To Translate or Not to Translate: That is the Question

Guest post by: Karen McGhie

Karen McGhie is Head of Teacher Training and Development at London School in San Sebastian. She will be speaking on Embracing Translation in the Classroom with her colleague Iñigo Casis at the 3rd Annual ELT Conference in San Sebastian on March 30th.

‘Teacher, he’s molesting me!’ Imagine my reaction when, as a newly qualified English teacher in Spain with very little knowledge of Spanish, I was confronted by this comment from a 10-year-old student. Little did I realise back then what an important false friend this was in English and how many times I would have to remind students of this mis-translation in my subsequent years of teaching (and will have to for many years to come).

Ok, so after that trip down memory lane, let’s kick things off with a little quiz. Are you ready?

Question 1: How often do you use translation in your classes?

Question 2: Does the institution you work for look favourably upon the use of the L1 in class?

Question 3: If someone were to ask you about using the L1 in class, would you tell them the truth?

Whether or not you have ever considered the answers to these questions is something which depends on many different factors including: your teaching background, your own language learning experiences, the opinions of your colleagues and the teacher training you have received. One thing’s for sure, the use of translation in the EFL classroom has become somewhat of a hot potato over recent years and it seems as if we are seeing a shift in certain ideas surrounding its effectiveness as a teaching tool. As a CELTA tutor, I have often wondered why we encourage trainees to avoid translation in class, despite teaching monolingual classes and often sharing the same first language as the students themselves. In doing this are we denying our future teachers of one of their most valuable and most natural teaching resources?

Some of the biggest supporters of using translation in language teaching confidently state that translation is a natural language learning tool with many clear benefits for students, which we don’t harness enough in class. Arguments for using translation include the fact that English is almost never used on its own outside of the classroom; most of our students will go on to use the language alongside others, including their L1, and it’s important for students to use these languages simultaneously and correctly. After all, if we don’t then we could end up with more situations like this when we step out of our front door in the morning:

When thinking about its current use within the language classroom, we have observed that non-native English speakers are often much better prepared and willing to use translation effectively with their own students; having experienced its benefits as students and have therefore incorporated it into their own teaching without question. Native English speakers are much less likely to view translation as positively, but this begs the question: is this just down to a lack of appropriate training and awareness raising on the part of many institutions?

Is it all sunshine and flowers in the world of translation? Of course not. There are many aspects that we need to take into consideration when approaching the use of translation in class (which further strengthens my argument for more/better training on the subject). Teachers may not have sufficient proficiency in the students’ L1 to work with translation in class, which could cause them to avoid its use all together. If translation is overused in class, students may start using it as a matter of course just as teachers may become over-reliant on using translation as a form of clarification and checking understanding.

Whether or not you agree with translation in language teaching there are a few things which I think we can all agree on: you can’t stop students translating and you can’t force students to think in the target language. Armed with this knowledge and the potential drawbacks of translation, it seems that the best conclusion we can draw is that if we are going to use it effectively in our classes, then we really need to think carefully about how we use it.

To whet your appetite for translation use, here are five activities that you could integrate into your classes tomorrow and adapt for different ages and levels:

  1. Simultaneous translation of a particular lexical group: If you are practising vocabulary on a particular topic in class, you can use translation to revise and recycle this. With younger learners, get them to stand in a circle and give one student a ball. Ask them to say a word in English and then throw the ball to another student who has to translate this into the students’ L1. Then they have to say another word in English and pass the ball to someone else. Make this more challenging by asking students to repeat the chain of words each time a new one is added, in both languages! For older learners, this can be done in pairs, using small prompt cards too see how quickly they can translate simultaneously.

  1. False/true friend recognition: Using common false friends or errors identified by the teacher, give students two words (in English and the students’ L1) and ask them to raise a ‘true’ or ‘false’ card to show whether or not they believe them to be true or false friends. Why not make it more engaging for younger learners and ask them to stand up/sit down or move to one side of the room or the other depending on their answer.

  1. Retranslation of common phrases or sentences: Student A either writes or copies a phrase or sentence in English which they then pass to Student B. Student B translates this in to their L1 and passes it to Student C. Student C has to translate the phrase back into English (without seeing Student A’s original sentence). Student C passes the phrase/sentence back to Student A and they analyse any differences in the original and the retranslated version. This is very useful for set phrases or structures which are often mis-translated from the students’ L1 and allows students to notice their errors in a way that other correction methods simply can’t.

  1. Translation of songs: Ask students to translate lines of their favourite English songs into their L1, and to make it even trickier they have to try and fit their translated version into the rhythm of the song. With younger learners, ask them to translate certain words in songs from the coursebook and then sing the song with words from their L1 to make it more memorable for the students and to help them think about the language in context.

  1. Multiple translations in context: Use this activity for words in either English or the students’ L1 which has multiple translations in the other language. Give students the word in a certain linguistic context and ask them to choose from the translation choices available. You could also use this to help students learn how to use online translation tools such as Google Translate or WordReference correctly when there is more than one option for translation.

Super! So, let’s finish this the same way that we started, with another little quiz. Are you ready?

Question 1: Do you think it’s possible to use translation effectively in language classes?

Question 2: Has this post encouraged you to find out more about the benefits of translation?

Question 3: If someone were to ask you about using the L1 in class, would you tell them about the information you’ve just read? (I secretly hope the answer to this last one is an emphatic YES!)

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