Choosing a method of teaching or learning English as a Second Language (ESL) mainly depends on the goals of the student. The grammar translation approach to language learning is an older method that might not be as effective as others in helping a student achieve English fluency. While it still has a place in some lessons, most ESL teachers do not rely solely on the grammar translation method when teaching.
The grammar translation method is known as one of the more traditional methods of language learning. It has been used in the past to teach "dead" languages, like Greek and Latin, which focused more on reading and interpreting and little on communicating and listening skills.
In ESL, the grammar translation method focuses heavily on the specific rules of English grammar, directly translating words and phrases from the student's native language into English using vocabulary lists and rote memorization. In this method, the written, literary English language is more important than spoken English, with reading and writing taking top priority, and with accuracy in grammar taking precedent over fluency.
ESL students taught successfully under the grammar translation method will have the ability to translate even difficult texts from their native language into English. They possess a thorough knowledge of English grammar, including verb tenses. These students will be familiar with several classical pieces of English literature, which are used for grammatical analysis and exercises.
Direct translation is widely regarded as an inefficient way of becoming fluent in any language. For example, translating a sentence word-for-word from Spanish to English might not result in a sentence with the same meaning. Because so little attention is paid in class to listening and speaking, students with years of English lessons through this method are often unable to hold even a basic conversation in English. Because classes with this method are usually taught in a lecture style, with the teacher mostly speaking the students' native language rather than English, class can be dull and cause students to lose interest.
According to Brigham Young University's "A Methodical History of Language Learning," the grammar translation method "does virtually nothing to enhance a student's communicative ability in the language." It also says that the reason the method remains popular is because it "requires few specialized skills on the part of teachers." While some lessons and target vocabulary might be best taught through this method, overall it plays only a small role in learning English as a whole language.
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