Grammar Translation, The Direct Method and Bilingual Skills
The future aims of learners of English vary widely. For some they may be clearly defined. They may want to study in an English-speaking environment, or to keep up to date with what’s in the English-speaking press, or to get by on holiday in an English-speaking country, or to conduct business meetings in English. These aims don’t necessarily involve a deep-seated interest in English-speaking people and their culture, though that may develop.
Other learners may have a more general motivation and, rather than seeing learning English as a means to an end, see it as a more educational and personal experience. This sort of interest usually is characterized by a wish to gain a deeper understanding about people’s ways of life and values. The ultimate goal of this group may even be to become bilingual. Although bilingualism is not a big issue in EFL, many teachers are interested in the extent to which other languages should be used in the classroom. Some teachers see the use of the mother tongue in language learning simply as a helpful transition to L2. Others see it as a way of developing bilingual skills. Yet others see it as a dangerous distraction from the learning of L2. I’ll return to the question of L1 use in class in a moment. Meanwhile, let’s sort out what we mean by bilingual and bilingual skills.
Now read the information that follows and see if you are still happy with your definition. Change it if you want to. (As you read this, bear in mind the interesting point that worldwide being bilingual to some degree is more common than being monolingual.)
People with the following sorts of skills have all been described as bilingual by different linguists and psychologists. A bilingual person could be someone who is able to:
– get on the right bus in another language
– understand a current affairs program on the radio
– write a letter to their child’s school about arrangements for meals
– give a simultaneous interpretation of a speech at an international conference
– use two languages often, but not necessarily very well
– speak two languages, but cannot read or write them both.
Standard definitions range from insisting on native-like competence in two or more languages (which is comparatively rare) to some second-language proficiency in one of the four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing). I personally go for something between these two extremes, reserving a term like ‘totally bilingual’ for people equally at ease in all situations in either language.
If your answer to the previous activity was something like: ‘Being bilingual means knowing two languages’, on the face of it that seems clear enough. But apart from the variety you saw in the list above, there is also a difference between the person who is able to operate equally well in both languages in all contexts and the person who has acquired two languages completely separately. This person may find it difficult to generate quick connections across the languages, as you have to when using bilingual skills such as translating or interpreting. If these are skills that a learner is going to need, at even a basic level, then the teacher must be open to some use of L1 in class.
Over the years many different approaches to language teaching have been developed. Two of the most influential of these are known as ‘grammar translation’ and ‘direct method’.
Grammar translation was – and in some courses still is – characterized by grammar exercises (often out of any context) to learn lists of words, grammar rules, and translation work, mostly written. There is very little oral communication work and no encouragement of independent learning and learning by discovery. In spite of this, there are reasons why the grammar translation method is still retained in places, such as those where there are very large classes and sometimes inexperienced teachers working in difficult circumstances.
By contrast, in the direct method only the language being learned (referred to as the ‘target language’) is used in class. No use of the learners’ own languages is permitted. When it was introduced the direct method was seen as a great improvement over the more traditional ‘grammar translation’ approach.
Today, the direct method is generally regarded as preferable, since it provides opportunities for immersing learners in an L1 environment and encouraging them to try and think in L2 without interference from their L1. However, many language teachers use a combination of methods, including some use of the learner’s L1.
Let’s now consider ways in which L1 can be used in class.
Using L1 in language learning
Discussing the syllabus and their own learning strategies with learners is seen as very important by most teachers. This can be done very effectively in L1, of course, but the teacher must share the learners’ languages to do so. Nonetheless, many teachers do make use of the L1 in class even if they don’t speak their learners’ L1, as the next activity shows.
Below I describe four classroom activities. They can all be carried out with multilingual groups, provided there are pairs within the group who share the same L1. Think about them and decide which ones could be done by a teacher who doesn’t share her learners’ L1. Are there any which would not work very well either with a multilingual or a monolingual group? Note down your ideas before comparing them with my own comment.
1.A learner tells the class a story in L1. Another learner interprets it into English for the rest of the class. They can ask questions about it in English.
2.Groups within the class act out a difficult situation first in L1 and then in English.
3.Learners carry out a traditional written translation exercise. They translate to or from English and compare results with each other.
