Musings

An Ode to Grammar Translation

TR11I admit it—as a language learner I really love certain aspects of the grammar-translation method. I like to learn words, phrases and structures and compare them to those in the languages I already know. Seeing where the gaps are in how the target language maps onto the others, and looking for systematicity in the way certain elements interact is the way I learn. It helps me get things into my head. I also really like studying grammar tables and rules. I’m just a really cognitive and analytical language learner.

And of course, I’m not talking wholesale and exclusive use of the grammar-translation method and nothing else. In my own language learning, I combine the grammar study with speaking practice both formal and informal, and a lot of informal listening practice.

I’m currently learning Portuguese, and for lack of any formal face-to-face course available for me to take, I have been using Duolingo for practice. It’s great for learning and reviewing a lot of vocabulary and common phrases. It’s good for the basics of grammatical structures too, but if there’s anything I want a detailed explanation for, I have to  seek it out on the web or in a traditional grammar or dictionary, as the crowd-sourced “explanations” of “rules” within Duolingo are a total shitshow (for lack of a better word). Your typical everyday person just doesn’t know enough about language to give good explanations—give me a sage on the stage, any time! (Duolingo’s estimate of fluency feature is also utterly ridiculous, and judging on the number of baffled comments on the discussions forums, I’m not the only one who thinks so.)

That’s why I find simplistic comparisons of popular language-learning programs/apps/software quite unhelpful. This one, for example, comparing Rosetta Stone and Duolingo, is  trying really hard to set up a binary along the lines of “Duolingo is good for X, while Rosetta Stone is better for Y”: Duolingo Teaches You Faster, Rosetta Stone Teaches You Deeper; Duolingo Is Best for Beginners […], Rosetta Stone Is Best for Committed Learners.  It’s just not true. Rosetta Stone’s immersion-style “we’re going to show you a whole bunch of language and you can just use inductively figure out all the basic rules and patterns” thing works for some, but it drives me CRAZY. It’s too slow. Just tell me how the basic structures work already, so I can get on with practising things! But while I enjoying translating sometimes nonsensical sentences between my target language and English, some people prefer Rosetta-style “immersion”.

As a language teacher, all this drives home the conviction that no one methodology is perfect, and there’s a place for translation-based approaches in the language classroom (though these are obviously more easily carried out in contexts where all the students share the same L1 and the teacher is also fluent in that language). It’s also a reminder to respect the variety that can exist within a group as to people’s preferences in learning styles—and maybe take it easy on the induction and discovery tasks sometimes and just present certain information and get on with it. Especially with aspects of language that are quite straightforward and rule-governed.

(Graphic is from here.)

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