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Translation in language teaching and learning

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Guy Cook, author of the award-winning applied linguistics book Translation in Language Teaching, presents his arguments for re-establishing translation as an essential part of modern language teaching and learning. Guy will be hosting a Global Webinar on this topic on 26th and 31st October 2011. You can find out more information and register to attend here.

Using translation is surely a natural and obvious means of teaching someone a new language. It has lots of good effects. It can be used to aid learning, practise what has been learned, diagnose problems, and test proficiency.  In any case, teachers can’t stop students translating – it is such a fundamental basis for language learning.

Translation is also useful skill in itself. And not just for professional translators and interpreters. In multilingual societies and a globalised world, translation is all around us as an authentic act of communication: from families, schools, hospitals, courts, and clinics, to business meetings and the United Nations. We find it in notices, labels, menus, subtitles, news interviews and many other places.

In addition, it allows learners to relate new knowledge to existing knowledge (as recommended by many learning theories), promotes  noticing and language awareness, and highlights the differences and similarities between the new and existing language. Many people also find the tackling of translation problems intellectually stimulating and aesthetically satisfying. In addition, it helps create and maintain good relations between teacher and student, facilitates classroom management and control, and allows students to maintain their own sense of first language identity, while also building a new bilingual identity. It does not seem to impede efficient language use – many students who began their studies through translation go on to become fluent and accurate users of the new language.

So what is wrong with it? Given all these apparent advantages, it seems most peculiar that the mainstream literature on language pedagogy and second language acquisition, has routinely dismissed translation as a desirable component of language teaching and learning for over a hundred years – without research, reasoning or evidence. Is there perhaps some other reasons that translation has been villainised in this way?

In my webinar next week, I shall be asking what happened to translation, and why. I shall be making a case for reinstating translation as a major component of language teaching and learning. Whether you agree or disagree, I hope you will join us, tell us of your own experiences, and put forward your own views.

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19 thoughts on “Translation in language teaching and learning

  1. Pingback: Translation in language teaching and learning | Global-Ready Content | Scoop.it

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  4. Have you noticed that interpreters have to possess the most thorough knowledge of a foreign language, especially of conversation, vocabulary and grammar? Perhaps foreign learners of English can achieve fluency in English also through oral translation from their native language into English. It is possible to check oneself this way when practising speaking in English every sentence in ready-made materials with both a native language and English versions. I also believe that the value of oral translation from a native language into English with self-check is underestimated by English teaching specialists for self-study and self-practice of English conversation, vocabulary and grammar. Oral translation practice should cover English grammar, conversation and vocabulary. Thematic dialogues, questions and answers on conversation topics, thematic texts (informative texts and narrative stories), grammatical usage sentences and sentences with difficult vocabulary on various topics, especially with fixed phrases and idioms can be used in practising English through oral translation from one’s native language into English.

    My views on oral translation do not apply to classroom teaching and classroom learning of English when an ESL teacher teaches English to students from various ethnic backgrounds. In that setting oral translation from a native language into English is simply impossible. All explanations of English pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary to learners from different ethnic backgrounds have to be done in English only at English classes. As you know there are English courses in English only for learning and practising all four skills in one course in each lesson (listening, speaking, reading and writing alongside pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary). Four skills English courses include textbooks with audio and video recordings for all levels including for beginners and are suitable for self-study as well. There are also online English learning courses in English only.

    I firmly believe that oral translation from a native language into English is effective in practising English speaking, vocabulary and grammar on one’s own with ready-made materials using self-check in a more logical, thorough, in-depth way as to content than casual talking to native English speakers. Practising English on one’s own through oral translation into English with self-check may be a quicker way for developing fluency in speaking English than casual talking to native English speakers with limited content.

    Of course everyday long-term talking to native English speakers on a multitude of topics is a top priority and a paramount factor for developing good English speaking skills by learners of English. Exercises in listening, speaking and reading in English that also cover English pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and conversation on various topics belong to major English learning and teaching activities. I do not advocate oral translation into English as the only or the most important method in learning English grammar, vocabulary and speaking.

    However self-study and practising English on one’s own are indispensable, and substantially accelerate success in English. Communication with native English speakers can’t encompass all aspects of mastering English adequately and thoroughly, especially vocabulary, grammar, potential in-depth content of conversations suitable for real life needs of students for using English. It’s possible and effective to practise English (including listening comprehension and speaking) on one’s own through self-check using transcripts, books, audio and video aids.

    Oral translation into English allows speaking a wide variety of sentences on a multitude of topics with sophisticated important content (sentences) that are rarely widely used in daily life because of limited opportunity and limited content of communication of foreign learners with native speakers of English. Oral translation from a native language into English is very important and effective for foreign learners of English because oral translation into English creates solid additional extensive practice of English that is rarely possible in terms of comprehensive content in daily communication with native speakers of English.

