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The Grammar-Translation Method

The grammar-translation method of foreign language teaching is one of the most traditional methods, dating back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was originally used to teach 'dead' languages (and literatures) such as Latin and Greek, and this may account for its heavy bias towards written work to the virtual exclusion of oral production. As Omaggio comments, this approach reflected "the view of faculty psychologists that mental discipline was essential for strengthening the powers of the mind." (Omaggio 89) Indeed, the emphasis on achieving 'correct' grammar with little regard for the free application and production of speech is at once the greatest asset and greatest drawback to this approach.

The major characteristic of the grammar-translation method is, precisely as its name suggests, a focus on learning the rules of grammar and their application in translation passages from one language into the other. Vocabulary in the target language is learned through direct translation from the native language, e.g. with vocabulary tests such as:

the house = das Haus
the mouse = die Maus

Very little teaching is done in the target language. Instead, readings in the target language are translated directly and then discussed in the native language, often precipitating in-depth comparisons of the two languages themselves. Grammar is taught with extensive explanations in the native language, and only later applied in the production of sentences through translation from one language to the other, e.g.

Do you have my book? = Hast du mein Buch?
Ich weiß nicht, wo dein Buch ist. = I don't know where your book is.

As Omaggio describes is, testing of the students is done almost exclusively through translation: "students had learned the language well if they could translate the passages well." (Omaggio 90)

Obviously, there are many drawbacks to the grammar-translation approach. Virtually no class time is allocated to allow students to produce their own sentences, and even less time is spent on oral practice (whether productive or reproductive). Students may have difficulties "relating" to the language, because the classroom experience keeps them from personalizing it or developing their own style. In addition, there is often little contextualization of the grammar -- although this of course depends upon the passages chosen and the teacher's own skills. Culture, when discussed, is communicated through means of reading passages, but there is little direct confrontation with foreign elements. Perhaps most seriously, as Omaggio points out, the type of error correction that this method requires can actually be harmful to the students' learning processes: "students are clearly in a defensive learning environment where right answers are expected." (Omaggio 91)

Despite all of these drawbacks, there are certain positive traits to be found in such a rigid environment. Although far from trying to defend or reinstate this method, I must still say: my highschool German class was almost entirely grammar-translation based, with the exception of a few dialogues from the textbook, and I don't really feel it "harmed" or even hampered my acquisition of the language -- and it certainly gave me a strong grounding in German grammar! For left-brained students who respond well to rules, structure and correction, the grammar-translation method can provide a challenging and even intriguing classroom environment. For those students who don't respond well to such structures, however, it is obvious that the grammar-translation method must be tempered with other approaches to create a more flexible and conducive methodology.

Selected Lesson Plans
Heute: Personalpronomen und possessive Adjektive

11:00 Warm up:
Wie sagt man auf deutsch:
What is your name?
My name is ....
What is your telephone number?
His name is ....

Ask for volunteers to provide the German equivalents of several stock phrases they should already know, using possessive adjectives which are already familiar to them (mein , dein , perhaps sein ). Correct if necessary, but not on pronunciation.

11:03 Exercise I (Lesen) . See attached. Have students read aloud, go through the entire passage. Then return to the beginning and, calling on students at random, have them translate the sentences into English. New vocabulary (e.g. klagen , schätzen ) can be introduced at this time (by translation). Mistakes should be corrected, with special attention paid to today's topic: personal and possessive pronouns.

11:10 Grammar explanation: personal pronouns (accusative). On chalkboard:

mein (meine, meinen) unser (unsere, unseren)
dein (deine, deinen) euer (euere, eueren)
sein (seine, seinen) ihr (ihre, ihren)
ihr (ihre, ihren) Ihr (Ihre, Ihren)
sein (seine, seinen)

Explain (in English) the use of these pronouns, and point out any discrepancies between English and German usage. Note especially the parallel formation to ein , as well as the accusative forms, and also explain the contractions (unsre , eure ).

11:15 Do exercise in DNK, p. 89 Übung 2 : students should fill in the blanks with the appropriate pronoun. If necessary, let students work individually or in pairs to complete the exercise first.

