Grammar/Translation, Communicative methods, and comparisons…

This is me picking up some pieces and adding nuance to one of my usual hobby horses, that is communicative approaches to ancient/classical/historical languages.

  1. Does Grammar/Translation ‘work’?

I think this partly depends upon what we mean by ‘work’. My main interest is developing students who can read effectively in their second language – without translating in order to understand, and mentally operating in the second language.

I don’t think G/T normally produces this for most students, or even most students who respond well to G/T. It seems to me that G/T produces primarily students who translate in order to understand (as opposed to translating messages they have already understood). I don’t deny, that some long-time practitioners of G/T end up being very competent readers. I’ll get back to that below.

  1. Are communicative methods better than grammar/translation?

It’s hard to make a proper comparison, because really this requires a controlled, data-driven study in Second Language Acquisition, and while there is obviously some work going on, on that question, I have yet to read a full-blown comparative study on the question.

However, everything I’ve seen in SLA suggests that G/T isn’t ‘the way to go’. And given that G/T dates back about 200 years, and has been largely abandoned in modern language programs, and the contrast between G/T products and modern language programs, I think we need to consider that pound for pound, G/T is not the best method.

  1. Is it far to compare seminary programs with classics programs?

No, not really. But that’s because a typical seminary program fits Greek grammar into a single year, and then (if you’re fortunate enough to have a robust program) 2-3 years of New Testament texts in Greek. This is ¼ to 1/6 of a program. And it’s focused on intensive, not extensive, reading; on analysing texts at a micro-level and exegeting for meaning; on accessing technical discussions at a verse-by-verse level.

A classics program is 3-4 years of language and literature in that language. If it’s a traditional classics program, that’s at best a 50/50 split (if you do nothing but lang and lit in Greek/Latin). Having done a full Latin sequence, I have a fair idea of what that looks like and produces. Yes, classics produces better readers, but largely because it’s a lot more exposure to texts in the target language.

And this, I’d contest, is ultimately why G/T produces readers – not a superiority of method per se. Translating is a way of making a target language message comprehensible, and sheer volume of comprehensible input is what produces language acquisition over time. G/T will do that. I’m just not convinced it does that as effectively as it could.

My main push-back to G/T is driven by the fact that G/T has this “grip” on both classics educators, and biblical language instructors. There’s a conservatism that thinks G/T is (a) the way it’s always been, and (b) the tried and true method, that (c) ancient languages are ‘different’ and cannot be taught communicatively, (d) etc., etc..

I have plenty of appreciation for grammar, for translation, for G/T methods, but I have no appreciation for traditionalist views that are ignorantly dismissive of alternatives, and critiques, of G/T.




2 responses

  1. I am convinced that this debate is going to become more and more prominent over time. The question is, how do we move things forward?

    Is the problem, for example, lack of resources? If there was a readily available program that used modern language acquisition techniques, (and perhaps dropped a grammar focus in later to allow engagement in commentaries), and it was proven, would a president of a seminary make the call to switch to it? Perhaps, but the unlikeliness of this is increased if there is no one who can teach in this method due to lack of experience in it themselves.

    Certainly even older generations can be convinced if an improved program is proven to be better, but how do we get there?

  2. There are interlocking problems, and Australia has its own unique set of problems.

    1) Advocates of communicative approaches are a minority in classics, and a much smaller minority in biblical studies, and most biblical studies languages type institutions (bible colleges, etc.) stopped listening to classics and barely listening to linguists a few generations ago.
    2) So advocates of communicative approaches are generally looked upon as a bit fringe, a bit loopy, and “that’s a quaint idea, keep dreaming”. An institution would have to have both (a) a language-instructor committed to the approach and confident enough to implement it, and (b) a president and administration prepared to back it with full support.
    3) There clearly are emerging resources, places to learn like this, and teacher-training, but they can be difficult to access. That too requires backing and support, without which we are all just reinventing the wheel in different places.

    Practically? I think we just “pursue it”, as best as one can and where one can, and implement change wherever we have the influence to do so, and demonstrate the approach’s strengths by its results.

    Also, I just keep generating noise on the subject as best I can 🙂

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