C is for Contrastive analysis

27 01 2013

Charles-BridgeAn article in the latest Applied Linguistics (Scheffler 2012) makes a robust defence of some discredited classroom practices, including the use of translation. While lamenting the lack of research into the effectiveness of translation, Scheffler reports a couple of studies that suggest that learners exposed to cross-linguistic comparison (also called contrastive metalinguistic input) out-perform those who have had grammar presented to them solely in the target language. The author concludes that ‘teachers who resisted the ban on [translation] in the classroom may have known what they were doing’ (p. 606).  In this wise, Scheffler echoes the thrust of Guy Cook’s (2010) book, discussed in this blog here.

Interestingly, neither Scheffler nor Cook reference the work of the ‘Prague School’ of linguistics, and especially of its founder, Vilém Mathesius, whose application of cross-linguistic comparison to the teaching of foreign languages seems to have been a methodological staple in (then) Czechoslovakia until at least the late 1960s.

PragueatnightJust a bit of background: the Prague School flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, and was distinguished by at least three major breaks with tradition:

1. In contrast to the then predominant preoccupation with historical linguistics (and what the past might tell us about ‘correct’ language use), Prague School linguists were more concerned with language as it is currently used now, hence had a less prescriptive, more relaxed approach to acceptable language use (and one which perhaps foreshadowed the development of corpus linguistics);

2. In viewing language as an integrated, interdependent system, in which all its elements stand in some relationship with one another, such that no single element can be viewed in isolation, the Prague School was able to show how changes in one element might affect changes across the system, thereby modelling systematic language change and variability, and, incidentally, helping to establish linguistics as a discipline in its own right, rather than as a branch of psychology or philosophy; and

3. (perhaps most importantly), Prague School linguists shifted the prevailing focus on linguistic structures to a focus on the communicative functions of language, thereby paving the way for the kind of functional linguistics associated with Michael Halliday, and, by extension, communicative language teaching.

Prague-CastleThe conjunction of both a descriptive and a functional perspective prompted an interest in comparative linguistics, and, specifically, in the way that different languages express the same functions.  Languages, for example, divide between those (like English) that express movement using constructions where the manner is encoded in the verb and the direction in a particle, e.g. Juan ran in (the house); she limps out (of the kitchen), and those (like Spanish or French) where the direction is expressed in the verb, while the manner is expressed in some kind of non-finite construction: Juan entró (en la casa) corriendo;  elle sort (de la cuisine) en boitant. Hence English is particularly well endowed with manner of movement phrasal verbs: saunter off, stride about, scurry away, slide down, etc.

Prague school linguists argued that ‘confronting’ such differences should form the basis of language course design and classroom practice. As Vachek (1972: 24) puts it,

‘In language teaching, the instructor using the contrastive method makes a point of stressing, in the taught foreign language, not only those of its features which are identical or parallel in it with the corresponding features of the pupil’s mother tongue, but also, and particularly, those features in which the two languages are found to differ.’

Likewise, Fried (1968: 45), another Prague School associate, advocated an approach in which ‘the student is systematically guided and made to realize the functional differences that exist between the foreign language…and his native tongue’, and he adds: ‘Two-way translation may not be excluded here’.

Prague-TowerHow was this realized in practice?  Tantalizingly, in a footnote Fried refers to a series of textbooks, called Nová cesta k jazykum: Co není v učebních (‘A New Approach to Languages: What cannot be found in textbooks’), one of which, written by Mathesius himself and published in 1936, was called Nebojte se angličtiny (‘Don’t be afraid of English’). (Can my dear readers in the Czech Republic or Slovakia keep an eye out for this – the title alone is worth the price of the book!)

Short of knowing how Mathesius went about it, I’m assuming that one way of realizing a ‘confrontational approach’ might be to take the deductive route, in which the rules of the target language are compared and contrasted with those of the students’ mother tongue.

A more inductive approach, however, seems better attuned to current methodology. Here, for example, is my attempt to contrast a feature of English which is not shared to anything like the same extent with Spanish:

1.            Read the text in English and Spanish


Coffee is made from the beans of the coffee plant. Coffee bushes grow best in warm, wet highland areas, such as in Brazil and Kenya. Inside each red berry are one or two beans. At harvest time, the beans are removed and dried in the sun. Then they are roasted until they are brown, and sold, either ground or whole. Coffee is exported all over the world.


El café se hace con los granos de la planta del café.   El arbusto de café crece mejor en tierras altas, cálidas, y húmedas, como en Brasil y en Kenia. Dentro de cada baya roja hay uno o dos granos. Después de la recolección, se extraen los granos y se secan al sol.  Entonces se tuestan hasta que adquieren un color morrón, y se venden, o molidos o en grano. El café se exporta a todo el mundo.

2.            How do you say…

1. El café se hace con los granos de la planta del café.
2. Se extraen los granos
3. Se secan al sol.
4. Se tuestan
5. Se venden
6. El café se exporta.

