T is for Translation

21 04 2010

During a talk on grammar teaching techniques, last week in Turkey, one participant queried my suggestion that translation could be a useful technique for raising awareness of similarities and differences between the students’ L1 and the target language. I went so far as to suggest that – with some structures (such as the future perfect) it could be the most economical way of presenting them. However, the participant felt (strongly) that encouraging learners to translate L1 forms into the L2 would cause negative transfer.

This led to an interesting discussion with other trainers and teachers, after the session, as to the current status of translation – specifically as a means of presenting grammar – on methodology courses, and prompted me to re-visit the entry in An A-Z of ELT. There I don’t exactly come out in favour of translation, but, in weighing up the pros and cons, I definitely give translation the last word. To quote:

Apart from being a skill in its own right, translation is also an aid to teaching and learning a second language. In this sense, translation has been central to some teaching methods, such as grammar translation, and frowned upon by others, such as the direct method. The reasons for not using translation in teaching include the following:

  • translation encourages a dependence on the L1, at the expense of the learner constructing an independent L2 system
  • translation encourages the notion of equivalence between languages, yet no two languages are exactly alike (although languages from the same language family may be similar in lots of respects)
  • the L1 system interferes with the development of the L2 system
  • translation is the “easy” approach to conveying meaning, and is therefore less memorable than approaches that require more mental effort, such as working out meaning from context
  • the “natural” way of acquiring a language is through direct experience and exposure, not through translation
  • translation is simply not feasible in classes of mixed nationalities, or where the teacher does not speak the learners’ L1.

On the other hand, the arguments for using translation in the classroom include:

  • new knowledge (e.g. of the L2) is constructed on the basis of existing knowledge (e.g. of the L1), and to ignore that is to deny learners a valuable resource
  • languages have more similarities than differences, and translation encourages the positive transfer of the similarities, as well as alerting learners to significant differences
  • translation is a time-efficient means of conveying meaning, compared, say, to demonstration, explanation, or working out meaning from context
  • learners will use translation, even if covertly, as a strategy for making sense of the L2, so it may as well be used as an overt tool
  • the skill of translation is an integral part of being a proficient L2 user, and contributes to overall pluralingualism
  • translation is a natural way of exploiting the inherent bilingualism of language classes, especially where the teacher is herself bilingual

The question is, do the pros outweight the cons – or should I have emphasised the negative factors more strongly?



28 responses

21 04 2010
Rhalmi Mohammed

I sometimes use L1 (Arabic) in my efl classes. This has many advantages:
1. L1 can be very time-saving. Imagine a teacher who wants to teach the word “car” to French students and start by phrasing the explanation as follows “a car is a road vehicle with an engine, four wheels, and seats for a small number of people” while a simple translation of the word ( or perhaps the use of visual aids) would be enough.
2. L1 can be a valuable resource. A comparison of English and the mother tongue (e.g at the grammatical level) can be a very enriching experience. In fact, discovering the similarities and differences of both languages can enhance the TL acquisition. Teachers and learners may build on the differences to avoid negative transfer and on the similarities to boost the internalization of the TL grammar.
3. banning the use of L1 may underly a conception that L1 is inferior. Instead, encouraging cultural tolerance through language activities can be enriching. For example I often use these activities:
-Students may be given a set of proverbs in the TL and be asked to find the corresponding ones in their mother tongue if they exisit. If not they try to translate the proverbs into their language.
-Finding the corresponding idioms or a translation of TL idioms
-Translation of lyrics
-Funny EFL activities can be built on jokes. Students may translate and tell or act TL jokes
4. Using L1 gives a sense of security and acknowledges the learners identity, creating a low affective filter.
5. Sometimes, learners needs must be expressed in L1 since the TL is not yet mastered .
Because of the above advantages, I opted for using L1 when necassary while the TL is “the default” language. That is, using the target language as the medium of instruction when possible and switching to the mother tongue when it is necessary.