4.Learners form pairs to carry out what is known as ‘back translation’. One learner translates a few lines from English into L1. Their partner translates them back into English without seeing the original. They compare results.
Activity (3) is the only one which need cause any difficulty for a teacher who doesn’t understand her learners’ language(s). With the rest, it’s a matter of careful planning and being willing to hand over a measure of control to the learners. Activity (1) would work better in a multilingual group, as the interpretation would be real for the rest of the learners.
The point to note here is that even if you can’t speak your learners’ language(s), you can still develop bilingual awareness, and foster theirs. Now that you’ve been introduced to the idea of using L1, you should be in a position to weigh up some of the pros and cons of doing so, which is the aim of the activity that follows.
I would suggest the following advantages. Using L1:
– saves time and frustration when giving explanations, especially to beginners
– encourages learners (and teachers) to think in terms of language comparison
– means that learners acquire bilingual skills, such as using a bilingual dictionary
– can be fun, motivating and improve learning.
The dangers of using L1 are that it may:
– isolate learners who do not share it
– impede learning of English – if it is overused by learners or by the teacher
– encourage learners to translate everything rather than think in English
– slide into nothing but grammar-translation methodology.
You might have mentioned under ‘dangers’ that people may get muddled and that it’s better to encourage learners to think in one language at a time. For some, this may be true – but there is always the danger of L1 interference anyway. For example, learners may say something in English using a grammatical structure from L1, like a Spaniard saying Is marvellous for It is marvelous. A bilingual approach can actually help to highlight the difficulties here.
You might like to think about what your own preferences would be in learning a language: if English is your first language, would you like some use of English in your foreign language classes?
This section has investigated two broad approaches to language teaching: grammar translation and the direct method. Now let’s turn our attention back to the individual learners of English and look more closely at the implications their language goals have for the planning of their courses.
Different learners, different skills
As I said earlier, many learners have well-defined goals. The balance of skills contained in a course should therefore reflect learners’ aims and learning priorities. For example, a learner who says she wants English for business purposes would probably also need some social English, since business is rarely conducted without a social dimension to it, whereas the learner who wants English for social purposes probably does not need business English. The next activity enables you to think a little further about a learner’s needs.
Below you will find brief descriptions of eight learners who have enrolled on English courses. Each of these learners has rudimentary English from their schooldays, but no specialized terminology and little communicative competence.
Read the descriptions and then tackle the following two questions.
- What language skills (speaking, listening, reading or writing) do you think they would probably want to focus on?
- What topics do you think would be most relevant to them?
- A Chinese woman working in social policy, due to go to Britain on a fact-finding tour to look at the impact of social policy on people’s lives.
- A Japanese assistant teacher in a British school, teaching Japanese for one year. His skills in reading are more advanced than those in speaking or listening.
- A Spanish law student. She wants to take up work connected with the European Union.
- An Italian businessman who is opening up offices in India and the Middle East.
- A German medical researcher who needs access to scientific literature written in English.
- A Bosnian refugee whose husband has died, but whose two children aged 9 and 13 are in Britain with her.
- A Namibian primary school teacher. He wants to be able to teach English as well, in Namibia.
- A 17-year-old Brazilian learner, whose parents are considering sending her to university in the United States.
Here are just a few of the language areas and skills needed by these learners.
- She’ll need the English of social planning etc. as well as questioning techniques and report reading. This comes under ESP (English for Special Purposes).
- He’ll need the language of teaching: instructions etc., school-report writing, familiarity with children’s language in class, and strategies for communicating with his colleagues.
- She’ll need to study the language of law (ESP), and develop communicative competence in English as an international language, to talk to other EFL speakers; she may need some bilingual skills.
- He’ll need general social English, and business English, especially for communicating with other EFL speakers.
- She’ll need English for reading scientific articles, and perhaps for writing them (ESP).
- She’ll need to learn English for living in Britain, including communicating with the public services. In Britain this is known as ESL (English as a Second Language) or ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) – see the glossary.
- He’ll need a high degree of explicit language awareness, highlighting teaching methodology for youngsters.
- She’ll need strategies and the language for understanding lectures, note-taking, participating in seminars, talking to fellow learners and lecturers, etc. This is known as EAP (English for Academic Purposes). She’ll also need some familiarity with American English.
