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Pedagogical translation: grammar translation and the reform movement

Pedagogical translation

The grammar-translation method was introduced in the mid-nineteenth century in the Gymnasia of Prussia, and soon became the European standard method of language teaching and –assessment. It entails students being presented with parallel vocabulary items (in their native [L1] and acquired language) and translation rules in L1, and then being asked to translate sentences and text fragments into and out of L2. Such text fragments are oftentimes highly artificial, in a bid to cram as much grammatical and lexical variation into them as possible, and translations are inherently conducted on a word-for-word basis. This practice abstracts language from its communicative function and thus disconnects translation from its natural goal of communication.
The reform movement of the late nineteenth century overhauled the grammar translation method, which was the hitherto dominant form of language teaching, and instated a new methodology based on four skills believed to constitute linguistic competence: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. This paradigm shift, labelled by Witte et al. (2009:3) as the “communicative turn”, was accompanied by widespread, radical opposition to the grammar-translation method, which reformists criticised for its neglect of spoken language and its lack of communicative function through the isolated presentation of artificial text fragments.

The rejection of the grammar-translation method led to the rejection of translation in
the language classroom in general, with a consensus amongst influential theorists that the
learners’ native language should not play a role in their acquisition of a second language. This notion paved the way for the emergence of the direct method, where L2 is taught using that language only, entirely without reference to L1. This method of language teaching prevailed almost exclusively throughout the twentieth century, with classroom use of L1 even being outlawed in some places.
Throughout this phase and to-date, opposing scholars presented many arguments to justify the rejection of translation, while others, who remained in support of pedagogical translation, continued to propagate its apparent merits. Arguments against the use of translation at University-level language teaching include:

  • Translation is not a core skill of linguistic competence (i.e. the core skills are reading, writing, speaking and listening)
  • Translation misleads students into the false presumption of one-to-one equivalence between languages
  • Translation causes interference, hinders full comprehension, and inhibits thinking and free expression in L2, because L2 is processed via L1
  • Translation is an unsuitable method for assessing linguistic competence due to the assessors’ probable lack of proficiency in all of the students’ native languages

However, all of these claims share two major shortcomings: 1) they lack empirical research foundations, and 2) they underlie different conceptions of what “translation” means and what objectives it should encompass. These shortcomings persist to date and mean that the debate about the merits of translation in the language classroom cannot be unanimously resolved at this point in time, although the case for a revival of translation as a pedagogical language-teaching method appears strong. In the words of Howatt and Widdowson (2004: 312), “[t]here has long been a strong case for reviewing the role of translation in language teaching and particularly its educational value for advanced students in schools and universities. Properly handled, it provides a useful antidote to the modern obsession with utilitarian performance objectives, but the pitfalls that were identified by the nineteenth-century reformers have not gone away, and the activity remains a demanding one” (ibid.).


  • Howatt, A. P. R., & Widdowson, H. G. (2004). A history of ELT. Oxford University Press.
  • Witte, A., Harden, T., & de Oliveira Harden, A. R. (2009). Translation in second language
    learning and teaching (Vol. 3). Bern: Peter Lang
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