3.            Can you work out the rule for these sentences? How does it differ from Spanish?

Incidentally, has anyone done ‘running translations’? I.e., as in running dictations, a text is pinned up at some distance from where the students, working in groups, have to translate it, one student acting as the ‘runner’. Is there any mileage in it, do you think? 😉


Cook, G. (2010) Translation in Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fried, V. (1968) ‘Comparative linguistic analysis in language teaching’, in Jalling, H. (ed.) Modern Language Teaching, London: Oxford University Press.

Scheffler, P. (2012) ‘Theories pass. Learners and teachers remain,’ Applied Linguistics, 33, 5: 603-607.

Vachek, J. (1972) ‘The linguistic theory of the Prague School’, in Fried, V. (ed.) The Prague School of Linguistics and Language Teaching, London: Oxford University Press.

Many thanks to Jeremy Taylor for his lovely photos of Prague.



40 responses

27 01 2013
Chris Ożóg

Hi Scott,

Enjoyable post and fascinating stuff about the Prague School.

Translation in the language classroom is something which many seem to stridently decry as backward, unhelpful, outdated, etc. While there are obvious pitfalls – monolingual teachers or multilingual classes, for example – I think there are benefits for a large number of students. In fact, I use it both for myself and my learners (when teaching context allows) to promote noticing, like your activity above does very well. It’s just that we can’t, as teachers, start to rely solely on it, but I see no problem with making use of it where it makes sense.

As a learner of Spanish and, before, French, I went out of my way to compare those two languages to English and to note how what I wanted to say would be said, starting from a need I had to communicate something, noting the English and then later working out the French. I would actually go as far as to say that this was perhaps the most successful aspect of my learning of French (it was all self-study really). It just seemed like the natural thing to do, though at the time I had no idea about noticing, which is what is seems I was doing – noticing a gap, pattern, etc, and then comparing how that would work in English, or the other way round.

An example of a translation activity I’ve used, and because I was in Prague at the time, I did a couple of successful translation exercises with my B1/B2 intensive group (I might actually have got the activity from you, but can’t recall now – so thanks if it was you!). I took a short passage in English and had them translate it into Czech. They then switched translations and had to translate in back to English before comparing with the original. We then worked on any differences they found, difficulties, things they could translate and discussed reasons for all of this. It’s worth noting here that I don’t speak Czech (other than to order nakládaný hermelín and a pivo – wonderful!) and this did not seem to detract from the exercise, with the (monolingual) group more than happy to try to explain to me why something didn’t work, which I think helped them.


27 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment, Chris. The idea of translating a text back and forth is a fairly old one, although a nice twist to it was suggested by Julian Edge in an ELT J article years and years ago. Divide the class into 2, 4, 6, 8 etc groups. Give one half of the groups a text in English (text A) and another similar text (Text B) to the other half. They work together to translate their texts into their L1, then the texts are exchanged (those who did Text Are given the translation of Text B and vice versa) and then turned back into the original English – and then compared and commented on. As you say, it doesn’t really require a sophisticated knowledge of the students’ L1 on the part of the teacher, although it probably helps.

27 01 2013
Lexical Leo

Waking up to Scott’s fresh blog post! And it’s a topic that has always interested me. Actually, you tackle TWO topics I’ve always found interesting: Contrastive Analysis and motion / manner encoding in English. And clearly there is a connection.

If you compare a text in English with its translation into Spanish or another Romance language (verb-framed languages) you’ll find fewer colourful manner verbs such as the ones you mention above (scurry, saunter, loiter, dash) in the translation. Similarly, a translator translating from a Romance language into English, has to pack more specific manner verbs into the target language text to make it sound more idiomatic.

My students find fascinating (with my gentle guidance, of course) how virtually any verb in English express motion if you add a particle to it:

My secretary will see you out
waltz into the room
help an elderly lady across the street or into / out of the car

As for my personal experience, I’ve done running dictations but not running translations. But since I use a lot of films in class, I often use L1 subtitles for translation / contrastive analysis. You’d need a DVD for this.

For example, play the video with sound off but with subtitles in your students’ L1. Get students to translate the dialogue into English, then play with sound on and check their versions with the original dialogue.

You mention the lack of studies on the effectiveness of translation, here is one that immediately comes to mind:
Laufer, B. and N. Girsai. 2008. Form-focused instruction in second language vocabulary learning: a case for contrastive analysis and translation. Applied Linguistics 29: 694-716.

The researchers also lament the paucity of research on the subject, but I believe there is a serious flaw with the research design that’s somehow been overlooked. If you find time to read it, please let me know if you think the same.


27 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Great idea, Leo (translating the subtitles and then comparing) and a sort of variant of Chris’s idea, above.

Yes, I included the example of the different ways of expressing movement, because I wanted to move away from using contrastive analysis solely to compare grammar structures. I thought you would appreciate that!

