Conversations about methods…..


Grammar Translation and Audiolingual: A critique of two methods.

“ What got you interested in that?” is an oft asked question when my colleagues learnt of my pursuit of a TESL certification. And while there are many reasons: new career, work and travel, desire to teach, it appears to me that the influences of my family destined me to follow this path.

My first recollection of any form of second language learning was that of my father. I was around 10. We lived in a small rural village…to be honest a hamlet would be more descriptive, about 50 miles east of Toronto. My family has an Anglo-Saxon background, so it was quite a surprise when my dad announced he was going to learn Italian. This was especially remarkable considering my father knew of no one who spoke the language. He had been walking through the book department at Eaton’s and picked up a “Learn to Speak Italian” record/book set….it had been on sale.

Its format was a guide book which listed “common” phrases: Italian on one side, English on the other. The guide book was divided into everyday situations, such as: Going to market, Taking the bus, etc.

Each Sunday my father would play the records [ yes it was a long time ago ] and follow along in his guide. Eventually, my father could speak a few phrases, however he quickly lost interest…without personal interaction, or even relevant [ at least to him ] phrases, he grew bored.

I would later learn that the company which “published” that series was the Berlitz Company, and that the Berlitz Method came from the Reform Movement in language studies, and his method really should have been called the Direct Method.

My mother, too, had her hand in my TESL destiny. She was a War Bride form England. When my parents returned to Canada after the war, they initially setup residence in Toronto. It was there that they met my sister’s future God Parents…German immigrants who spoke little to no English.

My mother adopted it as her mission to teach Lisa how to speak English. In retrospect, one of my favourite stories involving her instructor prowess centered on a grocery shopping expedition. My mother was picking up groceries and naming each as she placed them in the basket…Lisa would follow in English, with my mother correcting her pronunciation. As she was finishing her shopping, she realised she had forgotten to purchase some eggs, which she immediately tried to explain to Lisa.

While not what you would call conversant in German, my mother knew enough to be able to get her point across…only this time she had forgotten the German word for “eggs”. After much consternation, and ignoring the much crowded store, she turned to Lisa and said. “ You know, brawacckkkkkkkk”, and began to flap her arms like a chicken. She eventually got her point across; I would later come to know this style of instruction as “Situation Language Teaching”, although probably not in its purest form.

This leaves to what may have actually been the defining moment in my life on the subject of language education…High School.

In those days, my high school had limited language choices…French or Latin. My brother took Latin and if ever a reason to take French existed, it was his Latin classes. However, as I was soon to find out, and with much dismay, both classes were taught exactly the same: lists of vocabulary, text book bound, and mindless examination of grammar rules…and nowhere to speak the learnings other than in the classroom.

The delivery method employed in those language classes, I would later learn, was called Grammar Translation and, along with the Audiolingual Method, are the two methods of language instruction I would like to compare in this paper.

While the two methods are quite different in presentation, I would also offer that they have some unique similarities which I will cover under the following discussion points: Approach to theory of language, Learning theory, Design, and finally, Incorporation of use into participant sessions.

We will begin with the approach to theory of language.

Approach to theory of language:

When we speak of the “theory of language”, what we are referring to are the theories or assumptions we hold as the basis for the purpose of language.

The text, “Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching”, (Richards and Rodgers, 2001) identifies three views of language theory, namely the:

interactional view, where language is used for social transactions between individuals
functional view, where language is used to achieve some end or function, and
structural view, where language is seen as a series of related elements: phonological units, grammatical units, and operations and lexical items.

Both Grammar Translation and the Audiolingual methods view language in the structural view, which basically means that the ability to learn a language requires “mastering the elements or building blocks of the language and learning the rules by which these elements are combined” (Richards and Rodgers, 2001). Where these two differ is in the application of those beliefs. The Audiolingual takes a “vocal” view, where Grammar Translation takes a written one.

I harken back to my high school French classes. Most of the time was spent translating French sentences into English and vice versa. Grammar points were taught to us in English, and we had very little “air time” speaking the language, and as a consequence of this, very little exposure to actually hearing the language.

This differs quite significantly to that of the Audiolingual method. While both focus on structure, the Audiolingual method at least recognises that languages are actually spoken. In fact, this delivery requirement is the hallmark of the Audiolingual method…participants actually hear the language first, speak it second and then work towards the written.