22 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rhalmi, for this very clearly articulated set of arguments in favour of cross-linguistic comparison. I now realise that I need to add to my list of ‘pros’ the following:

-> Referencing the learners’ L1 validates their linguistic and cultural identity, while proscribing it might be considered a form of linguistic imperialism.

21 04 2010

Hi Scott,

It doesn’t seem to be a matter of emphasising the negative (or positive) factors more strongly, but of addressing students’ needs.

In my teaching context in NE Brazil (monolingual class, 10-16 middle-class teenage or adult students, two 75-min lessons/week), in general, we tend to stick to English even when dealing with challenging grammar items, especially with beginners. We feel that when we resort to the L1 we create a sort of precedent for students to use it whenever they face difficult communicative situations. Having said that, it’s a good idea to consider the learners’ perception of using translation for presenting grammar. Some students do see it as a valuable approach and even ask for it! But, as you mentioned above, some structures are more similar than others, and for some of these structures it’s useless to try and use translation. One example of such would be the relative pronouns Who, Where and Which which can all be translated as “que” into Brazilian Portuguese.

When we expand the concept of translation beyond the mere presentation of grammar, and regard it as “an integral part of being a proficient L2 user”, we have good grounds to incorporate it into, say, our ESP classes. Business English clients, for example, often need to develop their translation skills.

So, I guess the point I’ve been trying to make is that it’s up to the teacher to consider the students’ needs and decide whether using translation (for presenting a specific grammar item) would be more or less beneficial in their context.

22 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the insightful comment, Fernando. Your point about the learners’ perceptions and expectations is well made – although they can often surprise us by the readiness to rise to new challenges – as Duncan’s post (below) suggests. I think your point about recognising the role of translation for ESP students is also extremely important. Many Business English users will find themselves acting as interpreters and translators in the course of their professional activities, and I wonder if these skills are addressed in current ESP courses?

21 04 2010

I suspect the case against using translation has been mainly driven by pragmatic rather than pedagogic factors. Firstly that initial training courses for native speaker teachers have traditionally taken place (and still do) in multilingual settings in the UK and secondly that itinerant native speaker teachers feel uncomfortable with translation in class if they don’t speak the learners L1.

Below is an account from a teacher working in Bosnia, Paul Walsh, which he shared on our Diploma course forum, which I think captures the situation very well and makes a powerful case for teachers to think seriously about exploiting translation in their teaching. (quoted with his permission)

“…last week, I overheard my co-teacher’s class (by accident, I was photocopying) and heard something like this:As light as a feather? Sto to znaci? (what does it mean)**students answer in bosnian**Hoisted by his own petard? Sto to znaci?**students again answer in bosnian**

I’ve never actually used ‘hoisted by his own petard’ and I”m not actually sure what it means but students seemed genuinely engaged in the lesson, even though what they were learning (obscure idioms by rote) was mostly useless. This started me asking myself “Maybe I should just give up pushing students to speak english ALL the time in class- I’m really fighting a losing battle.”
Maybe it’s quality rather than quantity that matters.

…today, I was racking my brains thinking what to do with my adult class tonight (actually the same one I overheard before). So, I decided to take a risk. I cut up four (short!)film reviews from a croatian newspaper I had lying around the house and photocopied them. Then I asked students to choose one and translate it onto paper (in pairs) but leave a space for me to add corrections. THis is completely counter-intuitive, and kind of goes against everything I’ve done before in the classroom but, what the hell.

I couldn’t believe how motivated and engaged students were, they asked for dictionaries and really got into the task. I marked their ‘translations’ as there were lots of mistakes of word order, grammar and collocation and got them into groups to compare their ‘versions’. They all made similar mistakes putting the Bosnian into English.When learners speak in L1 I usually feel left out but they would often ask questions like:Can we say this in English?
or is this correct in English? which they’ve never done before. They gave me great feedback, said that this was the best lesson we’d had all year! I think they really liked the ‘noticing’/ ‘consciousness-raising aspect’.

But I’m excited and confused and I don’t really know what this says about L1 in class? And, what do I do now, I mean, I don’t even speak their L1?”

