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?