Why People teach via Grammar Translation

In twin posts I’m going to explore some of the reasons people teach classical languages (by which I mean Ancient Greek, Latin, and similar languages that are mostly no-longer spoken and primarily of academic or historical interest) via the Grammar-Translation method (i.e. teaching grammar explicitly and training students to translate into their native tongue for the purpose of understanding). The second post will follow up on this one and tackle some issues more directly.

 

  1. That’s how the Ancients did it

 

People often think that ancient students of foreign languages learnt primarily via Grammar Translation. I think this is incorrect. Firstly, it’s often prejudiced by the fact that the Rhetoric-based education system of Greece, then Rome, included explicit grammar instruction as the fundamental stage of language and literature study. However, this does not mean those students learn either their L1, or their L2s really, via that grammar instruction. in the case of upper-class diglossia among Romans, who often spoke Greek quite well, this should be tempered by the very fact of that diglossia – they had a living Greek-speaking community that they were being initiated into.

 

  1. That’s how we’ve (‘Classics’) always done it

 

Again, largely untrue. This time for two reasons. I recommend anyone interested in this to read two books, Waquet’s Latin: Or, The Empire of the Sign which deals in part with Latin’s socio-cultural place in the 17th and 18th century, and explicitly talks about shifts in pedagogical practices. Secondly, James Turner’s Philology: The forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities which discusses in depth how, in the Anglophone world, the practice of Philology ‘disciplinised’ into modern humanities, including classics, especially from 1850 onwards. ‘Classics’ as a distinct discipline along the lines we know it today, did not exist before then, and the revered pedagogical practices that dominate it often go back no more than 200 years, or less.

 

  1. That’s how my teacher did it

 

The path of least resistance for teachers is generally to teach what they know, how they learnt it. For many, myself included, Second Language Teaching (SLT) was explicit grammar instruction paired with translation exercises. Regardless of beliefs about SLA, the pressures of teaching often ‘push’ us to simply teach with what is ‘easiest’, and what is easiest in many classes is to pull out a textbook and replicate our own teachers.

 

  1. That’s what worked for me

 

Those that teach classical languages, no mistake, are often those who did really well at them. And with a culmination of points 1-3 the self-fulfilling elitism can be deafening.

 

In a recent discussion relating to why certain advocates of ditching G-T were so down on G-T, someone helpfully pointed out to a newcomer that all the people in the discussion who were down on G-T were those who had been very successful at G-T. This argument isn’t, generally, coming from those who failed because of G-T, but those who succeeded at the 4% method, and have come to consider it deeply flawed. Just because it worked for you, doesn’t mean it is a viable methodology in general. Indeed, the self-selection involved in ‘it worked for me’ actually really means, “it will work for people like me and that the only type of student I care about”.

 

  1. That’s what our goal is.

 

I’m going to tackle this much more thoroughly in the next post on this question, but some people think G-T achieves the kinds of goals we want in these disciplines. What does G-T achieve? It produces Grammarians and it produces Translators. Those are two good things, but is that the goal of classics and related disciplines?

 

One of the problems is that grammarians often try and do linguistics, and when they do it’s usually second-rate linguistics because they’re grammarians. The problem with translators is that they learnt to translate from a language they’re not competent in, instead of achieving competency first and then learning the art of translation. Meanwhile, don’t we actually want to train people as things like historians, litterateurs, theologians?

2 thoughts on “Why People teach via Grammar Translation

  1. “the Rhetoric-based education system of Greece, then Rome, included explicit grammar instruction as the fundamental stage of language and literature study”

    This bears repeating. On a related note, too often those who were taught and still teach via G-T think that “conversational” Latin and Greek necessarily excludes explicit grammar instruction. In fact, in plenty of SLA research — after Krashen — there is strong empirical support for explicit grammar teaching. The fundamental shift necessary is to start thinking of the classical languages primarily as tools for communication rather than as artifacts to be analyzed — but using language as a tool doesn’t preclude analyzing it. The best case scenario is to teach grammar explicitly when it facilitates the communication of meaning and to do it in the target language, so even the grammar instruction becomes useful input for acquisition.

    “What does G-T achieve? It produces Grammarians and it produces Translators. Those are two good things, but is that the goal of classics and related disciplines?”

    Exactly. The tendency in ancient-language fields to use “translate” as the equivalent of “read” obscures the distinction between producing translators and producing (fluent) readers. I look forward to the next post.

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