and feel satisfaction the progress they’re making. And above all, that they’re not bored out of their skulls.

      Now, on your particular situation, you’ve got some challenges. I see six right off the bat (none of which have much to do with the “grammar-translation method,” by the way. Actually, it sounds like more a lack of method than anything.)

      1. Students are failing to understand parts of what they’re being asked to do. Without a doubt, they have to understand before they can go further, so something is missing in the initial instruction. Either you or the other teacher must do something to help them understand the missing points. By the way, “do something” does not necessarily mean “teach at them.” It could be a game, exploratory activity, song, etc.

      2. The level sounds like it may be too high for them. This is just a guess, but if they’re 3rd graders, it might not take much to blow them away. Are you asking too much too early? Children have difficulty holding many items in short-term memory, and difficulty conceptualizing grammar, so long sentences are often beyond their reach. Remember “See Spot. See Spot run”? That’s more like it.

      3. It sounds boring. Rather than asking kids to concentrate on something this involved, you might try short, timed competitions between several groups, matching games, or a mock situation utilizing the target language (such as buying items at a store with play money).

      4. Why testing? Testing helps to ensure comprehension, measure progress, and provide an objective. But those aims can be achieved without putting individuals on the spot. Young children are especially vulnerable to being judged. Protecting the confidence and enjoyment of all learners should be at the top of the list.

      5. You’ve got another teacher in the mix. (By the way, I’m just pointing out the challenges; I understand you may not be able to change the situation much.) If that teacher isn’t providing interesting, valuable, and motivating instruction, that’s a separate challenge.

      6. 45 minutes a week. That’s short, and you’ll need to be realistic about how much change you can effect in that amount of time.

      Well, sorry for the long reply. Let me know how it goes. Hope some of that helps.

  4. Regarding the Grammmar-Translation Method, what exactly is it?

    It seems entirely reasonable to me for a beginning student to work with learning basic grammar, and practice via translating simple sentences, at least until they’ve got a decent “toolbox” built up. From my experiences, the better language departments at different universities do it that way, and I don’t see why it can’t be enjoyable either (I certainly didn’t mind it when I was taking German.)

    1. You’re right; what the grammar-translation method is–is pretty ambiguous. Why it’s bad–is a mystery.

      The nearest I can figure is that a lot of foreign English teachers in Japan dislike the way that English is taught here, which has come to be referred to as the “grammar-translation method.” They’re partly right, in that English education in Japan leaves a lot to be desired, and I mean a lot. But the problem doesn’t stem from translation, which as you point out can be a valuable and even fun activity. Rather the problems arise from teachers badgering students into submission, forcing them to memorize long lists of words with no context, and an emphasis on written language rather than oral communication, just to name a few.

    2. How old were you when you started with German and what’s the motivation behind learning it? Young students (11 to 17) who are in high school are learning typically 6 or 7 subjects other than English, and when English becomes “another time to understand things” it can be, well, “work”.

  5. Yeah, translation as taboo is certainly something parroted by a lot of ESL teachers without a lot of reflection. As you say, it’s not usually an actual method they refer to but just any use of translation.

    One key point to distinguish with the use of translation is what direction it is – if it from the L2 to L1, then it’s just a means to check comprehension. Going from L1 to L2 for practicing production in a controlled way is far more useful and more challenging. It’s also much more authentic and wholistic to have students produce a whole translated sentence than to do multiple-choice or cloze-type activities.

    As for the argument often put forward of translation being an unmotivating activity, I’d question that given the popularity of the Duolingo app which uses it as one of its main exercises (in a pretty stuffy form at that). Personally as a learner, I find short translation activities to be enjoyable as a kind of small puzzle with a clear goal.

    A big part of the avoidance of translation has been industry and practicality driven: to train teachers to teach in multilingual classrooms; to be able to publish all-English textbooks that can be used in ESL or EFL classrooms anywhere in the world, rather than having to make different language editions; to allow native speakers with no knowledge of the students’ L1 to teach.

    Fortunately it seems like some balance is coming into the debate, with the publication of such books as ‘Translation in Language Teaching’ by Guy Cook:

    He lays out a lot of very solid arguments for the inclusion of translation exercises along with the whole range of communicative stuff we already do.



    ps the link you included to an article didn’t work for me…

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’d also add that, from my experience, the age of the learners is also important when considering whether or not to use L1 in the classroom. Children are generally quicker at understanding foreign words from context than adults are, but they’re sometimes bored, confused, or misbehaving, and at such times a few words of Japanese can get things back online.

      For adults, mixing both languages seems to cross their wires. Whenever possible, I avoid using L1 with them. Although I don’t consider, say, translating a song to be the same as just interspersing my speech with “helpful” bits of Japanese.

      Yeah, unfortunately that link was broken. I’ll edit it out, and re-include it later if I can find it again. Thanks.

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