Clearly once the teacher meets the learners, these issues can be discussed further, but usually some planning must be done in advance often on the basis of written information only.
What do learners bring to the learning process?
I referred earlier to the importance of involving learners in planning their own courses, whether in L1 or not. There seems little doubt that when learners have a say in the overall content of their course and the approach to the language learning task, the quality of learning improves. But there are also many individual variables which affect learning.
You walk into a language classroom for the first time. Your learners are there to improve their English. What are they expecting you, the teacher, to do? What are you expecting them to do?
If the learners only have experience of very authoritarian teachers, they may find it hard to speak spontaneously. If they have never been in a mixed-sex class before, they may be inhibited. If they are older or younger than everyone else, they may find it difficult to fit in. If their language learning has been only by grammar translation, activities such as games to promote communicative competence may not be taken as serious learning, and so on.
Bearing in mind what I have said about expectations, put yourself in the shoes of a teacher and say which of the items in the list below you would want to discuss with your learners and take into account when planning your teaching. Tick as appropriate.
– their own language aims
– how interested they are in the language and culture
– their age
– the experiences they had in their schooling
– their personality
– their religion
– their nationality
– their gender
– the time they have available
– their skills in other languages
– the script in their L1
– their interests (outside language learning)
– other variables
All these factors may affect how a learner responds in class. However, a teacher must always take great care not to stereotype. People are individuals, as well as being members of a particular group, sex, country or religion. (Variables relevant to day-to-day planning also include immediate ones, such as how tired they are, how hot it is, size of the class, and so on.) In general it is clear that teaching and learning are more successful when the teacher takes a real interest in her learners, and is aware of the knowledge, skills and experiences they bring to the classroom.
There can be few more direct ways to discover how people think they learn best than by asking them. That is exactly what the international teachers’ magazine Modern English Teacher (MET) did recently by running a competition called ‘How do YOU learn a language?’ In the next activity you will see what response they had.
Read through these replies carefully. Decide in each case:
– what language skills (listening, speaking, reading or writing) are being improved
– which of the skills is based on which of the following principles (more than one may apply in each case):
– use of real world (realia, authentic material)
– real communicative situations
– bilingual awareness
– a stress-free environment
– the use of reference books (grammars, dictionaries)
– confidence in oneself.
Make a note, also, of what these learners have in common in the way they are approaching their learning.
- A Chinese learner felt he wasn’t getting any further, despite consulting grammar books, dictionaries and trying to memorize longs lists of vocabulary. One day he fell asleep in the sun listening to the recording of an English lesson. In his half-conscious state he found it easy to acquire new words, understand difficult sentence structures and interpret hidden meanings. He wrote:
‘Ever since then I have made a habit of listening to cassette recordings while dozing off. It has worked with me nicely.’
- What language skill is this about?
- Write one or more of (a)-(f)
- A learner from Oman learns from unexpected and apparently trivial quarters:
‘For example, a piece of paper lying on the road might attract my attention and I would pause to look at it and note down something in it. Then I would ask someone to explain its use and meaning through some examples.’
He also works on ‘discovering differences and similarities in the languages I already know and the target language’. He knows six languages and is about to start learning a seventh!
- A Polish learner of Chinese wrote:
‘At home I tried to read some Chinese texts. The only texts available were the ones printed on packets of tea and sweets, and on labels attached to toys and clothes. I used a Chinese-Russian dictionary, the only one available. Sometimes a Russian-Polish dictionary was also necessary, so three different scripts were involved.’
- An Italian learner creates opportunities to speak:
‘With regard to speaking I think everyone is a perfect partner; a person waiting in a waiting-room at the station or the airport, or someone sitting at a table in a fast-food restaurant, or a tourist walking in the streets of my town. And if I can’t speak to anyone, I speak to myself, in the shower or driving in traffic. I tell myself about my day, I decide what I am going to do, or remember what I have done – aloud and without worrying about the astonished faces of the people driving the cars next to mine.’
What makes a good teacher?