22 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Duncan, for this fascinating contribution to the discussion. Paul’s experiment with translation reminded me of an activity I used to do a lot (Julian Edge wrote about it years ago in the ELT Journal) where you have two English language texts (A and B) of roughly the same length and genre. Divide the class in two, and hand out the texts, A to one half, and B to the other. Subdivide the two halves into smaller groups -of two or three students per group. Using dictionaries if need be, each group translates its text into the class’s L1. The translated texts are then exchanged with groups in the other half of the class. The texts are then RE-translated back into English. These re-translated texts can then be compared with the originals – and this is where lots of awareness-raising can occur, at the level of vocabulary, phraseology, idiomaticity, and syntax. (Of course, this activity is only possible with a monolingual group). Works a treat – but keep the texts short! 75 words max. Jokes are good, or short news items.

22 04 2010

An excellent tool if used selectively and if the teacher has a profound knowledge of the other language.

An example:
The English ‘due to’ and ‘due to the fact’ are a headache for Spanish speakers. They constantly write ‘Due to I was tired, … ‘. If you feel that your students would benefit from seeing the difference, you could teach them to recognise the difference between a noun phrase [‘my tiredness’ (??)] and a clause [‘I was tired’] But, if your students are tired/there are other priorities you can point out that the two structures are directly paralleled in Spanish and show them how… end of problem.

Do others agree?

26 12 2011
Hywel Evans

Absolutely. There are very many thorny problems that can be solved simply if L1 is allowed.

29 12 2011
GB Traducción

Do you have a link for some of the above material, Hywel? It would be interesting to have a look at some samples.

30 12 2011
Hywel Evans

Thanks for taking an interest. I’ll just show you the progression of tasks/exercises so far. I started with a simple Spot the Difference task. Partners A and B compare their sentences/expressions and find the difference, if there is one. I was pleased with how the students worked (actually I was amazed) but I felt there were too many occasions where the students were finding the difference without saying the whole sentence. Still, I think it’s a decent warm-up/diagnostic.


Of course, it’s in Japanese. But I think you get the idea.

30 12 2011
Hywel Evans

I went through a phase of trying to make things as “task-like” as possible. This one is for solving math-type problems. It worked OK, but there is the same problem of students not necessarily producing the target language and there also seems to be considerable cognitive load associated with solving the language-unrelated problem. Anyway, as a matter of interest:


30 12 2011
Hywel Evans

This was the next phase, where the active partner has the simpler task of trying to communicate the Japanese expression to the passive partner by using English. The passive partner writes down what the active partner says in English and guesses the Japanese. (Writing this down, too) They compare their work at the end of the cycle. It’s fun for them to see how close they got to the Japanese. (I mean they genuinely have a laugh about this) It’s simple, and there’s no unnecessary cognitive load. Students have to say the whole expression to complete the task. It’s close to being a real-world task, in spite of its simplicity.

It’s also possible to use subtitles taken from movies etc. so students get to see the L1 expressions in context. (This is from Monsters Inc). Students seem to enjoy it. It has a kind of party-game Chinese Whispers vibe to it. I have tons of this kind of material.


30 12 2011
Hywel Evans

As mentioned above, the task can be made easier by showing them a DVD with L1 subtitles first so they’ve already seen the “target” L1 expressions in context. This is heresy for many teachers, of course, but it works like a dream and seems to increase motivation to use L2 because there’s a better chance of getting the L1 half of the answer perfect. Many students also listen incredibly hard because they want to match the expression in the movie as much as possible. So, even though it’s not conceived as a listening task, students often listen in a super-strenuous manner. You may or may not want to encourage this.

Another way of making the task easier is to pre-teach expressions, thereby reducing reliance on dictionaries and increasing fluency in task-completion. Students are given a list of L1 expressions and listen to a dialog (or whatever). They have to try to catch the matching expression in the English listening and write it down. You can also have a normal, traditional L1 task built in.