Also, thanks for the reference to the Applied Linguistics article. I popped it into my suitcase and will read it here in my hotel room in Cairo!

29 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks to Leo, I’ve caught up on the Laufer and Girsai article he mentioned (Applied Linguistics 29/4, December 2008). If more proof were needed that contrastive analysis works, then this paper provides it, at least for the teaching of vocabulary.

Three comparable groups of teenage learners were exposed to the same twenty words or word combinations, each group in a different way: 1. simple exposure in context; 2. more explicit focus on the items (multiple choice, gap fill) but no translation; 3. translation in and out of L1, including some contrastive analysis of L1 and L2 collocations. The groups were tested immediately and then a week later. The contrastive analysis group significantly outperformed the others. (Admittedly the test type involved translation, which might have biased the results in terms of the translation treatment group, a point that the researchers don’t acknowledge).

Nevertheless, their arguments in favour of CA are convincing, arguing that it requires greater cognitive depth, forces attention, and promotes noticing. They note that ‘the pervasive influence that L1 has on learner lexis and the persistence of L1-based errors at advanced levels of learning suggest that contrastive form-focused instruction, which raises the learners’ awareness of the L1-L2 differences and provides practice in the areas of these differences, may prove more effective than teaching methods that ignore the cross-linguistic influence on lexical learning” (p. 700).

In discussing their findings, they quote Carl James (2005) to the effect: ‘CA can now come out of the closet and cross-language Awareness can be practiced in classrooms as a legitimate activity, for it will at the very least sensitise learners to the decisions to be made in their FL [foreign language] production, advising them when they can and can not resort with profit to the MT [mother tongue]’.

They also caution that ‘this does not mean that we should abandon the communicative classroom and return to the “grammar-translation” method, nor does it mean that we should teach the skill of translation at the expense of the ability to function in a foreign language’. And then, challengingly, they add: ‘Meaningful communication has been the goal of communicative language teaching, but the best method for achieving this goal may not be identical to the goal itself’ (p. 712).

Laufer, B. and Girsai, N. (2008). ‘Form-focused instruction in second language vocabulary learning: a case for contrastive analysis and translation’, Applied Linguistics 29: 694-716.

27 01 2013
Adam Simpson

As with so many of the theoretical aspects of our profession, I’m so glad that others have spent so much time (over)thinking this that I don’t have to. The simple fact is, sometimes I use contrastive analysis in class and my learners invariably enjoy it. If I then assumed that learners would enjoy doing this in every class, I’d no doubt be way off the mark.

Contrastive analysis is great for at least two reasons. Firstly, you are surrendering a lot of the power to the learners in that they are suddenly dealing with a language in which they are the experts, not you. Secondly, you can exorcise the Demons spawned by the Grammar McNuggets: contrasting how something is said in the two languages is much more meaningful – and legitimate – than presenting a rule and then adding, ‘well, that’s just how you say it in English’ when something comes up that doesn’t fit the rule.

As far as the running translation is concerned, this sounds great as it basically replicates what I, for instance, have to do when in a restaurant with English friends who don’t speak Turkish, or when at some kind of public transport facility and have to explain what the customer announcement meant. This is a meaningful, think-on-your-feet activity

27 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Adam. You make two very good points which are worth reiterating:

Firstly, you are surrendering a lot of the power to the learners in that they are suddenly dealing with a language in which they are the experts, not you. Secondly, you can exorcise the Demons spawned by the Grammar McNuggets: contrasting how something is said in the two languages is much more meaningful – and legitimate – than presenting a rule and then adding, ‘well, that’s just how you say it in English’ when something comes up that doesn’t fit the rule.

28 01 2013
Scott C

Yes! Translation plays a big part of communication for so many people that some class time devoted to it must be valid. I also wonder how many language learners out there have never translated something in their heads, especially at lower levels?

27 01 2013

I think the idea of a running translation would be a great challenging activity. It’s only going to work in a mono-lingual classroom though! Most of my experience has been in multi-lingual groups and so it makes contrastive analysis a little difficult. However, I do think it is useful to say, how do you say this in your language? Is this the same in your language, etc? (actually I do this a lot with things like idioms but that is probably more out of my own interest!)

I do think an understanding of how your own language works is really key to learning another language. I’m of the generation in the UK where they decided that teaching grammar in school was a waste of time (I learnt a noun was a ‘name’ , a verb was a ‘doing word’ and an adjective ‘described things’, that was it!) So I really didn’t have a clue about how sentences were constructed in English until I came to do my CELTA and then it was a steep learning curve. But now, when learning Spanish, my knowledge of this is a definite advantage because I understand how things are different. Incidentally, I would like to know how the nationalities that are known for being ‘good at languages’ (The Dutch for example) learn their own language.

Really though, I think students are always translating (for good and for bad) without too much encouragement from the teacher. I think comparing and contrasting the language is very helpful but actually translating is a very different skill.

