A new book by Guy Cook, called Translation in Language Teaching (Oxford University Press, 2010), dropped into my letterbox last week, and makes compelling reading. Without giving too much away, this extract, from the very last page, captures not only his thesis, but something of the passion with which it is argued:
A great deal remains to be done before TILT [Translation in Language Teaching] can be rehabilitated and developed in the way that it deserves. The insidious association of TILT with dull and authoritarian Grammar Translation, combined with the insinuation that Grammar Translation had nothing good in it at all, has lodged itself so deeply in the collective consciousness of the language-teaching profession, that it is difficult to prise it out at all, and it has hardly moved for a hundred years. The result has been an arid period in the use and development of TILT, and serious detriment to language teaching as a whole. (p. 156)
This prompted me to resurrect from my files a coursebook proposal (yes, I know, I know) that I drafted over ten years ago, aimed at rehabilitaing GT within the umbrella of a communicative approach. This is an edited extract from the Rationale:
Grammar-Translation (GT) has come to be seen as the antithesis of good teaching practice, and much scorn is customarily heaped upon it. This bad reputation is not entirely undeserved: GT is associated with a very grammar driven approach to learning, with an emphasis on accuracy rather than fluency, and on the written form rather than the spoken form. Moreover, most exercise types in traditional GT courses work at the sentence level or below: there is no such thing as authentic text, for example, in a standard GT course. In fact, inauthenticity is a hallmark of GT courses, and lends itself to endless ridicule.
None of the features commonly associated with GT, however, – its accuracy-driven sentence-level grammar-focus, nor its inauthenticity – are necessarily intrinsic to it. They are simply excess baggage that GT accreted in its passage through the nineteenth century.
The notions of fluency, skills work, and whole texts are not in the least incompatible with a translation-mediated approach to the presentation and practice of grammar and vocabulary.
The fact is that a vast number of teachers, both native-speakers and teachers who are speakers of languages other than English, use translation on a regular basis in their teaching of English. They do this because of common sense practical reasons, but without necessarily compromising their adherence to a communicative philosophy.
…An approach that uses translation as a vehicle for teaching the meaning and use of the second language “code” respects the universal tendency to build from the known to the unknown, and, at the same time, does not insult the intelligence and preferred learning styles of most learners.
From the affective point of view, L1 reference provides the support that many beginning learners are desperately in need of. Moreover, by recognising the validity and relevance of the learners’ mother tongue in learning a second language, a GT approach does not devalue the learner’s culture, background and experience to the extent that an “English only” approach might seem to.
…Finally, there are sound practical reasons for rehabilitating translation in the classroom. The current reaction away from communicative syllabuses, and the resultant resurgence of grammar has meant that grammar teaching occupies more classroom time than ever – at the expense of opportunities for authentic language use. The economy and efficiency of translation as a means of grammar presentation – as opposed to such direct method techniques as demonstration and situationalization – is an argument for its reinstatement: if nothing else, it saves time.
To summarise, then, it is my belief that EFL materials need to catch up with EFL practice. The rehabilitation of translation-mediated learning through GT-style materials is an idea whose time has come. In the absence of a global initiative, local publishers will soon rush in to fill the vacuum. This could be the biggest EFL publishing breakthrough since the advent of the functional syllabus.
I sent the proposal, including some sample units (one with Spanish as the mediating language, another with German), to a leading ELT publisher. Receipt was politely acknowledged. That was the last I heard from them.
Now that Guy’s book is out, would I stand a better chance, I wonder?