Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


8 Comments

Translation tool or dictionary?

Closeup on dictionary entry for educationGareth Davies is a teacher and teacher trainer based in Czech Republic. His students are typical of many language learners, preferring to use a translation tool rather than a dictionary. Gareth shares the ideas he uses to change their minds…

In a recent teacher training session I asked a group of teachers what their favourite book was and I told them that if anyone matched my answer, they would win a prize – none of them did. My answer was my dictionary. I love my dictionary. I love the smell as I leaf through the well-thumbed pages. I love the weight of knowledge the book carries and I love the unique insights it can give me.

But how can my dictionary become a useful classroom tool? In the past when I’ve asked students to look something up in their dictionaries they’ve rolled their eyes and complained that it was a ‘waste of time’. They preferred to get a translation from me or look up the word in a translation dictionary. But I persevered; I wanted my students to appreciate dictionaries even if they didn’t love them as much as I did.

I suppose the first question is why isn’t a translation tool sufficient?

If it provides students with the language they need then surely that’s enough? That’s true to some extent but translation does not provide any detail about meaning and the usage of the word, the nuances and connotation; a good dictionary will have all of these. Take a word like childish for example. A simple translation would tell you that the word means behaving like a child but that would miss the connotation that it is usually used in a negative or disapproving manner. Therefore, a translation is a quick fix, whereas a dictionary can be a virtual teacher.

So the second question is: how do I get my students interested in dictionaries?

I am sure it’s not just my experience that students roll their eyes when you ask them to look something up in a dictionary. I think it’s important as a teacher to model the behaviour you want from your students. So for me it was essential for them to see me using a dictionary and this is where technology really helped. Using digital dictionaries on CD-ROMs I can quickly and effectively show definitions of words on the screen whenever a student has a question. This could be either as a whole class or just when one student has a question. The genie function is especially useful as you can roll your cursor over any word in a ‘live’ document to bring up an instant definition. This helps students to see the value of the dictionary and helps us to discuss how to use them.

Another way to inspire students is to do small activities using dictionaries. My favourite is a spelling test where the students have to write words in one of two columns – sure how to spellnot sure how to spell. After I’ve read out the words the students check them themselves in the dictionary. On a whim in one lesson I gave one group a paper dictionary to check their answers and the other the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) app on my phone. The students with the app finished quicker and it wasn’t long before others were asking to use it.

A second activity I’ve used is a quiz race. I ask the students 3 or 4 questions and tell them to find the answer in the dictionary; for example: how many meanings does pick have? What’s the difference in pronunciation between record as a verb, and record as a noun, etc. For this I give one group the phone with the OALD app, one the computer, and one a paper dictionary. They then have to race to see who can find the answers first. These types of activities show students how useful dictionaries can be to help them become less reliant on the teacher.

My students’ willingness to use the dictionary app is something I can build on. Rather than using the CD-ROM in class, I have my phone at the ready in all lessons. It’s easy to pass it to one group then the next when the need arises. I make sure that they add the word to the Favourites when they look it up so we can see as a class all the words we’ve looked up at the end of an activity or lesson. Now instead of rolling their eyes when I suggest looking something up in the dictionary, my students are actively asking for it and when the phone is in someone else’s hands they reach for the paper version.

I was worried about using digital dictionaries in my class because not all the students could have access to them at the same time. But what I’ve discovered is that asking students to share the resources and asking them to use a combination of paper and digital, helps students to see what a valuable learning tool dictionaries are.


4 Comments

Teacher Spotlight: A Portrait of the Translator as a Young Woman

Young woman writingMarija Hladni, a teacher, translator and creative writer from Serbia, gives us an insight into the life of a translator, as well as a few words of wisdom for anyone considering a career in translation.

‘Translation is a craft,’ said one of my faculty professors, apparently with the heartfelt desire to belittle my dreams. Luckily, I disagreed, held true to my goals and eventually ended up as a young and relatively successful translator. I always thought that translation is an art, a beautiful way of ignoring the dividing differences between two cultures and letting them exchange ideas and learn from one another.

It is an unwritten rule that a translator should specialize in two or three areas of expertise, but in order to work in my country I had to adapt, so right now I am translating everything from scientific papers dealing with medicine or agriculture to legal documents and literature. Of course, I would like to be able to choose what I do, and hopefully in the near future I will be, but for now it’s sunflower breeding immediately followed by multiple sclerosis parameters.

Another thing that I have learned working as a translator is that everybody needs their translations finished yesterday – if there was a medical condition that prevented people from distinguishing between a phone and a time machine it would almost certainly be called translationitis. The ailment would be characterized by violent outbursts of frustration and disbelief on the subject’s part whenever his or her desire to ignore temporal laws wasn’t met with the utmost enthusiasm and a binding urge to comply.

So, if you are thinking about becoming a freelancer within translation profession, remember that in this line of business sleep is a rare pleasure you can indulge in only once you’ve managed to defy the laws of nature. I’m half expecting to be asked to finish a translation before it is even sent to me. The best way to deal with this type of situation is to stay calm and remember that people who are not translators naturally don’t know as much about the process as you do, so they really can’t be expected to know that you actually need time in order to do the work. Give them an estimate on how long it will take you to finish the translation and if it doesn’t suit them feel free to refer them to your wizard/mad scientist friend who might be able to help them out with their demands.

Continue reading


28 Comments

Translation in language teaching and learning

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.

Bookmark and Share