This kind of thing is incredibly easy to make, but seems to work very well:


23 04 2010

Principal (ed) translation – why not?

In a situation where you understand the mother tongue, then it’s surely OK to have them “lapse” into German for example – if they find it too difficult or haven’t warmed up yet to English and continue the flow of conversation than for it all to just stop. The teacher can continue to reformulate in English while jotting down what they said and the English translation to look at afterwords.

Or perhaps they’re having a heated discussion in German – instead of clapping your hands and stopping them, you could join in, in English and slowly nudge the conversation towards English with reformulation and so on……

Translation can also be useful even in classes where you have no idea about the mother tongue at all.

Example: On my DELTA course I had a multilingual elementary group. Many were not the worlds greatest time keepers. So after my “demonstration of task” often the lowest level learners from Iraq would arrive 10-15 mins late (even in assessed and externally assessed lessons!! – I chose not to put a Keep Out sign on the door!) In that situation rather than put everyone (who knows what to do) through the instruction giving again – I just got the other Iraqi to explain it to him in about 3 seconds! and then he knew exactly what to do!

So quick clarification of instructions or an update for latecomers is (in my eyes) fine for the students to do in their own language whatever that language may be and whether the teacher understands or not.

In certain situations it can also avoid long, drawn out, painful teacher explanations, mimes, eliciting, and basically tying themselves in knots when a 2 word translation from the person across the table would clear things up!

17 01 2011
wolfgang Butzkamm

“So quick clarification of instructions or an update for latecomers is (in my eyes) fine for the students…” I find your example quite convincing. The idea can also be used in clarifying grammar points in multilingual classes: “During instruction with Greek workers (I know no Greek myself) I would try to explain a grammatical phenomenon. The participants would discuss it animatedly for a few minutes and then ask me in German for a few more examples. After a further short consultation in the mother tongue they would let me know that everything was now resolved. ” (Butzkamm & Caldwell 2009, p.234).

24 04 2010
the lingo guy

This idea to pick up a thread that Duncan mentioned, that of multilingual learners within a group. Contrary to this is a group of learners from one lingo base.

This market I have more experience of and find that what I term the “Muttiheft” technique is very prevalent in my German local market, whereby the school system previously has been predominantly following the mode of translation for teaching.
This manifests itself with some clients relying on this as a security net. The familiarity means they do not see there is a learning failure here in that it requires little independent thought if the teacher gives the learners a translation.

That we use translation for non essential words, explanation of grammar points, and also with beginner students has it´s benefits.

However I see it not being so helpful for a learner to not be exposed to a native speaker trainer -in that they will have their own unique accent and self expression.

And more importantly translation with learners who do not know how to learn gives a security net that when removed hinders autonomy.

Translation has it´s usage, but in selective cases. And after all teaching and translating are two distinct fields despite having some cross over.

On a personal note I am no real good translator, and have not come across someone who excels in both fields yet – as there is a tendency to focus energy in one direction.

26 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment. It would be interesting to know if there are studies that confirm the view that the use of the L1 in L2 instruction prejudices autonomy. Reading Jason’s post below, I can’t help feeling that code-switching – for example – might actually enhance autonomy, in that it increases the chances of the learner experiencing communicative effectiveness. Just a thought.

25 04 2010
Jill Florent

Duncan: a ‘petard’ is an explosive device (French) – and the phrase should be ‘hoist with your own petard’ although a lot of people say ‘by your own petard’ – presumably imagining a petard as a lifting device. If you are ‘hoist with your own petard’, you are lifted along with the explosive device that you plan to harm your enemy with – essentially, your plan blows up in your face and you become the victim of your own scheme.

25 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jill – for that gloss on a much used idiom. Spanish speakers will, oif course, recognise “petardo” (= sky rocket) in “petard”.

26 04 2010
Nick Bilbrough

My misspent youth in the vineyards of Southern France taught me that ‘petard’ has also has another, more slangy meaning. I got hoisted by this on far too many occasions!