  5. There do seem to be good arguments for translation in language teaching, however I am afraid I can agree with them. I am not saying that translation does not have a place in learning a language but what I am saying there is no place for it in the language classroom. There are a number of reasons for this:

    1. Learners need to develop their perception, their skills, their analytical abilities, etc if they are to successfully learn another language. Translating can reduce and at times eliminate the use of these skills, that have for many people gone into various degrees of dormancy.

    2. They need to become comfortable in making educated guesses and with making mistakes and then recovering themselves from the blunders. All of these things are part and parcel of learning languages. Too many times I see students refuse to make guess or try to work something out, which is within their powers to do. Instead they rush to their bilingual dictionary – knowing that the answer will be instantaneous..no mistakes, no “pain”, no need to go out on a limb, no need to form questions that can help them get closer to the goal.

    3. Languages exist in different parts of the brain. Anyone who has tried to learn by translation ail know the feeling of getting stuck because they are looking for a word in their mother tongue, translating it AND then wanting to say it. No wonder they get stuck. When you speak a language there is no time to cross reference to your first language…you MUST be independent in the new language. The sooner and faster you can become independent in it, the better off you will be. Translation delays the formation of the required necessary neural paths in the brain, replacing them with artificial ones that will only need to be discarded. In other words we are putting in our way an unnecessary steps that can distract us from what we really need to do.

    These three reasons are just for starters. 🙂

    A main factor that has some practitioners advocate translation is that it lends itself to “easy” teaching. How simple is it to get students to translate or to explain in the first language. Think for a moment, when we learnt our first language, we mastered it without the need for translation. Those capacities we had then, we still have now, and I would suggest even more. So why not use them and have learners come to understandings of the new language by using their awareness, wits, their intelligence, their perception. All of this usage making them better language learners. The trick for the language teacher is to teach in ways that encourage these practices but to not to replace translation with copious explanations and practices that dull the mind, or at the very least don’t stimulate it to grow.

    • To dismiss translation in language acquisition is as absurd as letting someone drown in a lake because there’s no lifesaver jacket available. Can the drowning person be saved with a rope? How about using a stick? To dismiss any language approach is to be close minded, for every brain is different and we all learn in a unique way.
      I’ve been teaching Spanish for a long time and am happy to say that my students perform at the same level and many times higher than the students of those dogmatic teachers who preach “Spanish Only” in the classroom. I use translation and my students are grateful that I allow them use their first language in my classroom to figure language stuff out—it’s their right! I tell them all the time, “Your first language is who you are; my first language is who I am!”
      If speaking “Spanish only” in my class helps students speed up their language acquisition process, I’ll be happy to speak “Spanish Only” in my class. But if translation helps my students speed up their language acquisition process in my class, I’ll use translation…
      For me, the psychological well being of my students is the most important part in my classroom; the language teaching approach I decide to use is and will always be second!

  6. Completely disagree.

    The article states “Given all these apparent advantages, it seems most peculiar that the mainstream literature on language pedagogy and second language acquisition, has routinely dismissed translation as a desirable component of language teaching and learning for over a hundred years – without research, reasoning or evidence.”

    I wish this were true. Translation has been, and continues to be, a predominant activity in high school and college language classrooms. In addition to boring textbooks and other outdated methodologies, the grammar-translation approach is why most learners think languages are difficult, are never able to think in a foreign language, continue to misapply first language structures in their target language even after years of study, and look at languages as an academic subject instead of the innate physical/psychological/social skill they really are.

    Translation is indeed a useful skill (and profitable profession), but it is far better to train as a translator once you’ve already ACQUIRED a language through a massive amount of natural, meaningful input and heaps of “cockpit hours” (i.e. practice using the language in oral and written communication in real life situations).

    Trying to reach fluency through translation, on the other hand, is slow, painful, and ultimately, ineffective for the vast majority of learners. You need simply look at most EFL learners in Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan who emerge from 10+ years of translation-based English education unable to use the language for practical communicative purposes. But guess what, they can do a hell of a job of translating each word back into their native language!

  7. The article states “Given all these apparent advantages, it seems most peculiar that the mainstream literature on language pedagogy and second language acquisition, has routinely dismissed translation as a desirable component of language teaching and learning for over a hundred years – without research, reasoning or evidence.”

    I wish this were true. Translation has been, and continues to be, a predominant activity in high school and college language classrooms. In addition to boring textbooks and other outdated methodologies, the grammar-translation approach is why most learners think languages are difficult, are never able to think in a foreign language, continue to face linguistic interference from their L1 even after years of study, and look at languages as an academic subject instead of the innate physical/psychological/social skill they really are.