By now you may be feeling rather daunted by the huge variety of learners that teachers encounter. But we can reduce this alarming picture slightly by realizing that (a) there are certain core qualities and skills that any teacher needs, regardless of individual differences within a particular class, and (b) there are certain steps a teacher always needs to take.
Teachers always have to:
– formulate language aims
– decide on the subject content of the lesson
– select appropriate tasks and activities
– decide how to check whether the language aims have been fulfilled.
Now this isn’t the place to go further into exactly how teachers tackle these problems. That is the task of teacher-training courses leading to awards such as the Certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Adults. What I want to do here is focus on what kind of person an effective English language teacher is. In the next activity I’ll turn an imaginary giant camera over the world’s language classrooms to show you some of the different activities going on in them. You can use these descriptions to reflect on what might make a good teacher.
I’ve zoomed in on a few lessons at random. Study these brief descriptions carefully. In each case try and visualize as far as possible what the teacher has had to do to get to this point. By that stage you’ll probably have been able to form a general impression of the kind of qualities and skills that an EFL teacher needs to have. Make a list of any that occur to you as you are forming your overall picture. I have given you a few to start you off.
An EFL teacher needs to be:
– a good organizer
– good at listening.
When you have completed this part of the activity, and read the comment, take a few moments to think about yourself.
– Which of these qualities and skills do you have?
– Which do you think would come easily to you?
– Which do you think you would find difficult to acquire?
Make notes on this. It will help you think about how suited you are to this kind of work.
Qualities and skills of an effective EFL teacher include being:
– a good planner
– not too talkative
– a clear speaker
– good at communicating aims and instructions
– a facilitator (which means not being center stage oneself but delegating control of the task to learners)
– a negotiator (with the learners)
– unafraid of technological resources
– a good stage manager
– a clear thinker.
EFL teachers also need a sense of humor, a good memory and the ability to empathize with the learners.
The sensitive teacher
The final section of this course is in four parts. The four topics I have chosen are ones where teachers need to show particular sensitivity, and although they may appear unrelated, I have selected them because they are currently live issues for many language teachers throughout the world. They are:
– handwriting for writers of other scripts
– correcting errors
– making cultural assumptions
– discussing cultural issues in class.
One of the things that teachers can offer learners is sensitivity to the problem of learning a new script. This is emphatically not the same as learning handwriting for the first time. Writers of Perso-Arabic or Cyrillic or Russian scripts need to learn the Roman script, and not what writing is all about, as a child has to learn.
I think you will agree that this exercise raises our respect for learners. Once we try this, there is little likelihood of patronizing those grappling with English script for the first time.
You will have noticed that in our snapshots of the different language classrooms, the teacher was sometimes listening to the learners. But what did she do when they made a language mistake? What should she do? If she corrects it immediately this might stop the flow and put the speaker off. If she leaves it, then how can the learner learn from the mistake?
These questions have become particularly important since people started using communicative approaches rather than grammatical ones. It’s also an area that learners often feel strongly about, and one that the teacher must respond to by discussing his policy with them. See what your feelings are by doing the next activity.
Below I have listed a number of different techniques that a teacher can use. What effects could these techniques have on the learning process? Note down a number for each, using (1) as very negative and (5) as very positive. It may help if you imagine yourself as the language learner.
- The teacher lists the learners’ errors and asks them to discuss whether they think their L1 led them to make the error.
- The teacher checks learners’ output at all times and makes a brief correction of all errors made.
- The teacher allows errors to go unnoticed on the basis that making errors is an important part of the learning process.
- The teacher makes notes of errors as they are made and corrects them later.
- The teacher corrects learners in front of the peer group, on the basis that this will help everyone.
Technique (1) can be very effective in highlighting differences and similarities, and fostering language awareness generally, as long as learners realize that not all errors stem from interference from L1.
Constant interruptions, as in technique (2), can prevent fluency. The learners will then think about rules consciously as they ‘produce’, and spontaneity may be reduced.
Technique (3) goes to the other extreme. Yes, errors are vital to the learning process, but correction in some form is wanted by most learners.
Technique (4) is certainly a way of not interrupting the flow, but later correction may not always be as effective in preventing the error recurring.
Technique (5) can be quite acceptable but must be done very carefully so as not to embarrass learners and so dent their confidence.
