Grammar-Translation: Not Really A Method & Resisting It Now More Than Ever

**Updated 7.26.2020 with this Cicero quote**

“Hence, if someone does not have a natural faculty of memory, this practice cannot be used to unearth one…”
– Cicero (de Oratore 3.560
), trans. James May in How To Win An Argument, 2016

OK fine, the grammar-translation (GT) method has been used for a few hundred years. It’s still the dominant practice for teaching Latin, and widely known. However, what is there to the method, really? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but it turns out the method is quite simple. GT actually consists of presenting students with textbook grammar rules they apply to words in order to understand the target language. As a method, then, teachers present rules, but what is GT—really—for the student?


I posit that the entirety of GT can be reduced to memorizing. This makes it less a method, and more just a process. Students listen to or read about textbook grammar rules, and then recall and apply those rules in order to derive meaning. To be clear, this is a fairly complex way to arrive at step zero—establishing meaning. With GT, students not only must do this for themselves, such as consulting dictionaries and grammar notes, which accounts for a lot of “the work,” but the conscious process requires a decent amount of cognitive demand. Actual interpretive communication, on the other hand, either listening or reading, is an implicit, unconscious process, and effortless. In order to effortlessly apply textbook grammar rules while also recalling word meanings, though, a very good, if not uncanny memory, is required. Memory, then, is both paramount to student success with the GT method, as well as something we have no control over…

A student’s memory is the wildcard of pedagogy. That is, a good memory can overcome bad pedagogy, rendering it almost a complete afterthought. In fact, this is one reason GT has survived and persisted as long as it has. GT students with good memories continue studying Latin because they recall rules easily, and their experience is unaffected. This small group of students with excellent memories has kept GT going for centuries. GT students without good memories, however, get overwhelmed by vocab and textbook rule overload, become frustrated with incomprehension, and find themselves completely OVER that dropping GPA, so they drop Latin. It’s a common outcome. Success within GT, then, excludes students who lack good memories, plain and simple.

Since it’s a wildcard, a good memory can help students under other circumstances. For example, in comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT), students with good memories don’t need as much time to process language because they recall word meanings faster. Thus, they have more immediate access to input, and still stand out among their classmates. Despite this advantage, though, their classmates can still be successful in CCLT without good memories. The difference between CCLT and GT, then, is the expectation and testing of memorizing, as well as what it means to be a successful student.

Expectations & Testing
GT students are often tested on how accurately they recall and apply memorized textbook rules. Accuracy is prioritized over meaning. In fact, students—and teachers—sometimes commit entire passages and poems to memory. Therefore, it’s not even necessary to fully understand or even process a Latin in order to pass many GT tests of accuracy! An accurate translation, whether derived in real time or recalled entirely from memory, has the same result. With GT, there are a lot of textbook rules, and a lot of word meanings, and the more a student memorizes, the faster they’ll produce what’s being tested. Therefore, it all comes down to memory.

We could continue to do more research that keeps yielding similar results study after study. Or, we could just use common sense and save some time. Let’s look at GT from a perspective that doesn’t require research:

  • Q: How many successful GT Latin students have bad memories?
    A: None.
  • Q: Does “success” mean these students can speak or read Latin?
    A: No, not necessarily.
  • Q: Are people with bad memories unable to speak or read their native language?
    A: No, of course not.

If communication were limited to humans with good memories…well…just think about how many people would be excluded! It’s absurd. Yet all humans—except those with severe and rare communication disorders—acquire their native language, and have the ability to acquire more. Perhaps the same could be said about human potential to improve memorizing. I dunno about that, but building such a skill would require cognitive demand, which is something acquisition does not require. Acquisition is not a skill. All humans are hardwired for it. So, one’s pedagogical choice now becomes more of a philosophical, moral, or ethical one if inclusivity is involved (i.e. pedagogy favoring a skill, or pedagogy based on a universal human trait).

Resisting the presentation, practice, and production (PPP) of textbook rules in this time of the COVID-19 online learning craze is paramount. The temptation is there to assign a YouTube video explaining the pluperfect and worksheet to be completed. Let’s be honest, it’s probably the easiest work to assign online. Don’t do it. That decision would draw a line in the sand favoring a skill students would now be expected to develop on their own, without the support of a teacher in the room. Latin hasn’t had a great track record thus far in terms of being understandable to all who study it, so there’s no reason to suspect online teaching removes any of those obstacles. It won’t.