    Translation is indeed a useful skill and profitable profession (I know this first hand as I used to be a translator and interpreter for the Japanese government), but it is far better to train as a translator once you’ve already ACQUIRED a language through a massive amount of natural, meaningful input and heaps of “cockpit hours” (i.e. practice using the language in oral and written communication in real life situations).

    Trying to reach fluency through translation, on the other hand, is slow, painful, and ultimately, ineffective for the vast majority of learners. You need simply look at most EFL learners in Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan who emerge from 10+ years of translation-based English education unable to use the language for practical communicative purposes. But guess what, they can do a hell of a job of translating each word back into their native language!

  8. Being a conference interpreter and ESL teacher I noticed that translation process can significantly improve memory efficiency if served right. In the very beginning of my career I really lacked a source of specialized vocabulary videos. Now that videos are widely available on youtube in a whole variety of subjects building up vocabulary became a bliss. I build a lot of my classes around videos. Having scripts made ready for bilingual analysis is a great plus. What is your experience, Mr. Cook in using videos in ESL classes?

  9. Pingback: No learning happens without comparing the new and the known! « LalangueParis

  10. Interesting discussion. And I totally agree with qishi. Rote translation learning makes it seem painful, while interactive discussions in a natural way or culture, food etc. makes it fun and enjoyable!

  11. In my opinion there is some limited role for native language use and translation in teaching English as a foreign language to foreign learners of English with whom the teacher shares his/her native language: for example in explanations of difficult phonetics, grammar and vocabulary material to students, in checking comprehension of material by the students, to highlight the differences between the mother tongue and the foreign language (English) to avoid word-for-word translation from one’s native language into English (for example proper word order in English sentences, meaning and use of set phrases and idioms, etc).

    Translation exercises can be helpful for learners to weaken native language interference in learning and in using English as a foreign language. Think about how useful translation can be for learning and practicing vocabulary (especially difficult meanings and use, including set phrases, expressions, idioms), grammar differences between one’s native and foreign language, and for speaking and writing practice with important sophisticated content that a learner is unlikely to create on one’s own.

    Differences between one’s native language and English in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and stylistic usage should not be ignored by foreign learners living and learning English in non-English speaking countries to master English thoroughly. When learning and using English foreign learners cannot but notice those differences between English and their native language. Knowledge of those differences by foreign learners of English is relevant for understanding correct forms, meaning and use of English grammar and for vocabulary usage to reduce making mistakes in English as much as possible, especially in fine tricky points of English grammar, vocabulary and stylistic usage. Native language interference when learning and using English by foreign learners is a natural thing equally as translation is a natural language activity in human communication. Therefore native language interference when learning and using English cannot be prevented or eliminated until English has been mastered by foreign learners as good as their native language. Knowledge and practising of phonetic, grammatical, lexical and stylistic differences between English and one’s native language weakens natural native language interference when learning and using English.

    Would most foreign learners of English especially beginners prefer bilingual English learning courses to monolingual English courses?
    In my view it is easier for foreign learners, especially for absolute beginners to study English through their native language explanations of English pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary for easier, better and quicker understanding. Non-native teachers of EFL know that perfectly well.

  12. In my experiences, using translation while teaching English in EFL classes can be a good helper. whenever as a teacher, you want to improve your students abilities in all four language skills, most of the time in EFL classes, translation would help and work for sure to elaborate. Actually it is fruitful to teach conversations, vocabularies, listening. since through transferring the meaning in target language, even if using different kinds of pedogogical equipments, sometimes a teacher could not be successful to convey the meaning, so as the last resort switching to words or even translating sentences could be suitable. A bilingual teacher in my idea can use translation to concept check the class as well as to transfer the exact sense of the text in written or oral form, which is really important to teach a foreing language correctly, Because it is not just the language transfer, but all its belongings would be transferred, such as culture, customs, traditions and so on.

  13. To develop good English speaking skills learners must have adequate regular long-term practice in listening comprehension and speaking in English. This factor should not be disregarded and translation activities and native language use in learning and teaching English as a foreign or a second language should not be wrongly blamed for learners’ poor English speaking skills.
    I regard oral translation practice from a foreign language into English as a form of speech practice in English.

  14. For me, it is very simple: my goal as a teacher is to help learners think of the target language and forget about their first language during the class. If they do that, then it is them who teach themselves.

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  16. Pingback: Languages: should learn or not? – Social Action Now!

  17. Nice commentary – I am thankful for the points , Does someone know if my assistant might be able to get a template a form document to fill out ?

  18. Hello,
    I hold a similar approach according to which translation serves as a major component in language teaching.
    I have done my research on this very topic and am running follow-up case studies to see how it could be implemented in EFL teaching.
    Where can I read more of your work?

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