27 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Jo. I’ve not actually done the ‘running translation’ idea myself – it just occurred to me when I was writing the blog. I’m not trying to work out how it could be done with a mixed language group. Anyone got any ideas?

Yes, I agree that comparing and contrasting is one thing, and translating is another, and it would be unwise to conflate the two. (Of course, the former will involve the latter, to a certain extent, but not with a view to producing a polished text).

27 01 2013

Thanks for the reply Scott. It occurs to me that what I was trying to say in the middle paragraph of my text (though struggled due to it being a Sunday morning!) was that the idea of contrasting the languages I presume would rely to a certain extent to how well the learners understood the mechanics of their own language (I’m referring to grammar here really). For example, I’ve found often when teaching students from the Middle East they don’t really have an idea of how a sentence is constructed in Arabic so asking them to compare it can sometimes lead to a long debate about their own language and little headway on learning English!

You could do the running translation in a multi-lingual class if you translated the same text from English into half the classes’ languages and got them to translate to someone of a different nationality and then compared how different the results were between pairs of students. It might be interesting but would be a lot of prep and I’m not sure I see the point of it in an English language class – although it might be good in a translation class!!

3 02 2013
Nick Bilbrough

I’ve never done a ‘running translation’ but I have done a kind of Chinese whispers activity with translation. Students in groups stand in a line. The first person reads the first sentence of a English short text and whispers it in L2 to the next person. That person whispers that same sentence in English to the next person etc etc. The last person writes the sentence down in English. The text is always different by the end and it’s interesting to go back and work out why this happened.

27 01 2013

Hi Scott. Thanks for this. I haven’t read Scheffler’s article: you say he laments the lack of research into the effectiveness of translation in the L2 classroom. I suspect this is a case where (robust) anecdotal evidence can’t be easily dismissed. I’ve never met anyone who could actually learn a foreign language without using his L1, in some way or other. Does anyone out there actually believe that the L1 can actually be bypassed when trying to get a grip on a second language? Isn’t this why phrasebooks are ever so popular, after all? I’ve long believed that CA and L1 use, when used judiciously, can actually be a great ally, and at all levels. What better way of checking the students understand the meaning of a new word/idiom than asking them to give it to you in their L1? If they do, bingo, we can move on. If they don’t, well, we need to take a step back and extra teaching is clearly called for. In either case, the teacher’s in a win-win situation. (I’m assuming the teacher is familiar w/ his students’ L1, obviously). Like everything else in teaching, (in life, really…), we need common sense, and not get carried away. (Incidentally, common sense should also alert us of the polarized ways of looking at what goes on in the classroom. The trend sees to be towards a binary way of thinking: STT vs TTT, coursebooks/no coursebooks, just recently Dogme/Demand High. Why this obsession with looking at very complex phenomena with black and white lenses?)

Yes, I have used running dictations, and these have always proved popular/useful as they work on several levels: the students are asked to stand, they work on several skills, and, having to reconstruct the text back in L2, they have to think about the system of the language, making hypotheses, asking each other questions, etc. Similar dictogloss techniques work equally well.

27 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chaz – and I’m never one to gainsay ‘robust anecdotal evidence’! Good point, too, about how blinkered we can get by seeing everything in terms of dichotomies.

27 01 2013

After spending a year in Lancaster 23 years ago studying the work of Michael Halliday I returned to what was still Czechoslovakia, albeit for only 4 months, and was involved in the setting up of a new 3 year fast track teacher training college. We got the students to find out about the Prague school of Linguistics and to relate it to practical tasks in the language classroom.

As a result of many contemporary methodology books coming out of private language schools in Britain, this kind of methodology was not only discouraged but also discredited.

The majority of English classes in the world take place in state education where there is usually a common language amongst the students, to various levels of proficiency in our increasingly multicultural world, and where contrastive analysis makes a lot of sense.

I believe strongly that on pre-service courses, training teachers to teach English, the work of the Prague school of linguistics should be on the reading list.

Thanks Scott for highlighting this and giving the school of functional linguistics the credit it deserves.

27 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mark – your endorsement of the Prague School means a lot, given your credentials (Lancaster, Prague…). The nice thing about blogging is discovering all these connections!

27 01 2013

Thanks Scott for this blog and you inspiring posts.

I teach English to Italian adults, teenagers and kids. And I am Italian.
I’m afraid, in Italy in general, especially in public school, we use too much Italian in English classes, and we concentrate too much on grammar more than functions.

This is gradually changing, but this is the reason why it has been stressed so much the use of English in class lately.
And I should add that this is really good especially for young learners, for example in nursery school. But even in primary classes. At this age they can learn structures and functions without realizing it.

So I would say that , in your learning of a foreign language, from a certain level on, ‘confronting’ can be really useful, when it underlines differences and focuses on functions.

On the other hand, if you are always used to translation, it is very difficult to think in English, and you speaking will always have a slower pace if compared to those who can think in English (even when English is not their mother tongue).

