Mary: Do you have trouble making decisions?
Jim: Well…yes and no.
Teachers make decisions. They decide about books, lessons, and methods. Methods often have guidelines or rules to help teachers make decisions. These rules make it easy to decide. But one method has a famous rule that we should sometimes break. The method is the Direct Method, and its main Rule is: “No translation!”
When teachers use the Direct Method, they do not translate into the learner’s first language (L1). And they do not explain rules either. Rather they try to show or demonstrate the meaning of words and phrases. They show meaning by using pictures, gestures, pantomime, visual aids, and real objects, which teachers call realia. (These are great, by the way, if you can bring a suitcase to class every day.)
In short, Direct Method follows these rules. Do not translate. Do not explain rules. But show the meaning of the language to your students. These ideas sound good on the surface. For one, if teachers follow these rules, students will receive more input in the target language. And they won’t have to listen to long and boring grammar explanations in their first language!
Problems With the Direct Method
Learners benefit from language input that they can understand. But imagine an English class in Japan. The teacher is a native speaker of Japanese. If she uses the Direct Method, she may feel pressure to speak like a native. And she may find it hard and stressful to teach all the time in English. So for non-native teachers, the Direct Method can be stressful to use.
Moreover, this teacher might waste time using only English. She might use five minutes showing, gesturing, and using pictures to help students understand one idea. But if she uses her first language (L1) of Japanese, maybe the students will understand in just a few seconds. Thus, we may be smarter and more efficient to use the L1 in timely ways.
The Roots of the Direct Method
The Direct Method stands in contrast to Grammar-Translation. Unlike Grammar-Translation, the Direct Method says “No translation!” It also says, “No explanations!” But the Grammar-Translation Method emphasizes grammar explanation. Moreover, Grammar-Translation focuses on texts. But the Direct Method emphasizes spoken language.
In the 1800’s the Direct Method came out of so-called “natural approaches.” Teachers wanted to make new teaching methods. And they wanted to base these methods on natural ways of learning. To do this, they looked at children learning their first language.
Children acquire their first language with no translation. Children first learn with spoken language. Children learn grammar without explanation. They learn naturally or inductively. With inductive learning, children learn rules by experiencing the rules, not by studying the rules.
At first look, these seem like good ideas. But there are problems. First and second language learning are similar in some ways, but they also differ in important ways. For example, little children cannot easily learn from explanations. But teenagers and adults can learn through explanation. Children don’t learn their first language with translation, but as they grow up, they can benefit from some translation. Children start with spoken language, but reading (especially extensive reading) greatly helps both first and second language learners.
Thus, we see another basic problem with the Direct Method. It overemphasizes the similarities between first and second language learning. And by so doing, the Direct Methods limits teachers. It takes away the tools of explanation and translation (when needed). With its strong emphasis on oral language, it doesn’t give a logical place for the power of extensive reading. And as mentioned above, it can make us waste time, when a simple translation can save time. Everyone agrees that learners need a lot of input in the target language. But regarding the “no translation” rule, we would be wise to break it whenever the time is right.