I get this a lot, of variations on it. Yes, it’s undeniably true that I studied Greek and Latin via grammar translation methods. I did 5 years of Latin at university, all G-T. And I was taught Greek via G-T. And at the end of 5 years of Latin I wondered why I couldn’t read anything, and at the end of 4 years of Greek I was fine with a New Testament and lost without it.
And now I’m quite a few years down the track, and people both ask me, “well, aren’t you at the point where you are because you did grammar-translation and then you went on from there?” I think this is really a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, and it’s a logical fallacy. But to recognise that you need to come to terms with at least one thing.
In all sorts of contexts I keep telling people that it’s entirely possible to learn ancient languages without learning ‘grammar’. And they don’t believe me. Which is understandable, because (a) most people have very little idea about how languages are acquired, but (b) most people think they understand how languages are learnt. (b) is really quite problematic precisely because people thing, ‘well, you learn some grammar, and some rules, and some vocabulary, and you get better and faster at internalising those things’. And, more often than not, this corresponds to their experience of language learning situations.
This is also compounded because people generally think learning a first language is radically different to a second language. Which, it isn’t. It’s a little bit different but the process is mostly the same.
So, let me bring you to a conversation I had recently with some Latin learners. This is an abstraction of a real conversation.
Me: You don’t need to know what an ablative is to learn Latin.
Me: well, you don’t. most native latin speakers probably didn’t have a specific notion of ‘ablative’ that they learnt.
Them: Ørberg doesn’t even introduce the ablative for a hundred pages or so.
Me: Except, chapter 1 of Familia Romana is full of ablatives!
Them: what? oh yeah, I didn’t even realise.
Me: Exactly. You understood in Italiā just fine, because it was comprehensible in context. You didn’t need to be told what an ablative was beforehand.
How is this relevant? Well, if you circle around to the initial point here, it’s that it’s not only entirely possible to acquire a language through comprehensible input, it’s that acquisition and explicit grammar instruction are such different processes that result in entirely different outcomes, that even if you do explicit grammar instruction, it doesn’t necessarily help language acquisition.
And, we have a whole field of research that supports this. That’s the whole field of Second Language Acquisition. And, at the very least the vast bulk of that research suggests that explicit grammar instruction aids very little to zero the process of acquisition. I’m very happy to concede that it may help somewhat, although some linguists in this field would say “no, not at all, at best it doesn’t hinder”, but well, let’s be generous at this stage.
That’s why I advocate for Communicative Language Teaching and for acquisition – because I read introductory material in SLA, and then I went on and read research papers, and I keep reading as much research as I can find time for. I’m interested in teaching in a way that produces acquisition rather than explicit knowledge, because I’ve experienced both, and I believe genuine acquisition is a more worthwhile goal, that sees students reading texts without translating, with direct access to the language, and understanding with fluency.
However, I do teach grammar. Sometimes, for some contexts:
- When I have students who need grammar for their courses and employ me to help them learn grammar to pass a grammar-based exam.
- When I have learners who have already done grammar, and find it useful to use grammar as a meta-language to illuminate things in a text. That’s precisely what grammar is useful for – talking about Ideally this can be done in the target language – then you’re both talking about language while still getting input in the language.
- People often like to have grammar, in either language, so that they have an explicit knowledge of what they are figuring out implicitly. It is affectively helpful for them to feel like they know what’s going on. I’m fine with that, because I think ‘feeling like you are understanding’ is important for learners.
- When I have learners who want to be equipped to deal with commentary-type material that uses grammatical meta-language. In this case, I am training learners to acquire a competency in a different area – how does one learn the explicit knowledge of language required to engage in conversations about explicit knowledge of language. To the extent that that’s a goal, that can be taught. It’s not acquisition though and it doesn’t lead to acquisition.
There are good reasons to teach grammar, so that’s why I sometimes do. At the end of the day though, neither research, nor my experience on both sides of grammar-translation and communicative-language-teaching (with historical and contemporary languages, as a teacher and a learner), suggests or supports that G-T leads to acquisition.