I would have certainly supported this approach when I was in high school and, depending on the needs of my participants, incorporate this into my ESL sessions today. As a youth, the CBC had many shows which taught younger children how to speak French, most notably, ‘Chez Helene”.

This programme exposed children to the French language by “speaking” to them. While its presentation may have incorporated aspects of Situational Language Teaching, it may have been more akin to the Audiolingual roots of the ASTP, with the character Madeleine acting as the “Informant”.

What is disturbing to me is that “pre” and elementary children, at that time, probably had a better aural and vocal understanding of the language, due to the delivery of that programme, than we had under our more academically based Grammar Translation method.

This is not to say that Grammar Translation is all bad, but when I entered into my French class in high school, I actually thought that learning a language meant being able to speak it. While to this day I can get the gist of a newspaper article written in French, I have no ear for the language and, as a result, this greatly inhibits my ability to both speak it and, more importantly to me, appreciate the “musicality” of it. That would most certainly not have happened under the Audiolingual method.

Approach to theory of learning:

Theory of learning entails two basic questions:

what are the processes involved in learning a language, and
what is needed to promote these learning processes?

At first blush, the theory of language and the theory of learning may seem similar, however the key focal points are that the former is interested in what constitutes language competence, while the latter is interested in how we achieve that competence.

Of the two methods we are comparing, only the Audiolingual has the presumption to attach itself to an actual learning theory steeped in psychological foundations…Behavioral Psychology.

Behaviorism believes that all things learned can be achieved under three basic elements:

stimulus – what is taught to the participant
response – the verbal response by the participant
reinforcement – praise from the teacher or the participant’s self-satisfaction.

We now come to, in my opinion, one of the drawbacks of the Audiolingual method, which is a product of the second question of the tWhile heory of learning…”what is needed to promote the learning processes”?

The learning theory of the Audiolingual method can be summarised in four basic concepts:

language learning is a process of habit
aural and oral presentation is required to promote the development of skills
grammar is inductive not deductive
language should be taught in context relevant to the participant

Of these concepts, it is the language as a habit that is a concern.

The basic assumption is not “practice makes perfect” but “perfect practice makes perfect”. This is achieved through rigorous use of pattern drills and memorisation of dialogue. While this assembly line approach to learning may achieve some success in stimuli / response, it would not lead to very stimulating sessions … in this respect Audiolingual and Grammar Translation have a lot in common.

Further, while it is possible to tailor the sessions, under Audiolingual, to meet cultural contexts of its participants, I believe that memorisation of basic phrases do not internalise the language, only mimic a suggested response to a suggested situation..which may not match the realities of the participants’ living and working world. Then again, this would probably be a similar complaint to detractors of the Situational Language method noted earlier.

The arbitrary selection of response equally matches, in my opinion, the text selection of the Grammar Translation method…”I can respond without really knowing?” This begs the question, “ do I really know?”, or expressed another way, “have I really learned?”

As for the behavioral aspect, even my dog knows that it gets a reward when it performs as requested. I suppose what separates a good instructor from a bad one is knowing what “reward” is necessary for each participant and at what time should it be delivered. In this regard, I’m not sure it matters what method you are using.

Theories of language and learning are fine, but at some time you have to move them into the classroom and provide a deliverable. The application of theory into practice is called design; and it is this critical component of any method where we will now focus our attention.


Design is that series of components of a method which “lays out the instructional system” (Richard and Rodgers, 2001). It recognises and incorporates the:

– objectives of the programme
– syllabus
– learning activities
– roles of the teacher and learner, and
– role of the instructional materials.

I would like to take a moment and discuss some of these topics as they relate to Grammar Translation and Audiolingual methods.


How you see the purpose of language learning defines what your design objectives are. Grammar Translation sees the purpose of learning a language as being able to read that language. In fact, its primary belief is that language is the written form. Audiolingualism, however, takes a different approach, and that is that language is what is spoken…in either case, both hold the participant to the tyranny of grammar.

Further, Grammar Translation holds that, but understanding the grammar requirements of the second language, you will increase your understanding of the first language. Whether it is reading carefully selected sentences and text, or conducting drills, both structure the lesson on the grammar component of the language. One is overt, the other covert.


Audiolingualism, as indicated above, is a structure based approach to language learning: therefore, its syllabus would centre on a carefully graded approach moving from basic to more advanced levels. Included would be a contrastive analysis, which would highlight the differences between the first and second language which might become barriers to learning. Drills and practice sessions would be designed to guide the participants through these differences.