You may have felt that the appropriate technique depends on the kind of error, on what the learner himself wants, and on what kind of activity they are doing. And it is true that this is all relevant. Not all errors are easy to correct, while correction of very minor errors can be done quickly without interfering with communication. Another approach is to concentrate on correcting just certain aspects, for example the past tense, rather than everything. As long as the learner and teacher both know what the policy is, that’s fine. But it is important to have a policy, which may well involve a variety of techniques, depending on the occasion, and to discuss this policy with learners.
Making cultural assumptions
As you have seen, teachers need to be able to put themselves in the position of their learners as much as possible. But we need to think about how far we take this idea. Does it mean that teachers need to learn all about their learners’ cultures and their ways of doing things? There is certainly no harm in this, but it is equally essential for teachers to show an interest in and an awareness of the possibility of difference. They must not assume, for example, that black is the color for mourning everywhere (in India and Japan it’s white) or that brides always traditionally wear white (Indian women marry in red) or that dragons embody danger (in China they bring good fortune). Such differences, and the reasons for them, are a rich source of communication and should be drawn on, not ignored.
Our attitudes to actions like body tattooing, eating horsemeat or spitting in the street are all shaped by cultural conditioning, and so it’s important for teachers to examine their own values objectively in order to be objective about other people’s. Teachers sometimes also have an unconscious belief that English and its associated cultures are somehow best.
Talk to someone from a different culture. Try to identify two or three attitudes that differ from your own. What advantages could the different point of view have over yours?
Possible areas to consider are:
– food and cooking
– table manners
– clothes, and appearance generally
– attitudes to work.
Discussing cultural issues in class
Although I have emphasized the need to take an interest in the learners’ cultures, I have also pointed out that many language learners are anxious to understand the culture that goes with that target language. However, there isn’t just one English-speaking culture. As you have seen, there are millions of English speakers in the world, with different values, belief systems and social customs. This presents something of a problem.
A starting point may be for teachers and learners to explore together the learners’ own customs first before talking about the relevant English-speaking environment. The questions in the next activity are examples of the kinds of questions learners can be asked to consider and compare ideas on. Raising these questions not only gives teachers a clearer idea of their learners, it also highlights some of the cultural areas that language learners really need to know about. The activity will also give you a practical insight into where intercultural communication might lie.
Choose one English-speaking culture that you are familiar with. Then answer the following questions with that culture in mind. Then, if you have the opportunity, talk to someone you know who is a native speaker of another language and ask that person the same questions. Compare your results.
– When you’re talking to someone you don’t know, how close do you stand?
– How do you say ‘No’ without speaking?
– Is it usual to put your elbows on the table during a meal?
– If you’re invited to supper at 8.00 p.m. when do you arrive?
– Do you take a gift? What sort of gift?
– In which hand do you hold your fork?
– When you meet a friend in the street, how do you greet them?
– What time do you have your evening meal?
– When are the shops open in your town?
– Do most people live in houses or flats in your country?
– Do you ever call your boss by their first name?
– What do you normally have for breakfast?
If you were surprised by some of your findings here, then I hope it has opened up an area of interest for you that you might continue to explore. If you found you predicted the results quite well, then you are obviously reasonably familiar with more than one culture, which is a good start for a language teacher.
You have now seen that teachers can offer sensitivity to the challenges faced by learners, such as a new script; care and thought in their approach to the correction of errors; and an interest in and discussion of cultural differences. These will help the learning process. Ultimately though, one of the best ways to gain insight into what being a language learner is like is to become one. Indeed, anyone who has not been through the process of trying to learn another language, but aims to teach one, is bound to be at something of a disadvantage.
In this unit you have learned that:
– some people see language learning as a limited means to an end, while others have a more general interest in getting to know and understand the people who speak it
– there is no single accepted definition of the term ‘bilingual’
– the direct method of language teaching uses only the target language, but there may be good reason for some use of the mother tongue, such as to foster bilingual skills
– grammar translation involves both languages, but doesn’t foster communicative competence
– learners’ language goals vary widely and the skills focused on by teachers must reflect their aims and priorities
– background facts about learners (for example, their L1, schooling, age) can affect how they learn. Teachers must always be aware of such diversity, but without stereotyping.