26 04 2010
Jason Renshaw

Hi Scott – interesting issue, and one we face a lot in second language classrooms.

I was “brought up” (through TEFL training) to see translation as a bit of an evil influence in our classrooms. My view on that changed a lot when I got to know my students’ L1 and started “allowing” and then incorporating it occasionally in my classrooms.

But my own son, who is bilingual in Korean and English, was the biggest awareness raiser for me when it comes to translation between languages. He does it all the time, for both practical purposes (for example helping members of the extended families understand each other) and as a sort of natural learning and sorting process for himself as he thinks out loud. He sometimes blends the two languages as well, sometimes inadvertently, but other times quite deliberately.

It was this that really said to me “hey, if it works for a child making their way into bilingualism, why can’t it or shouldn’t it be something positive for other language learners (who are basically attempting to do the same thing, albeit at different stages of their lives and with different ‘weighting’ between the two languages)?” Age of acquisition and the unique field of genuine bilingualism aside, I think there’s something in it.


~ Jason

26 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jason, for that insight into multilingualism. It does seem to make sense that “making one’s way into bilingualism” – as you nicely put it – assumes performing at being a bilingual, and all that this involves, including code-switching and translation, even at the risk of some negative transfer.

17 01 2011
wolfgang Butzkamm

Here is just one more example of how idiomatic translations can clarify grammatical functions and save us from slinging around grammatical jargon: English ‘mustn’t’ and German ‘muss nicht’ are well-known false friends, because ‘muss nicht’ means ‘needn’t’:
You mustn’t go there. ‘Du darfst nicht dahin gehen.’
You needn’t go there. ‘Du musst nicht dahin gehen.’
No recourse to abstract notions such as prohibition etc. is necessary. Certainly the mother tongue is here not a stop-gap or a last resort, but a first resort. The translation is the grammar. Many more examples from different sources and for different languages can be found in Butzkamm & Caldwell, The Bilingual Reform (2009). There are also careful empirical studies which clearly come out in favour of mother tongue support when dealing with new grammatical constructions. After all, this question has been on the research agenda for quite some time.

1 06 2011
GB Translation

In Austria, we’ve made the experience that students of translation (which is a separate course) actually end up speaking their respective foreign languages much, much better than those who study linguistics, so my opinion would be, due to the exactness of information and research in translation studies, it is actually a great way of acquiring new languages.

25 12 2011
Hywel Evans

At the medical university in Tokyo where I work, we’ve had a dialog going on for a long time that it would be much more convenient and less risky to set up communicative oral productive tasks if we used Japanese in worksheets. I tried it out, and I have been simply amazed at how positively the students work and the extent to which it is possible to control what the students say and challenge them in very precise ways. We believe that the use of L1 offers straightforward solutions that are very important in designing oral-productive tasks. This is particularly important for me as native speakers are usually required to focus on oral communication. We are now in the process of writing a textbook incorporating translation-tasks for oral production.

4 01 2012
GB Traducción

Sounds like an interesting project. Keep us posted please!

27 04 2015
Lila Letaki

Hi! Where can we find the arguments against the use of L1 and translation in the second language setting? Which approaches, or research argue against the use of L1 in a language classroom? I want to delve into this issue and despite the fact that I can’t find relevant arguments regarding the use of L1 , I can’t find the opposite.

31 05 2015
Nell Foster

I haev just finished a study in a multilingual primary school classroom (learning in English) whereby we created bilingual (translanguaged) sentences. The children wrote in English, and then replaced words, phrases, clauses of their choice in their additional language/s. They mostly took nouns as they were often the easiest, but replacement of adjectives caused all kinds of headaches for Irish and French speakers. Idioms were sometimes half transcribed, sometimes literally transcriped. I was looking to see if this seem to enhance their metalinguistic awareness and although it was only a small study, the results were very positive. Before the project, they could tell me about cognates, spelling, alphabets but by the end, they were comparing word order, discussing the number of words needed to express a concept and how grammatical morphemes worked differently in these 2 languages they spoke.

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