The Downside to Teaching EFL Using the Translation Method

By Bridge
February 17, 2011

There are two schools of thought about teaching EFL using translation. The direct translation/grammar translation method was used extensively for reading and interpreting texts, usually in the field of academia. In fact my husband used this method when he wrote his thesis on Hegel (way back in 1975!!!).

He did not have to be conversant in German to interpret the meaning of Hegel’s writings. He simply needed to be able to read those texts closely for meaning. Thus his focus was on the ‘rules of German grammar’ and the direct translation of words and phrases from German into English, not on his fluency in speaking or listening to German.

Learning a L2 (second language) for the purpose of understanding and being understood (communication, and thus all four language skills), however, is much broader in perspective and scope than reading and writing in an L2 for a specific reason: a thesis.

For students who want to effectively communicate in English as a second language the direct translation/grammar translation method becomes a hindrance to learning. While the student might be able to enumerate ‘the rules of English grammar,’ complete endless grammar exercises in a workbook, and score well on a grammar test (often better than native English speakers), there is no hard evidence that any of these things aid in a person’s ability to use English accurately and fluently in speech.

Being able to communicate in English as a second language means having a command of all four language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking). When students say, I want to speak English fluently, it is the teacher’s role to make them aware that speaking a second language is an intertwining of all the language skills; an ELL (English language learner) cannot be effective and efficient with one skill without knowing the other three.

One might think extensive use of the L1 (first language) in translation is an aid to learning in the EFL classroom, but in reality it becomes a crutch and a hindrance to learning the L2. So my advice is don’t let L1 usage become a regular part of L2 learning, and that goes for extensive use of electronic dictionaries too!

This post was written by Laura Greenwood – Guest post by Marisa Brooks.