Elemental Linguistics

The Essential Elements of Linguistics

Teacher: It’s grammar time! Johnny, tell me the names of two pronouns. Johnny: What, who, me? We know that advanced speakers use grammar without... 2 – Old Grammar School

Teacher: It’s grammar time! Johnny, tell me the names of two pronouns.
Johnny: What, who, me?

We know that advanced speakers use grammar without thinking about rules. In fact, they may use the rules perfectly, but at the same time, they may have trouble explaining them. With Johnny above, he got the right answer by luck. But advanced speakers are not lucky. Sometimes, they may “not know about” grammar, but they have a natural grammar instinct β€” and can use it to near perfection.

We cannot give students a grammar instinct, though all humans may have it by nature. But many language teachers commonly focus mainly on teaching grammar. We can teach grammar in many ways, and some ways are much better than others. But the oldest way is called the Grammar-Translation Method. We also call it the “classical method” because teachers first used it to teach the classical languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.



The Why and How of the Grammar Translation Method
Though originally used with classical languages, some teachers still do Grammar-Translation. With this method, teachers hold this main goal: help learners read and appreciate literature in the target language. And second: help learners better understand the grammar of their first language.

And how can learners reach these goals? They read texts. They translate them into their first language, and they carefully analyze the grammar of these texts. Supporters of Grammar-Translation also think that students grow mental discipline and intellectual skills by using this method.

To understand how Grammar Translation works, let’s look at a short sample lesson.

  1. Read this short text from the book “Lord of the Rings.”

Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the Wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.

  1. Translate the text into Japanese.
  2. Answer these comprehension questions:
    • Who was next to Pippin?
    • What emotions did Pippin see on the Wizard’s face?
    • What did Pippin perceive the deeper emotions of the Wizard to be?
  3. Translate the following words into Japanese. Make sure you translate the meanings in the text.
    • gay, merry, perceive, mirth
  4. Find opposites in English for these words.
    • joy, sorrow, sound, under
  5. Write new sentences in English for the words in 4-5.
  6. Using the verbs from the above passage, fill in the blanks below:
    • glance, had been, saw, looked, perceived,
    • Time was going by slowly. It ______________ three hours since John ___________ at his watch. He was worried. Maybe his friends had an accident. John ____________ that there was a problem. Then quickly he _________ up and _______ them coming. And he was relieved.

The Biggest Problems: No Theory, No Research
Though this doesn’t seem like a bad lesson, we can find a number of serious problems. First, some students might enjoy translation, but most people will not become translators. If we do a lot of translation in class, we are practicing a skill that most people do not really need. Today, most learners need to communicate, not translate.

But there is a much bigger problem. What learning theory and research supports and guides these activities? Generally speaking, there is no research and theory that supports the Grammar-Translation Method. According to Richard and Rogers (2001) “It is a method for which there is no theory. There is no literature that offers a rationale or justification for it or that attempts to relate it to issues in linguistics, psychology, or educational theory.”

These are BIG problems: No theory. No research. For example, let’s take one of our unified theories: “We acquire language by communicating messages in that language.” That is, when we communicate in English, we acquire English. This is a theory that can guide our teaching, and it is supported by much research. Now look at the translation activity above. What is the communicative purpose? There is none.

Learners are not translating in order to communicate. Maybe they translate so they can understand the text. But the goal is to understand β€” and communicate β€” without translating! And if they do communicate with the translations, they are still not practicing and communicating in the target language.

The Problem of Vocabulary Frequency
Besides having no theory or research to support it, we can find a number of other problems with the Grammar-Translation method. In #5 above, learners are supposed to find opposites for words. But if we teach opposites, learners may “cross-associate” the words. That is, they may confuse the opposites. Though it is a finer point, we do better to introduce opposites separately, and we should do so based on frequency. That is, we introduce the most common words first.

This brings up another problem. Teachers often use very difficult texts for Grammar-Translation. Thus, they often focus on low-frequency vocabulary words. This is fine for advanced learners. But we must always remember a basic fact of vocabulary learner. Learners need the most common words first. We need to avoid teaching low frequency vocabulary to beginners and intermediate level students. That is, we need to give students opportunities to learn the most important words first. This means that we need to give students texts that are at the right level for them, and Grammar-Translation texts often fail to do this.

The Problems of Spoken Language and Intense Texts
In the beginning, teachers used Grammar-Translation for classical languages. Classical languages are valuable and important, but we call them “dead languages” for a reason. People do not use Latin, ancient Greek and Hebrew for communication. Today, we teach and learn spoken languages. And when we use Grammar-Translation techniques, we are not helping learners speak and communicate.

Moreover, teachers often do Grammar-Translation lessons with short, difficult texts are taken “out-of-context.” This kind of intensive reading has some benefit, and we can do intensive reading without translation. (It works best when learners know at least 90% of the words in a text.) But extensive reading is way more important.

With extensive reading, students read appealing stories where the level is just right. That is, they know 98% of the vocabulary, and as they read they can begin to “get a feel” for the way English works. In the end, we may use some of the techniques in from Grammar-Translation. But as informed teachers, we need to base our teaching on good theory and research, and Grammar-Translation cannot do that for us.



Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock is a professor of English linguistics in the Faculty of Economics at Senshu University.