Grammar Translation Method: An Apology

Myself having “acquired” two languages, i.e. without learning grammatical rules, and having “learned” three languages, i.e. with grammar translation method, I think I am in a position to speak a bit about how important learning of formal grammar can be in one situation, and how entirely useless and unimportant it can be in another situation. Importance of formal grammar varies for a native speaker and a non-native speaker. Native speakers of a language do not need to learn the grammar because they have the grammatical “patterns internalized” (Hartwell 205). This sounds more like a universal fact now. But for a moment, let’s think about a learner who has to learn a language with no “rich and complex interaction with the environment” (208), where only available source is a teacher with knowledge of grammatical rules.

In this situation, formal grammar is very important. I learnt English this way. (For the information of those who did not have a chance to learn a second language through grammar translation method, the first skill that the learner learns is writing, followed by reading, listening and speaking). I learnt to write single sentences, after “drills” and practice. I memorized all the available rules including “tenses.” I was taught to understand what I read through translation. Then I would practice translating from L1 to target language and vice versa. When I was able to write more, I would think in L1 and translate it in target language to put it on paper to compose paragraphs and essays. It was not as simple as it sounds. In my mind, I was not only translating but was also applying grammar rules before pouring down the words. But there came a time when this activity became less agonizing as it used to be. Now words would come comparatively more smoothly. This was the time when I had “internalized” the rules. I would not have to consciously apply the rules because after a lot of practice, they had become part of my own knowledge. Speaking fluently till this stage was still a dream. I could not speak English well even after my M.A. I only started speaking English when I started teaching English.

Crux of the story is that, native speakers and non-native speakers learn language differently. Grammar also plays different roles in both cases. I was taught rules of grammar for my National language too that I forgot after passing the exam. I have also forgotten rules of English language, because now I have internalized those rules and don’t need them anymore. For a learner like me, formal grammar has a role that no other available tool or method could play at that particular time. At the same time, there were numerous other learners who were learning with me in the same classes, with same method, are still unable to write or speak English well enough. The only justification that I can give is—they forgot the rules before internalizing them or they never internalized the rules. To answer why could they not internalize the rules is perhaps the job of a psycholinguist.

By giving my personal example, I don’t mean to say that Grammar Translation is the only method to teach a second language. My point is that it cannot simply be disregarded as a tool at all.

Role of grammar in teaching writing is entirely a different story. Again, native and non-native speakers learn to write differently. Grammar rules might still be useless for a native writer but they are still valuable for a non-native writer. As an English teacher of non-native students, I would come across many errors that were grammatical in nature and by simply recalling the rule; the students would be able to fix the errors. And now as an English teacher of native speakers, I find certain grammatical errors that can be cured if the students are made aware of the rules.


One thought on “Grammar Translation Method: An Apology

  1. Very interesting post, Neelam.
    I also approached the study of English, (and French) through the writing / translation method. However, this training, in my case, did not help. When I left Italy for the first time to spend one year in Minnesota as a foreign exchange student I felt like my sophisticated knowledge of grammar and spelling did not help me at all to communicate effectively with my new American friends.
    To be honest, I felt betrayed by the Italian (but I should say international) pedagogical credo concering Second Language Acquisition. I felt betrayed by my English teachers. I did not know what “go ahead” meant, I mean, come on…I should have known that.
    What is more, I soon realized that my new American friends never really used the complex tenses that I had learnt at school, or the subjunctive mood, or the complex conditional forms that populated our exercise books. In spoken communication people mainly used formulas, idioms, standard phrases, and cliched expressions that I had never encountered in my textbooks.
    In writing the focus was on content, not style or spelling; teachers’ emphasis was on dispositio, but my training had been in elocutio (and inventio, in a lesser degree).
    This is to say that my experience has been different from your experience, which shows how cognitive and learning styles vary from individual to individual.
    By this introduction, I don’t mean to say that grammar is useless. Far from it: I believe that the study of grammar is very important, but here comes my caveat:
    1) grammar rules should not be imposed but described
    2) the study of grammar should be encouraged not at an early stage of language learning but once a language has already been internalized.

    By this I mean that yes, American students should study grammar to understand how their language works, to reverse engineer their language.

    But now I need to follow Hartwell’s approach and define “grammar,” or what I mean by grammar.

    In his paper, Hartwell does not distinguish between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. Well, one thing is to inculcate rules in the mind of a learner, another thing is to encourage the learner to explore how language works. The studies reviewed by Hartwell show that studying grammar — by which they basically means ‘prescriptive grammar’ — improves ‘neither writing quality nor control over surface correctness.’ (p. 206) I agree: grammar, as conceived by Hartwell and friends, never helped me and never helped the majority of my Italian EFL students with the daunting task of buying coffee at Starbucks.

    The problem with Hartwell and friends is that they should have left some room to address another important question that keeps linguists awake at night. The question is: “should we teach descritpive grammar, or, even better, should we teach linguistics, to native speakers of English??” I believe that we should. We really should.
    We should introduce students to the key principles of linguistics so that they acquire a meta-awareness of how their language works and how they use it to convey meaning, to convey effects, to persuade, etc.
    We should teach linguistic principles not because we need students to follow rules, but because we need students to question and deconstruct the rules they have been thought critically. In a way, we need them to unlearn what they have been learning and investigate how language works through independent investigation. We need to motivate students, stimulate them to study language, and provide the tools that can facilitate their efforts and the motivations to study language. This can be done if we stop considering language a system of rules and move towards an idea of language as a living creature, always changing in response to cultural, political, and economic changes.

    Hartwell and many other scholars who conducted studies on the value of grammar focused only on the teaching of formal or prescriptive grammar; this is a very narrow, very old fashioned understanding of grammar. it’s a straw man, easy to knock down.


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