I think that if we use words to express a concept, we will always have to translate it in a second language. While if you first learn through pictures, creating them in your mind as I imagine you do when you can’t speak yet, or in primitive eras or our life as a human race, it’s easier to find words to explain them, in any language. But may be this is another issue.

I feel the use of the first language in an English class should be used, yes, but…..

Chaz said the best way to be sure students understand a word is to ask them to translate. Ok, but, how many times have I found words or concepts which have a slightly (or more than slightly, I would say culturally) different meaning if translated with the same words? So, there we move to another big issue: how to translate, which is not so easy.

Moreover, if you don’t know their first language, how could you say if the students got it right?

As far as my teaching activity is concerned, I prefer to read a definition in an English – English dictionary, and ask students to try and work out the meaning. Then, after they got the concept, we can see if we can find and Italian word that expresses the same concept. Sometimes there is, sometimes not really.

The caffè activity sound nice to me, because there you translate whole sentences, concepts, and are aware on how to express them in English.

I’ve never heard of the running dictation, but I will try it in class.

Thanks to you all

27 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Diana. Yes, your point that an over-reliance on translation can inhibit fluency etc is an argument with a long history, and I’m certainly not suggesting that lessons revert to a grammar-translation model. On the other hand (as you point out) the occasional L1-L2 ‘confrontation’ can probably save a great deal of wrong hypothesizing on the part of the learners.

Regarding ‘running dictation’, this is an old favorite, but doesn’t involve translation – simply the reconstruction of a text that is some distance from the learners, thereby involving a degree of retention that ordinary dictation doesn’t require. The ‘running translation’ aspect adds an extra element of cognitive challenge: they don’t simply reconstruct the text, they have to translate it as well. (You read it here first!)

28 01 2013

Scott, there’s a variation of the running dictation that does actually involve translation, if done with a monolingual group. Works like this: you need three students. S1 reads bits of the text (in L2) and translates it for S2, who then translates it back into L2 and gives it to S3 who writes it down. It sounds a bit chaotic, but it isn’t and there’s quite a lot going on. A good source of similar exercises is Rinvolucri-Deller ‘Using the Mother Tongue’ (DELTA publishing).

27 01 2013

Each week, I meet with two separate groups, each comprised of of 8 Spanish speakers (from Central America, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic) and one French speaker (from Haiti). Contrastive analysis (CA) comes up naturally as students ask one another for translations and I write their translations up on the board then ask students to discuss, and explain the translations to me with respect to English. Fortunately, my Haitian students are keen to learn more Spanish – they’ve learned some in school – and I take advantage of this by asking them to contrast French with the Spanish translations. The similarities between the two Romance languages are often interesting to students.

This can get tricky though when dialects come into play: “In the north, we say this, but down south they say such and such.” Imagine Scott (kiwi English ;-), me (Uh-mer-i-kun Inglish), and a native of Cornwall (a Doc Martin character?) doing CA in a Spanish class. We might not entirely agree on how to translate some things. More than once my class has erupted into an argument about the “correct” translation.

While I’ve heard at least one EFL teacher say that CA works well for him, I have the impression his interest in languages and linguistic background help him benefit from CA. I’ve seen some students struggle with translations when they want to decode each word literally, so that “I have met him before” becomes “Yo tengo…”

Sometimes the students and I contrast Spanglish and English.

The Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis (CAH) discussed in relation to language transfer in The Study of Second Language Acquisition (Ellis, 1994, pp. 306-312) is worth having a look at. The thing about CA, as far as I know, is that learners sometimes draw from their L1 to formulate interlanguage and other times do not. When it comes to differences and similarities between L1 and the target language), Ellis, in Second Language Acquisition, suggests a steady flow of ‘cross-lingusitic influence” (Ellis, 1997) rather than a one-way transfer. Important to remember when using CA?


27 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob. The point you make about different speakers of the same ‘language’ arriving at different versions of a text surely underscores the fact that language is a ‘moving target’ and that meaning, in the end, is always up for negotiation. Exposing learners to different translations of the same text (e.g the first paragraph of Don Quixote, or – as Claire Kramsch does, in Culture and Context in the Language Classroom – different translations of a Rilke poem) reinforces this point.

27 01 2013
Diana Bermudez

Thank you Scott for this great post. As I was reading, I couldn’t help recalling the presentation you gave in Lima, Peru back in 2007 when you mentioned that one of the best 10 grammar lessons you had observed was a teacher translating a mixed conditional sentences after she had given a wonderful presentation of the structure. After your presentation, I started doing that in some lessons. For example, I used it after teaching the passive voice, future perfect, and past perfect. The results were great. The contrastive analysis we do is short and students get it quickly, so I keep on doing that now because it seems to work. Also, CA in my classes where everybody speaks Spanish works great too. It helps students internalize a structure better and also helps them refrain themselves from making mistakes. In Spanish we say “estoy deacuerdo”, but in English we say “I agree”. Even advanced students say “I am agree” because “estoy” is the verb to be, but when we do a bit of CA with that sentence and others, students stop making that mistake.
I have always believed that one reason why CA works so much is because it is highly connected to High order thinking skills (we call them HOTS at work). CA makes students evaluate, compare, and form conclusions. That kind of deep processing allows a student to develop his monitor (krashen 1986) much faster. Also CA focuses on expressing ideas and not just words so if students are focused on the meaning of ideas, then CA is just a step to grasp a meaning of something to then continue onto something else, i.e. another message. Do you agree with me there?
I am definitely going to try the running translation and the idea of using videos with subtitles provided by Leo.
Thanks once again. Reading your post was an awesome way to start my Sunday!
Lima, Perú

