Why People continue to teach via Grammar-Translation

Foreword: this is our last post for 2014. Enjoy your holidays and you’ll hear again from the Patrologist in 2015.

 

In this second of twin posts I’m exploring common ‘defeater’ reasons people give for sticking to GT as a method and rejecting approaches like Communicative Instruction. In each case I give a brief explanation of the belief, and some counter-points.

  1. It doesn’t work

I.e. applying CI or other modern language approaches to Classical Languages ‘doesn’t work’. I’m not sure this is a sincere objection, I suspect it’s rather of the order of ‘I don’t want to engage this idea and I’m blanketing you out’.

The fact that it has not worked, or is not pervasive, or that sometimes it doesn’t go perfectly, are not arguments against it. In fact it has worked and it does work. A few timely videos of those few individuals with a decent speaking facility in Latin or Greek shows that it is by all means possible. It is not just possible for the elite either, it is possible for all students.

  1. Dead languages are different

 

Not heard as often these days, but for quite some time people would say things like, “Latin is no longer spoken, therefore our method of learning must be different.” They were generally not making a comment on the difficulties of learning a language no longer spoken (i.e. lack of speakers to talk with) but asserting a fact about the nature of a no longer spoken language.

 

Which is absolute nonsense. Latin is not different from other languages insofar as it doesn’t have a speaking community (I don’t wish to debate whether it does have such a community at this time). Latin is a language. Which means it can be learnt as a language. The status of any language in regards to the number of speakers currently using it has zero bearing on whether it can be learnt as a language or must be learnt as a ‘something other’.

 

If, heavens forbid, all French speakers were wiped from the face of the earth tomorrow by some new, virulent, French-speaker-targeting super-virus, this would not alter the kind of language that French is. It would certainly create obstacles for anyone wishing to learn French. And, given their sudden fatality, I can’t imagine anyone rushing to do so, but French itself would not have changed.

 

So too with the classical languages: if they are languages, they may be learnt as such.

 

  1. It’s too hard

And remembering arcane rules of grammar that appear once every 10,000 words isn’t hard?

 

Yes, I would say, learning a language is hard. It’s hard to learn it as a spoken language, and it’s hard to do GT. All GT students know that! And all students who acquired an L2 as adults know that it was hard too. It took hours, it was tiring, it involved a lot of interaction with speakers, probably embarrassment, and there were many highs and lows and plateaus as well.

 

But it’s not harder. GT is not only hard, it’s often incredibly boring. CT is hard because it requires more investment, but it yields greater satisfaction, it’s more interesting, it’s more motivating. It’s far better to go home from a lesson of CT having interacted in the Target Language for 1-3 hours, and have one’s head swimming in the TL, than to go home after 1-3 hours of GT with one’s head full of “The wicked sailors gave roses to the good girls.”

 

 

  1. It takes too long

Basically this reason is saying that while CT might ‘work’, it is slower, takes longer, and in the end takes too long for the results it promises. Better, in their view, to stick with GT, which requires less hours and gets us ‘somewhere’ faster.

I am almost convinced this is a valid point. I’ve written several times about how many hours working with Comprehensible Input in the Target Language might be required to achieve decent levels of competency, and they are considerable. Anyone learning a modern L2 knows this. I think those invested in teaching classical languages need to be very up-front and honest that considerable time investment is necessary.

However, what I would say is this: I don’t think GT takes less hours to get to the same place. I think GT takes less hours because it teaches and achieves far less. For GT practitioners to achieve real reading fluency takes many, many hours, which is my contention under point 6. In this instance we should not compare apples and pears. Furthermore, from what I generally hear from school teachers using CI based instruction, their results outstrip traditional methods, especially when (a) they spent a little bit of time prepping their students for the kind of tests that traditional methods favour. If that little bit of prep time isn’t their, CI students often simply don’t understand the jargon of grammar questions. No wonder, since they didn’t need it.

So let’s hold off on conceding that GT is ‘faster’, because it may not be faster and it may not even be to the same destination.

  1. It doesn’t match our goals

 

What are ‘our’ goals? I think this is a really important question, or debate to have. Often it seems like the goal of classical language instruction is to do grammatical analysis, but I’m sure most people don’t actually think this is the goal. Isn’t the real goal to be able to understand, appreciate, interpret, texts in classical languages and so to discuss and engage their ideas and content? Isn’t ultimately the content not the form that interests us? And while content and form are never divorced, just as culture and language are inseparable, they are distinct things.

 

If our goal was to train grammarians, then grammar is what we ought to teach. There’s nothing wrong with being a grammarian, of English or of classical languages. And in fact, probably some people do want to study the grammar of ancient languages. We need those people! But that’s not the goal of most students, or of most programs.

 

CT approaches do match our goals, they drastically and desperately match our goals. The claim that no one needs to know how to order a latte in Koine is irrelevant. That’s not our goal either. The goal of CT is to produce competent users of the language with an active facility that enables reading and comprehension of texts in the target language without recourse to translation or grammatical analysis for the purpose of understanding. (Though translation and grammatical analysis may be done for other purposes).

 

  1. GT is how I learnt, so it works

 

People who end up as teachers of classical languages via GT are the 4%. That is, they are often the small minority for whom GT ‘clicks’, who ‘get it’, who enjoy it, while the rest of the cohort is destroyed by a war of attrition fought with boredom and irrelevance.

 

And some of these teachers get very, very good at Greek, Latin, what have you. Especially those that do doctoral programs that require epic amounts of reading of primary language material. But this is my hunch – it wasn’t GT that got them to that point, it was using GT to render those texts comprehensible, and having a huge exposure to comprehensible texts over time. It was Comprehensible Input that gave them competency in reading directly, and this was only indirectly the result of GT.

 

I could be wrong, but I could be right too. People whose primary discipline is classics or the like, who studied primarily via GT, and who achieve marked ‘fluency’ in reading ability, often have a pop- or folk- view of language acquisition that is poorly informed by research or SLA theory, and dominated by the insular views of their own discipline and experience.

 

Even if it did work for you, why should we stick to a method that works for the 4%? What about the 96%? What if we used methods that meant classical languages were learnable by all, not the self-selective and self-satisfied ‘elite’? Wouldn’t that open up the field for the simple ploughman in the field in a whole new way?

2 thoughts on “Why People continue to teach via Grammar-Translation

  1. Another difficulty is that the vast majority of professors are trained in grammar-translation, and there is little incentive to completely shift the way they teach Greek/Latin, especially given that research is more rewarded in many universities. As you know, my undergraduate training is in classical Greek, and there seems to be even less spoken Greek in the classical Greek community than among Koine teachers!

    I think what would have worked best for me is a combination of inductive and deductive; say, spend one term learning the basics, spend the next reading long but easy texts (e.g. Vulgate, 1 John), then go back to the grammar.

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    1. I think people who have learnt things inductively rarely have much problem spending the time with a good explanation of deductive grammar, they ‘see’ what the system is, how it works, how it’s being systematised. People who start purely with a deductive grammar approach have no guarantees that they will pick up an active facility in the language.

      The great thing about grammar, or about meta-language, is that it does give us a language with which to talk about language, and language is a fascinating thing to talk about! Especially if we are in the business of discussing texts.

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