Considering how far along best practices in teaching Latin have come in the last 5-10 years, the easiest online assignments are quite a departure from contemporary pedagogy that focuses on input. Reading is probably the best thing we can assign, although that level is lower than we think. Reading is based on universal brain processes championed by comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT). GT can’t claim to be universal in any way. Choosing GT now would be turning back the clocks on pedagogical progress. Resist it. CCLT—because it’s based on principles universal to all humans regardless of background and conditions—provides all students a path to succeed. GT—because it’s based on an individual’s memorization ability—places obstacles. But wait. Even though the main process behind GT is memorizing, there are even more obstacles placed on the student in order to succeed with GT. Learning online itself is an obstacle in terms of equity. Even a “low” 10-20% of students without reliable access is too many. Other obstacles might be more obvious in the classroom whenever something like the “old normal” makes a return…

Exclusivity & Potential
What makes GT exclusive doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence, or potential. Instead, GT’s exclusiveness—aside from the good memory wildcard—is made worse by testing measures and assignments that favor privilege. If you could believe it, there have been people calling others racist for pointing out GT’s exclusivity, falsely claiming this suggests less privileged students of color aren’t capable of learning with GT. Cavē! That’s one of the reddest herrings I’ve ever heard. GT’s exclusivity has nothing to do with potential capability. It has everything to do with meeting students where they are and moving forward. When students are disadvantaged from the start of their education, almost always due to poverty, which affects more students of color, they enter the Latin classroom less privileged. Therefore, the testing measures and assignments that favor privilege exclude these students. It’s that simple. This next sentence? Not so simple, but the Ciceronian style seems fitting. So, as long as *every* Latin teacher can recognize that…

  1. …under certain conditions, using GT and its associated practices favoring privilege…
  2. …especially in certain communities with students of color…
  3. …not at all because of intelligence or potential but because of poverty and denied access to high quality education…
  4. …excludes students with bad memories, even if they happen to be privileged…

…then we’ll be on a better path towards making Latin more comprehensible and accessible to all students.

5 thoughts on “Grammar-Translation: Not Really A Method & Resisting It Now More Than Ever

  1. Keep writing. I find this stuff fascinating. I have been sticking my feet in CCLT this year. Some successes, some painful failures. All show me more CCLT is important. Would love an article on where to go now.

    • Next article? Depends. Do you need more direction on planning, how to quiz, adapt texts, manage a classroom, or techniques and strategies to make the target language more comprehensible?

  2. Great thoughts. I agree with the philosophical, ethical, and moral imperative of teaching Latin inclusively and the way “traditional” methods favor excellent memory and fast processors.

    The one part that I struggle with is getting *every* Latin (or even other language) teacher to recognize the 4 points. Method is tied directly to identity and authority for so many colleagues. They are the experts (probably have been since they started learning Latin) and CCLT can feel threatening to them because it is saying that expertise is not the sine qua non of Latin learning.

    I have struggled to get colleagues to even engage in research on CCLT or with blogs, such as this one, explaining the approach. What are ways to invite them into this space that:

    1) recognizes and respects that identity/authority
    2) creates clear goals/guidelines of what CCLT is
    3) demonstrates that learning can look different for each student (“…since you don’t teach grammar…”)

    Any thoughts/suggestions?

    • Great questions.

      1) This is tricky. It’s not anyone’s fault that they’ve been using such an exclusive method ( when it’s been the default, unless, of course, they’ve been shown what’s going on and continue to do it. There’s utmost respect deserved for the time and dedication teachers have put into the profession, hands down, but how far does that respect go? It can’t absolve everyone, especially in the conditions I mentioned. Honestly, those teachers aren’t interested in changing a thing. I wouldn’t waste time with them.

      2) I’m not sure you can invite resistant teachers into such a space at all. A lot of us are just putting everything out there. In a way, it’s like language acquisition itself. We’re casting a net of SLA input, establishing meaning of what it’s about, and some of it will stick. Are you suggesting it’s incomprehensible? If so, CCLT is based on meaning, not grammar, and has a purpose for listening to/reading a text either to have fun, learn about something, or to create something together. That’s it. I’m guessing what’s missing is compellingness. These colleagues you mention are not compelled to change anything about their teaching. Start there (but don’t forget about comprehension…establishing meaning of clear SLA principles).

      3) I still don’t think you can invite the unwilling, but a simple comparison is toddlers learning to walk. That’s not really something we cause. They observe adults…a lot…and at some point it clicks. The late ones aren’t penalized, and by age 5 or so no one can tell who was who. Our classrooms are basically filled with early and late walkers in terms of acquisition. The late (i.e. slow processors) shouldn’t be penalized. Success can’t just be about correct vs. incorrect, *espeically* when science tells us to expect it during development. Try that analogy.

  3. Thanks for the response.

    A lot of truth in the compellingness point. While I wish it were different, I think I agree about inviting the unwilling; conversion to CCLT would be great, but it has to be individually driven. Really, all I’m looking for is acceptance of CCLT with respect to students.

    Nothing infuriates me more than using deficit language with student learning (“they can’t do x'”) because it doesn’t look like a chart or follow textbook syllabus.

    Keep up your good work with your students and, please, keep writing about it.

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