27 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Diana, and I’m flattered you remember an activity I described all of 5 years ago! Actually, the lesson I described didn’t in fact use translation to ‘cap’ a grammar presentation – it WAS the grammar presentation! But that doesn’t invalidate your very good point that a quick check of understanding using translation is probably much more effective than all the ‘concept checking questions’ in the world!

27 01 2013
Diana Bermudez

Yes, you are right Scott. The teacher had made students practice the structure and as a “by the way”, she said what the structure meant in students’ first language.

27 01 2013

I’d like to follow up on creativitiesefl’s last note: that translating and comparing/contrasting are two different things. As a learner and later as a teacher, I seem to have intuitively separated the notion of translating to communicate from that of comparing/contrasting languages (which requires translating, not necessarily by me). The first occurs during meaning-making and is better left behind, the second occurs during exploring/examining and is totally on the table! I have mixed language classes, but it’s still worthwhile to display curiosity and interest in “language”, no matter what language it is. Just last week, we were examining the main stressed syllable in words that end in -ion (inforMAtion). Asking a Spanish speaker to say it in Spanish after I say it in English helps others to contrast, even if they don’t know Spanish. (I guess it’s sort of a stress minimal pair!)

27 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Kathy – you make the point I was trying to make earlier – that translation (as a skill) and CA (as an awareness-raising activity) are two quite different things – which is not to say that translation can’t also serve awareness-raising, but is perhaps more cognitively demanding than simply looking for differences between paired sentences or texts.

27 01 2013
Richard Detwiler

Another increasingly large and varied group of “no translation” resisters are the teachers practicing Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and Comprehensible Input (CI) strategies in the language classroom. In this community of language teachers, the use of translation to quickly and effectively establish meaning of target language structures and vocabulary and the teaching of grammar inductively without much in the way of explanations in either native or target languages, rather than deductively and prescriptively, have never been considered discredited. This is the community that most inspires me to keep working on my craft as a high school Spanish teacher. Here’s my personal collection of Internet links with which I try to stay connected to the community: http://moretprs.wikispaces.com/

27 01 2013

Greetings from Prague, Scott. I’ll have a look out for Nebojte se angličtiny for you. One of my colleagues may have it.

A number of points, it seems to me, support an argument for contrastive analysis in the classroom:

a) students often do it naturally anyway
b) exploring differences between languages can be a powerful means of more effectively noticing salient features of the target language and therefore help bridge students’ interlanguage
c) it can help the teacher anticipate L1 errors that students make with a language feature (I know Czechs , for example, will often use “informations”, “advices”, “good in sth”, use adverbs of time in mid sentence position etc. etc.)
d) apropos of the above point, a contrastive analysis of the error may help prevent fossilization more effectively?
e) it’s often very interesting and motivating (for teachers and students alike!) to focus on differences between languages (students are often proud of their L1 and enjoy speaking about how it is different from English)
f) many interesting learning episodes can spring form a contrastive analysis of language i.e. contrastive analysis may provide useful affordances (not least for the teacher too; I’ve learned some handy Czech from doing bits of contrastive analysis!)

27 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Wes, and the well articulated ‘case for using contrastive analysis’. Regarding your last point, i.e. “I’ve learned some handy Czech from doing bits of contrastive analysis!” – I think this is important: there’s nothing to say that the teacher shouldn’t also be learning in the language classroom, and the idea of a reciprocal flow of knowledge surely empowers the learners as well.

28 01 2013
Elka Todeva

Thank you Scott for another interesting posting and particularly for dwelling on the Prague School which still remains an unknown for many language educators, at least here in the States. Language majors studied the Prague School in great detail in Bulgaria when I was working on my master’s and the insights of people like Trubetzkoy, Jakobson, and Methesius have served me well as an ESL teacher, simultaneous interpreter, and a teacher trainer.
To the three points you have given the Prague School credit for, I will add the concept of “minimal pairs”, also called by some “minimal oppositions”. This concept is very powerful for better understanding the workings of a target language and the way it compares with any other prior language(s) in the repertoire of the learner. The other beauty of this concept that it works equally well on all levels of language, from the phonological (bit vs. beat), to the lexical (fingers vs. toes), and the grammatical (over vs. above; passive vs. active sentence, etc). A teacher who knows the L1 of the learners can judiciously use various mini translation activities, building anti-interference and allowing noticing of important cross-linguistic differences that will prevent learners from making some common transference errors. To give a simple example, knowing that Russian, Japanese, Bulgarian and many other language use just one word for any type of timepiece, we can invite students to translate a sentence from their L1 into English, which will make them aware that in English they are faced with a choice (watch or clock). This is important “preventative teaching”, which can be accomplished through other means, not just translation.