When participants move to the reading and writing levels of the sessions, they would incorporate vocabulary that they have already learned orally.

Grammar Translation, on the other hand, being reading and writing based, would have structured lists of vocabulary, as with Audiolingualism, however also included would be grammar points and practice text in the first language. Participant lessons would involve the translation of text from the first to the second language and vice versa.

This leads us to learning activities. The core of Audiolingualism is the specifically controlled series of drills and dialogues. It is during this repetitive process that the instructor corrects pronunciation, tone, and intonations errors. It is only when the participants have mastered the aural-oral phrasing do they move to the reading and written components, which are an extension of the vocabulary just mastered. Grammar Translation, on the other hand, bases its level of mastery on the ability to translate vocabulary from the first language to the other. Thus, graded lessons and grammar rules are the norm.

Rules of Teacher and Learner:

Audiolingualsim is a teacher dominated method. Under this method a teacher is more akin to a conductor than an instructor. The teacher must be well versed in the target language, be able to control the pace of the sessions and be able to clearly interact with the participants. Due to the repetitive drill technique of this method, the instructor also has to be able to read their participants well and be flexible enough to change the content of the sessions to meet the participants’ needs and interests. The role of the participant under this method is that of an imitator. Little avenue for creative contribution is given the participant, as the learnings are solely based at the discretion of the instructor.

Grammar Translation, on the other hand, has few demands on the instructor, as the sessions are primarily text book driven. Basically the only requirement is that the instructor be more versed in the first language than the second, since most of the learnings will be in the first language.

Participants will spend their time translating text from first to second language and vice versa, with limited exposure to actually speaking the language outside of asking questions and responding to text translations.

Incorporation of methods and conclusion:

While I do not have fond memories of my high school French classes I do, now, understand the reason for their format. They were designed under the catholicism of the day, reading was a valid basis for denoting mastery of a language, and that it is also workable in a classroom format which would allow for unbiased grading. However, its focus on grammar, while not entirely wrong, did not do anything to increase my appreciation or ability to speak the language. The reason is that my needs were not incorporated into the lesson plan.

As an institutional trainer, I am at the mercy of the needs of my management, but also the needs of my participants. Grammar Translation would not be my method of choice for basic to near intermediate participants. Why? …. because their needs aren’t focused on reading. One of the interesting aspects about speaking a language is the ability to, usually, understand what is meant even if one’s grammar is poor. [ a conclusion supported by Michael Lewis and his Lexical Method ].

In fact, the English language has many formats of speaking, each with its own level of grammar. Most of us, when speaking with friends, are extremely grammar tolerant…this is the casual form of English. When we move to business meetings or more formal occasions, we also carry with us a more formal style of speaking…and a more formal grammar application. The point is, speaking is not writing. Grammar is important when we write as it impacts meaning. I would incorporate more grammar activities in the more advanced ESL sessions. Note, the “ESL”. When I was taught French, I was taught in an EFL environment. The only place where I had exposure to the language was in the classroom…in that regard my brother, who took Latin, and I had a lot in common. However, if I was teaching in an EFL situation, it might make more sense to key on the grammatical components and reading…since it may be the only consistent exposure the participants might have to the language.

Audiolingualism, on the the other hand, would be a clear choice for basic to near intermediate ESL classes. I am a lover of music, however just being able to read the notes on a piece of sheet music does not do it for me…if I haven’t “heard” the notes phrasing, tone, how could I possibly appreciate the poetry and majesty of the music…why should language be any different?

As for grammar, I see little difference between reading carefully crafted text [ grammatically correct of course ] and repetitive drilling of grammatically correct phrases. Both intrinsically provide the same end.

Concluding, I believe it doesn’t really matter which method you use if you are a proactive and flexible instructor. It has been highlighted in numerous texts numerous times, under numerous studies, that no method is all bad, or all good.

I liken being an instructor to walking down a path; you should have an idea of where you are, where you are going, and how to get there. The path, however, may have many twists, turns and alternatives….it’s recognising when to change the route that’s the key.

Resources used:

Richards, Jack C., Rodgers Theodore S. (2001) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching 2nd Ed.
Cambridge U.K: Cambridge University Press.

How to site this article:

Smith, Robert-paul ( 2010 ). Grammar Translation and Audiolingual: A critique of two methods.

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