– people learn in different ways, but it is always important to develop a degree of learner independence in learners
– current issues of interest to EFL teachers include handwriting, error correction and cultural issues
– discussion with learners is always important, both about cultural issues and about what you are doing in the classroom and why
– there’s no substitute for understanding what learning a language is like – doing it oneself gives the best possible insight.
Below are some comments based on the diary of a native English speaker learning French. Imagine you are this learner’s French teacher. After each extract, make a note of the implications for you as her teacher. For example, how could you improve things for her? What principles must you remember? Some extracts may raise points covered in earlier units while others may call for ordinary common sense.
- I am one of two newcomers in a group of ten others who have all been in the class for a term already. How can I be expected to speak French in front of all these people who are bound to be so much better than I am?
- Today I was requested to introduce myself to the class and spell my name in French – I found this extraordinarily difficult to do.
- Listening very attentively is important but is very demanding and tiring. Learners get tired sooner than you might think. In fact being late, tired, hungry, too hot, having left my homework at home, etc. are not as trivial as I supposed.
- I feel the need to ask when things are not clear to me.
- There’s a big psychological difference between classroom exercise, and real communication – I never feel genuinely interested in the content of what I’m doing in class and sometimes forget why I’m doing it. It’s often difficult to think of something worth saying about the trivial matters the teacher gives us to talk about, so I often sit silent because I have nothing to say. In France I fall silent when I can’t say what I want to.
- It is much easier to speak French in France than in Edinburgh – knowing I was going to France kept my motivation going.
- When I went to France, in a conversation with a man on the plane ‘I had half my mind on what we were both saying and half on how we were saying it’
- In France vocabulary was not my main problem, to my surprise. I found I learned a lot by looking and listening. What I got stuck on were connectives – ‘therefore’, ‘so that’, ‘and’, ‘so as to’ – cause me great and recurring difficulties, especially as I realized that the whole piece of discourse would probably be structured differently in French.
- Instructions are really vital but shouldn’t be added to constantly once the activity has started. Interruptions such as: ‘Oh, I should have said…’ are maddening and demotivating.
- When teacher or materials are too difficult, I get bored, and the insistence on detailed comprehension makes the incomprehensibility greater.
- It’s not enough for the teacher to be a native speaker and use reasonable materials. They need to make good use of the materials.
- It is often well worth having a guess at meaning, if there is something to go on, like a known context.
- I really do not like making a fool of myself but I need to make myself say things even when I know I am making errors – and know I am not going to be ridiculed.
- I find I want to control the pace of my learning more.
- Launching into talk in a foreign language classroom takes confidence in yourself, your teacher and your classmates. It also takes courage.
- For me, knowing exactly what I have to do, and why, makes the task both easier and more stimulating.
These are some answers from a range of many possibilities.
- Be sensitive to those starting: allow time and silent periods.
- Boost confidence, don’t ridicule.
- Go at the learners’ pace, take interest in the learners’ lives.
- Leave time to check understanding, and encourage learners’ questions.
- Remember that content, meaning and the desire to communicate are all important; content must be intellectually and emotionally stimulating.
- Real motivation is important; always find out learners’ reasons for learning.
- Remember the importance of learner independence and encourage discovery techniques in learners.
- Highlight connectors (see Unit 2).
- Plan carefully; know what you’re doing and communicate this.
- Pace, clarity and being comprehensible to learners are vital.
- Don’t be tempted to teach without proper training.
- Contextualize material and encourage possible guessing.
- Never ridicule, and allow errors sometimes.
- Remember the importance of learner independence and agreed aims.
- A stress-free environment is important for confidence; learners need time.
- Don’t neglect planning, sharing learning objectives with learners and discussing reasons for learning.
When you have completed this unit you will be able to:
– state the main differences between grammar translation and the direct method
– justify some use of a learner’s first language in the process of learning English
– ask questions about a learner’s language goals and relate them to relevant topic areas and language skills
– cite a number of personal and social factors which may affect a person’s approach to learning a foreign language
– give examples of approaches that you would find helpful as a learner of a foreign language
– suggest some of the qualities and skills that are needed by an effective language teacher
– give examples of areas where sensitivity is particularly important for a teacher.
Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.