11:20 Exercise II (Sätze). Depending on level of comprehension, either call randomly to have students translate the sentences, or give them time to work quietly writing out the translations. Make sure answers are correct.

11:25 Grammar explanation: possessive pronouns. On chalkboard:

mich uns
dich euch
ihn sie
sie Sie

Explain (in English) the usage as well as the importance of distinguishing between nominative (ich , du , etc.) and accusative. Point out similarities to English: me = mich as memory aid, but warn against her ihr (but rather sie ).

11:30 Do exercise in DNK, p. 92 Übung 4: as above, students should be able to fill in the blanks with the correct possessive pronouns. Call randomly on students, making sure each has a chance to answer correctly.

11:35 Exercise III (Sätze). Again, call on students to translate the sentences into German, paying close attention to grammar. (Pronunciation is not heavily stressed.)

11:40 Exercise IV (Schreiben). Have students work quietly writing out the translation of the passage from English into German. Walk around and observe, answering questions and providing corrections where needed. If students do not finish, activity is assigned as homework.

Heute: Personalpronomen und possessive Adjektive.

I. Lesen. Lesen Sie den Text und übersetzen Sie ihn ins Englische.

Meine Familie ist sehr groß. Ich habe drei Schwestern und vier Brüder. Meine älteste Schwester heißt Claudia, und die zwei jüngeren Schwestern, Christiane und Nadine, sind Zwillinge. Sie haben am 28. Mai 1975 Geburtstag.

Mein Vater arbeitet bei einer großen Firma. Sein Chef ist sehr nett, aber mein Vater verdient nicht genug Geld. Meine Mutter klagt immer: Unsere Kinder haben keine schönen Sachen, und ihre Schuhe sind bald kaputt. Du mußt eine neue Stelle finden, wo man dich zu schätzen weiß!

Meine Mutter hat Recht: es ist nicht so leicht für uns. Mein Bruder hat morgen Geburtstag, und wir machen eine große Party für ihn. Wir haben aber keine Geschenke. Man braucht Geschenke bei einer Geburtstagsfete -- ohne sie geht es einfach nicht! Außerdem kommen viele Gäste zu der Party, und wir haben kein Essen für sie. Es ist schwer für mich, aber ich muß gestehen: ohne Geld ist das Leben doch ein Problem für uns!

II. Sätze: Personalpronomen. Übersetzen Sie die Sätze ins Deutsche.

1. How do you like my new apartment? -- I find it beautiful.
2. How do you like my new desk? -- I find it modern.
3. How do you like my new car? -- I find it excellent.
4. How do you like my two new chairs? -- I find them comfortable.
5. I love you. Do you love me?
6. I love all of you. Do you all love me?
7. Do you know him? -- No, but I know her.
8. Mr. Fischer, this book is for you.

III. Sätze: Possessive Adjektive. Übersetzen Sie die Sätze ins Deutsche.

1. Do you have my book?
2. No, but I have your pencil, your notebook and your cup.
3. Is the reporter writing all of your names down?
4. My sister is bringing her friend along.
5. Their dog doesn't like our cat.
6. Mrs. Schmidt, I need your address, please.
7. My grandfather likes to talk about his grandchildren.
8. Does your mother love her children?

IV. Schreiben. Übersetzen Sie den Text ins Deutsche.

Christmas is an important holiday for our family. On the 24th of December we make a big dinner for the whole family -- for my aunts and my uncles as well. We normally celebrate Christmas without them, but on the evening before we all eat together.

This year I need a lot of presents. My brother's birthday is the 22nd of December, so we're celebrating his birthday three days later, at Christmas. I have a tie for him, but I need something else -- maybe I should also buy a shirt for him, but I don't know his size.

For my father I have a book about Germany. Germany interests him a lot, and his favorite hobby is reading. The book is very big; hopefully my father will find it interesting.

For my two sisters I have a few toys -- they're still young, you see {=nämlich} . Their favorite toy at the moment is an old doll, but it's almost broken. So I have a new doll: her face is very pretty, and her body is made of plastic. Hopefully my sisters can't destroy it so quickly!

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1996 for German 720 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "The Grammar-Translation Method." Website Article. 24 October 1996. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/720report.html>.