Grammar Translation: The dominant method in many ELT classrooms [Archives:2003/657/Education]

August 7 2003

By Instructor Nasser O. Attamimi
Faculty of Education-Sayioun
[email protected]

The question of which method is most appropriate for teaching a second language is still under debate. Therefore, foreign languages are learned and taught in various ways. Although none is perfect, some of these ways are more successful than others. In many schools in Yemen, grammar translation is still used by many teachers to teach English. This method was originally used more than a century ago in Europe, in the formal teaching of Latin and Greek. The main principles of this method relate to the teaching of literature and grammar. In the 19th century, it was rejected and attacked for its shortcomings as a means of teaching modern living languages. Educators are now aware that it does not enable students to communicate through verbal interaction, which most approaches nowadays take into account and aim to achieve.
In this short essay we are going to throw light on why this method is still used in many English-teaching classrooms in Yemen. At the same time we shall try to show the advantages and disadvantages of this method. In fact, both the teachers and students of English in Yemen frequently find it convenient to resort to some kind of translation. They commonly attempt to explain a foreign word, phrase or sentence by giving a mother-tongue equivalent. Consequently, we may ask ourselves why do teachers in Yemen prefer such a method? This may well have been due to the constant use of textbooks based on this principle. These textbooks dominate the work of the teacher who follows this method. In addition to that, many teachers have not had adequate training in modern language teaching methodology. Also, many teachers are elderly, and they learned their English following the grammar translation method and continue this tradition.
The other reason is that directors of education demand a focus on grammatical accuracy. They observe that in schools speak and write ungrammatically. Then they insist on teaching explicit grammar. At the same time supervisors are often reluctant to accept and change the way of teaching. Therefore, they compel the teachers to follow a certain plan and to cover certain lessons within a given period of time.
Furthermore, most of English classrooms in Yemen have a large number of students, so the teachers find the techniques prescribed in the grammar translation approach suitable for them to solve the problems of large groups. Typically, this involves students in listening, copying rules and writing out exercises from the black board. The teachers, through this method of teaching, may not need to make great efforts in teaching classes. So when they feel tired, they can simply set the class on a written exercise. Furthermore, by this kind of method, the teachers do not need to show much imagination in planning their lessons, since they usually follow the textbooks page-by -page and exercise-by-exercise. As we know, the grammar translation method relies on using the mother tongue as a medium of instruction. The teachers find this useful in explaining some technical terms/abstract items such as beauty, cleverness etc in the foreign language.
Another advantage of this method, which we observe as teachers, is that it is easy to apply and does not require a teacher who is a fluent speaker of the language. Moreover, it can be taught to classes of any size even by a teacher with an imperfect knowledge of the language and no special teaching techniques.
In spite of the above advantages, the grammar translation method has its own disadvantages. For example, there is no attention paid to accurate pronunciation. Furthermore, there is no attention paid to the use of language in communication and on the activities of listening and speaking. This means that structures of the language are presented by the teacher through the classroom discussion of grammar rules and the exceptions of their rules. Then these rules are followed by written exercises to see if the students have grasped the details or not. But the problem emerges in ignoring the active oral use of the language by the students. Consequently, students do not feel that they have mastered the rules of the target language. Their role in the classroom is for the greater part of the time a passive one. They only absorb and then re-constitute what they have absorbed to satisfy their teacher.
Added to that, the grammar-translation method is not successful with the less intellectual students who muddle through making mistakes over and over again. Such students find foreign language study very tedious. Thus, they drop out of the class and consider such learning as an impossible one. Similarly, the highly intelligent students who become reasonably adept are still confused in the foreign language. They may be very embarrassed when asked to pronounce anything themselves.
Incidentally, some experienced and newly graduated teachers find it possible to resort to another method to enable their students to integrate with others through verbal interaction. Such teachers who are forced to use textbooks based on grammar translation realize the difficulties. They are frustrated by the unreal forms of language it contains and the enormous range of vocabulary.
To conclude we may declare, as all modern approaches recognize, that language is a matter of communication and is used as a medium between people to interact with each other. The grammar translation method has been found to be inappropriate in such a case. Therefore, to encourage teachers to adopt new and more effective approaches and techniques, we have to take into account many factors. One of these factors is that Ministry of Education, should be re-training and encouraging teachers to produce learners who are able to use the language in communication. Modification to the contents of the syllabus has to be considered in order to meet the needs of the learners in the context of Yemen's needs at present and in future.