Using Translation in the Classroom

This article looks at the pros and cons of using and teaching translation in the classroom. It was originally part of our Delta Module One course and it discusses the questions:

a)      Why is translation often avoided in the language classroom ?

b)      What are the advantages of / reasons for using translation in the classroom

You might like to read it in conjunction with a related post on Using the L1 in the Classroom. And other useful articles on the topic can be found here, and here (including the comments).

Section a

Reasons why translation (whether of individual items or as a skill in its own right) is often avoided include:

1. It is often equated with the grammar translation approach which, in an attempt to make modern language learning academically acceptable, modelled its methodology on that used to teach classical Greek and Latin – which was seen as an intellectual exercise where difficulty was to be welcomed  and not as  a “practical” subject where communicative ability was the aim. In reaction to this, the Direct Method, faced in the early 20th century with the need to teach migrants from a large number of L1 groups outlawed both rule-based instruction and translation as methodological techniques, replacing them with a method intended to favour acquisition rather than learning. This attitude was not questioned until the 1970s and 80s, and even today many teachers still believe that the L1 should not be used in the classroom, that bilingual dictionaries should be discouraged and that learners should be encouraged to “think” in English.

2. Teachers may avoid translation if they do not speak the language of the learners in front of them as they have no way of checking that the translation is accurate – learners may have been misled by false cognates, by polysemy etc. Misunderstanding the concept when the T is unable to pick it up may cause confusion and hinder further learning.Other forms of concept check would therefore be preferable - for example, to check that Ls understood the meaning of attic, they could be shown a picture of an attic and one of a cellar and asked to choose which was the attic. 

3. This will also be important in contexts where the T. is expected to be the “knower” and able to impart all necessary information to learners – eg in SE Asian situations. Being unable to answer a L’s questions about the exact translation might cause the T to lose the confidence of the learners.

4.  Ts may not want the Ls to become over-dependent on translation as there are times when there is no exact equivalent in the L1. For example, haggis can be explained in Italian but not translated, while pronto soccorso translates as, and can mean, first aid, but is also the name given to an A&E department in an Italian hospital. 

5. Over-dependence on translation in the classroom may lead to Ls failing to develop coping strategies such as paraphrasing, asking for clarification etc (ie negotiating meaning) – a skill they will need to have acquired when they are in a real communicative situation outside the classroom.These coping strategies are emphasised in the Communicative Approach as being essential for successful communication in an L2.  

6. This negotiation of meaning will also mean greater cognitive involvement, with the result that learning will be more effective. Swain’s “Output Hypothesis” suggests that it is by failing to communicate meaning that Ls “notice” that their use of the language is not effective, and in attempting to remediate it “learn” what formulation of the language works to ensure comprehensibility. 

7. Encouraging students to develop the skills involved in negotiating meaning also means they become more autonomous – they can depend on their own skills and are less reliant on other students/the teacher to translate. Since the 1980’s Humanistic Approaches have emphasised that developing autonomous learning skills leads to more effective learning as learners can continue to use them outside the classroom, without needing the presence of a teacher. 

8. Especially in a monolingual learning situation, students may have little exposure to English outside the classroom and little opportunity to use the L1. Classroom use of English both by the T and students should therefore be maximised. By listening to the T’s explanations, they are receiving exposure to natural, spontaneous language use which they will not encounter elsewhere, especially at a lower level where eg internet based materials will be too difficult for them. This type of “comprehensible input” is, according to Krashen, essential for acquisition. 

9.  The T considers that translation is the “easy” approach to conveying meaning, and that approaches that require more cognitive effort, such as working out meaning from context will result in greater retention.

10. If in a multilingual class the T. spoke the languages of some but not all the learners, and used translation for them, they might be perceived as discriminating against the others, causing resentment and a negative classroom dynamic.


Section b

The advantages of and reasons for using translation include:

11. When possible, translating an unknown word can be much quicker than trying to explain it – especially with low-level learners who might have difficulty understanding the explanation. Class time is limited and therefore best spent on clarifying and then practising the target language in the most efficient way possible. It would, for example, take much longer to explain the exact meaning of the word starling than simply to translate it into the learner’s L1. 

12. Even when the teacher does explain the unknown word, it is common for the first learner to understand to call out the translation in the L1 and for the rest of the class to sigh with relief.  I too find that when encountering new words in other languages, I automatically try and think of the English equivalent. I exploit this natural tendency in my classes by explaining the word, but then nominating a learner (not the strongest) and asking what they think it is in Italian. This gets “the best of both worlds” as they all have to listen to and try and understand the meaning from the explanation in case they are the one called upon, but excessive time is not wasted if some learners haven’t understood.  

13. Some learners need to develop interpreting/translating skills and these should therefore be taught in the classroom.  This was the case of eg a learner I had who worked as personal assistant to  a high ranking politician who occasionally had to attend EU meetings. The politician was at A2 level and her PA (who was at C2 level) had to interpret for her during spontaneous conversations. 

14. Translation activities can be an efficient form of controlled practice as they can highlight the differences between L1 and L2. For example, in Italian a sentence like I have lived here for three years would use a present simple verb. An activity which asks the learners to translate ten or so sentences like this, half from English to Italian and half from Italian to English, highlights the difference and makes it more memorable

15. When students are trying to say something but having difficulty, they can say it in their own language and the teacher can reformulate it for them (3), possibly rephrasing and simplifying to show them how they could have expressed themselves within the language they already know. 

16. If the teacher does not speak the students’ language, it can be useful for them (the students) to have a bilingual dictionary in the classroom so that they can double check their comprehension of lexical explanations.