I agree with the points others made on your blog – ‘we always compare things and that feels natural; it is meaningful and allows us to notice significant differences’. As my first mentor, Andrei Danchev, wrote years ago — I quote loosely from memory here — ‘we can try to ban translation and interlinguistic comparisons from the language classroom but we can never ban them from the students’ heads (the human mind always makes comparisons, no matter whether we like it or not) and it is better to take advantage of this fact and skillfully channel this propensity rather than fight it and inevitably fail in our attempt to do so’.

Last comment, the plurilinguistic type of pedagogy that I practice in my teaching encourages multidirectional enrichment (between students and between students and the teacher). In the globalized world we live in, we all (native and non-native speakers alike, a problematic dichotomy in itself) experience linguistic and cultural border crossings and we all benefit from interesting, artfully facilitated cross-linguistic and cross-cultural comparisons where teachers and students can share in a much more egalitarian manner. Wez’s six point posting is a beautiful summary of the power of CA. Thank you all for a very interesting discussion, Elka

28 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Elka – from a polyglot like yourself, and a researcher and writer on multilingualism, your endorsement of a plurilinguistic approach to language instruction has a particular resonance. Thanks, also, for pointing out the ‘minimal pairs’ connection with Prague School theorists: this makes a lot of sense and is consistent with their view that language is ‘an integrated, interdependent system, in which all its elements stand in some relationship with one another’. Using minimal pairs activities to highlight these relationships, both interlingually, and intralingually, would seem to be a sound instructional strategy.

28 01 2013
Emilia Siravo

Dear Scott,
I loved reading your very interesting post and the other teachers’ insightful perspectives on Contrast Analysis.

I became an advocate for CA when I started learning German. As a language learner, I found myself longing for ‘translation’ and I found contrasting English to German an extremely helpful and efficient language learning tool. Through translation, I focused on understanding the ‘meaning’ of a word/ phrase / function – and this helped increase the amount of language I could retain. Contrasting language patterns and structures gave me insight into how German speakers ‘think’.

Furthermore, CA and translation helped me as a language teacher. While learning German I started to notice the many ‘traps’ (false friends / cognates) that occur for English speakers of German and, as a result, for German speakers of English. This helped me more easily anticipate difficulties my learners might have. In class, I became more attuned to listening (and understanding the reason for) learners’ language ‘errors’. And using contrast analysis in the classroom has often led to very interesting cultural discussions about language and its reflection of a particular culture. For example, (based on my experience) Swiss German learners tend to use word “colleague” (false cognate: Kollege) to mean ‘acquaintance’ (or more commonly ‘friend’). Using translation and CA to look at the use of the words friend, acquaintance and colleague (and their respective German counterparts) has led to cultural discussions as to why in Swiss German the word ‘friend’ (Freund) is reserved for only really close friends but in English ‘friend’ is much more ubiquitous. So a very simple contrast of the use of words in different languages led to an engaging cultural discussion. The CA activity enabled us to both better understand the language and also use the language in a very meaningful way.

30 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Emilia. Your point that CA can expose cultural differences (and similarities, too, (I would assume) as well as linguistic ones, is a very good one. And exploring these differences would provide a platform – not only for speaking practice – but for better retention and recall.

I feel a methodology coming on!

29 01 2013

Dear Scott,

Thank you for the great post. Again I couldn’t keep silent having read it. I come from that part of the world that has been strongly influenced by the Prague school of linguistics and consequently the implementation of the principles of CA are evident in the teaching traditions here. CA as a subject is included in the curriculum of teacher-training universities. What are the benefits? The student doesn’t come to class empty-headed (even though sometimes they look it ) They come with a lot of knowledge that we can elicit first to find the ground they stand on and build new links on it. Their first language is the main source of information to make hypotheses about the new language. Build on it and the new language will never look frightening. Start with the so- called instances of positive transfer (when two languages use the same structure), and success is guaranteed.

Yet there are many traps. By focusing too much on the differences between two languages ( the cases of negative transfer) one is tempted to compile a syllabus around those differences, embedded in heavy metalanguage, and that becomes the contents of the final test – knowledge of the differences but not the skill of using the target language.

Another limitation is the same as for any other kind of explicit knowledge – whether the differences are highlighted inductively or deductively we can use it only with cognitively mature students ( at least aged 10). CA contains information which is just transitional, required temporary, and should be discarded as soon as the skill of using the structure is developed.

