By | December 8, 2017

The Historical Background (i)


A long time ago, there was an approach to teaching known as ‘grammar-translation’. Now, keep in mind, this was a loooooonnnng time ago, in the days before modern language-learning. We are talking about the 1960s and 70s. Back then, people didn’t know much at all about how languages were learnt. They followed conventional thinking, and didn’t think much at all.

Grammar-translation was the teaching our parent would have received at school: chanting French sentences written on a blackboard, repeating phrases like robots as they read from French course books. The grammar was explained (in your own language) in detail. The conjugation of verbs was listed, and long columns of nouns had to be memorised, as did sentences and sets of situational speaking (‘Peter and Mary are meeting each other in the office’). There was constant translation, explanation, and the endless copying. It was as old, dusty, rigid, and inflexible as the picture above. It locked everyone down.

If your parents remember this experience, they remember it with distaste and a little fear. And they will admit that they didn’t learn much. They will also admit that what they did learn, they quickly forgot. However, it didn’t matter to anyone. In my country, it was just the high-school French or German class that everyone had to take. And forget.

Many teachers were happy with this, because it was easy to teach. They just followed pages from a textbook, and spoke in the students’ language. Day One, Pages 2 to 7. Day Two, Pages 8 to 12. The grammar-translation-memorisation method needed no effort, required no skill, and took no preparation. You didn’t need any special training whatsoever. A car mechanic could teach languages in this way. People just went through the motions, and it looked like ‘teaching’ to anyone who watched.

The next post will continue with this historical background.

Now, check that you know the meaning of the underlined vocabulary (also repeated below).

  • to be conventional (adj)
  • to chant (v)
  • column (n)
  • to be rigid (adj)
  • mechanic (n)
  • to go through the motions (v)

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Author: Andrew

Andrew Guilfoyle Cambridge CELTA, Cambridge DELTA, Cambridge CELTA teacher-trainer, M.Ed