How could the Grammar Translation Method be an effective teaching practice?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Grammar Translation Method (GTM) was originally designed under a completely different social paradigm than what we see today. First developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, its essential mantra was that

mental discipline was essential for strengthening the powers of the mind

Therefore, the method was mainly used for the translation of ancient texts via exact translation from one language to the other. The use of the L2 in written form (for the purposes of reading and writing) supersedes its social application.

The actual methodology of GTM consists on analyzing and breaking down words within a strictly linguistic framework, but without considering the language in context; it was direct decoding and encoding. For this reason, GTM involves the following practices:

  1. using one's natural language at all times, and limiting the use of L2 merely to translate isolated words.
  2. studying words by their roots, suffixes, prefixes, syntax, and morphology in a semi-scientific way.
  3. consistent repetition of complex words as way to learn them through habit.
  4. full translation from L1 to L2, using L1 as the foundation language.

The main criticism of GTM is that it does not really teach the language, but teaches instead "about" the language. It shows how the words are formed and written; moreover, it is great to have so much knowledge of etymology- it is, indeed, part of the formal education of a future linguist. However, there is no point in explaining the foundations of a language when you are not teaching how to apply it socially, academically, or purposefully. Therefore, you are only using 50% of the L2 effectively and productively. That is why many teachers do not agree with GTM as the sole methodology to accomplish SLA. It is impossible to learn a system as complex as language under only one perspective. A group of methodologies are needed working together to accomplish the goal, which fails to explain why so many who learned using GTM were proficient in the L2.