I am almost sure that CA can also work implicitly, too, just through mere exposure to two languages simultaneously. In Suggestopedia where the new language is presented with parallel mother-tongue translation it is CA made implicitly which accelerates the process of acquisition.

In the long run CA is a kind of “heavy metal” to shake up the dynamic systems of the languages in order to make a new path for another way of expressing a meaning.

What do you think?

30 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Svetlana! Again, it’s a good to have another ringing endorsement of CA, along with some of the caveats. The point that you make – that CA can become overly concerned both with explicit knowledge and with ‘exceptions’ – is very well made, and this would seem to be the challenge of a ‘rehabilitated’ CA approach – one that is parsimonious with rules and doesn’t test for knowledge of exceptions, for example.

30 01 2013
Tim Harrell

Dear Scott,

Thank you very much for your blog post on CA. Your timing is wonderful as I’ve just started working on my MA dissertation.. which deals with use of L1 in the classroom!

As you say, a key point to consider is how L1 reference/use allows language learners to make use of the known in order to assimilate what is unknown. The L1 is an incredible resource that learners possess, which we as teachers can choose to ignore completely or to harness in ways which raise awareness and save valuable classroom time.

I remember when doing the CELTA at IH Wroclaw (Poland) in 2004 that there was an input session on methods for conveying/checking meaning. After prolonged badgering from a large contingent of Polish teachers of English, the tutor grudgingly acknowledged – through gritted teeth – that translation was one of the possible methods, as ‘a last resort’. We were later handed a worksheet which listed about two dozen methods for conveying meaning – at the very bottom was Translation (in defence of CELTA I can say that tutors couldn’t assume that trainees would be facing monolingual classes).

It wasn’t until I became a language learner myself (Polish) that I started to question the commonly accepted wisdom that reference to the L1 should be frowned upon. As a learner, I remember clearly the frustration I experienced at not being sure if I had grasped the meaning – either precisely or at all – and I was never quite happy with a new usage or function until I had time to check for a translation in English.

A key step for me in improving my Polish was noticing the gap between what I wanted to express and what I had the ability to say, and then writing a notebook containing key phrases and conversational routines in Polish, alongside its English equivalent. By ‘equivalent’ I mean semantic or pragmatic equivalence, so that I didn’t end up sounding ridiculous by using over-literal ‘word for word’ translations .

I can highly recommend a book dealing with this very topic – ‘The Bilingual Reform’ by Butzkamm and Caldwell. They point out many useful techniques where the L1 can be used to aid learners cope with potentially difficult areas and gain insight into how the L2 works. A good example of this is showing how judicious L1/L2 equivalents side-by-side can quickly illustrate how a productive pattern operates. Most teachers will have had the experience of trying to give a ‘rule’ for something, where the language used to explain a structure is beyond the language the students possess (as Adam says above).
They also show how translations which have strict lexical or syntactic equivalence, even if they are clearly wrong in the L1, can highlight problem areas liable to negative transfer. The obvious wrongness of the L1 version shows students that they cannot simply expect the L2 to follow the same pattern.

Once again, thanks for highlighting this subject. It’s good to see the pendulum swinging away from a dogmatic, Berlitz-style exclusion of the mother tongue to a more pragmatic appraisal of its potential benefits.

Butzkamm, W. and Caldwell, J (2009). The Bilingual Reform: A Paradigm Shift in Foreign Language Teaching.

30 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

“We were later handed a worksheet which listed about two dozen methods for conveying meaning – at the very bottom was Translation” .

Hmm. In the light of this comment I’m looking forward to writing a new edition of ‘How to Teach Grammar’ (if my publishers would only let me!).

Thanks, too, Tim, for the reference to Butzmann & Caldwell. As it happens, Butzmann commented on an earlier post on the subject of translation here. Well past time I got hold of this book!

3 01 2014

I teach Business English to lawyers and engineers. Translation is vital at this level especially in giving instructions to teams of engineers, report writing, etc. I think the article must be about beginners – I would agree then

21 10 2016

I recently played some prerecorded phrases to my students in L1 (Spanish) I got them to translate to English and then check them in groups. The phrases were formulaic expressions for interrupting and disagreeing. We role-played a meeting. The students seemed to use the target language more accurately and confidently than other occasions with the same activity, where the target language was presented and practiced “only in English”.

21 03 2017
Dominic Welsh

I recently tried learning some basic Sinhalese for a trip to Sri Lanka and found the format of the book I was using very helpful.

In both the sections for situational phrases and grammar, the items were first written in Sinhalese (that I cannot read), transliterated, translated (word for word, then idiomatically/figuratively).

With this method, the learner can see exactly how the language is structured, and, more importantly, the direct influence that culture and social norms have not only the vocabulary, but also the grammar.

Needless to say, my Sinhalese is extremely basic, but the book gave me a logical understanding of it. Combined with direct instruction and exercises, it would be an excellent tool. It does, however, require detailed and specialised knowledge of the target language, the learner’s language and both cultures.

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