14 Nov

This blog was written to accompany a series of talks that I will be giving (or have already given) between 2011 and 2013 on the subject of translation in English language teaching. Its primary purpose is to act as a handout for the talk.

There won’t be any new posts, but anything new that I (or you) want to add will be done through the comments or through edited versions of the original posts. You might want to check from time to time to see what is new.

A number of versions of this talk can be viewed online.  Here’s one:


I hope that at least some of the ideas and suggestions will prove useful to you. In the spring of 2014, my book, provisionally entitled Translation and Own-Language Activities, in the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series, will be published.


The return of translation

14 Nov

‘Translating,’ wrote Guy Cook (2010) recently, ‘should be a major aim and means of language learning, and a major measure of success… […] This argument is a major break with tradition. (Cook, p.xv) The postings in this blog all support Cook’s first statement, but his suggestion that this is a ‘major break with tradition’ is questionable. In 2003, Widdowson wrote that ‘translation has been too long in exile’. V. Cook and L. Cameron (both in 2001), Gabrielatos in 1998, Paul Nation in 1997, Medgyes in 1994, H. H. Stern in 1992, Rinvolucri in 1990, D. Atkinson and Julian Edge in 1987, Ian Tudor in 1986, Rod Bolitho in 1983 and Wilga Rivers in 1975 (among many others) all echoed this sentiment. In short, there is a long and healthy academic tradition of arguing for the use of L1 in the foreign language classroom. For an excellent survey of the field, check out Hall & Cook’s state-of-the-art survey article,  ‘Own language use in language teaching and learning’ in Language Teaching, 45, (2012) pp 271 – 308.

Despite my quibble, Cook has a point. As he points out, it ‘has been treated as a pariah in almost all the fashionable high-profile language teaching theories of the 20th century – so much so that towards the end of that century, other than at university level, it was no longer discussed in the academic literature as a serious candidate for aiding the learning of a new language.’ It continues to be ignored in many teacher training courses and its ‘potential as a resource has been cramped and distorted by the guilt and prohibitions that have accompanied its use’ (Luke Prodromou, intro to Dellar & Rinvolucri, p.5).

Classroom translation practices have often been held up for ridicule, referred to as dull and demotivating. Nord (quoted by Zojer in Witte et al, p.42) has coined the phrase ‘And now who will take the first sentence’ to describe the bundle of bad practices involving translation that are cited to show us how things should not be done.

But there are plenty of alternatives to such ‘bad practices’ – as I hope to show below.

Translation and translating

14 Nov

Traditional approaches to translation have usually focussed on the product of the translating process: the final, ‘correct’ translated text. In more contemporary approaches (including mine), the focus is on the process of translating itself. In some ways, the ‘correct’ answer is not really important: much more relevant are the learning opportunities that may be provided along the way towards an appropriate translation.

At its most minimal, translation may simply entail the glossing of an L2 word with an L1 ‘equivalent’, or a teacher repeating instructions in L1. It may involve the use of bilingual dictionaries or bilingual grammars. It may involve activities where L1 is used in some way and it may mean translation of longer texts. I have conflated these in some of the posts that follow – a less than satisfactory shortcut, but one imposed by constraints of space and time. Sorry.

Did translation ever go away?

14 Nov

To suggest that something is staging a return implies that, at some point, it went away. Did translation in language teaching ever go away? It’s highly unlikely, but impossible to get hold of any hard facts. We know that teachers consistently underreport their L1 practices (Copland & Neokleous, p.271); we also know that translation remains the norm at university-level teaching (Cook, p.xv). My guess is that in primary and secondary schools, it is also the norm. Private language schools are another matter.

But irrespective of what teachers do or want to do, translation is something that takes place anyway (Hentschel, in Witte et al, p.23). It is intrinsically inherent in foreign language teaching (Witte et al, in Witte et al, p.4) because it forms a part of the preferred learning strategies of most learners in most places. (Atkinson, p.242). This is hardly surprising if we acknowledge that the L1 is ‘the language of thought for all but the most advanced L2 learners’ (Turnbull & Dailey-O’Cain, p.5). So, even when translation is banned in the classroom, learners will be using it covertly. It makes sense, then, to use it as an overt tool (Gabrielatos).

The reasons for using translation

14 Nov
  • Epistemological

For many years, the discourse (but not necessarily the practice) of English language teaching was dominated by UK-based private language schools (e.g. the British Council, International House), the teacher training courses (e.g. CELTA) they ran, the coursebooks their teachers and ex-teachers wrote, and the university departments that they maintained close links with. Even now, take any well-known ELT writer and the odds are they have very close connections with this world. The context of this world is multilingual and therefore problematic for translation practices. These institutions are also closely connected to the nexus of private language schools around the world, often staffed with large numbers of native-speaker teachers (who are not necessarily competent in the students’ own languages), that market themselves as different from the traditional grammar-translation approaches of state school teachers.

This dominance is beginning to shift, however. With a massive growth in English language teaching provision around the world and with a growing awareness of the global nature of English as a lingua franca, native-speakers are starting to lose their authority over both the language and methodologies for teaching it. The experiential knowledge base has shifted, with an unsurprising refocussing of interest on translation.

  • Cognitive

Widdowson (2003, p.160) and others have argued that the neglect of translation has little to do with any considered pedagogic principles. As scholars have turned to the pedagogic principles, they have discovered that there is ‘an array of recent evidence and argument in favour of reincorporating students’ own languages into language teaching, and a corresponding disquiet that they were ever excluded’ (Cook, p.51). Strict English-only learning environments may actually be detrimental (Turnbull & Dailey-O’Cain, p. 186)! Why? For the simple reason, as Costas Gabrielatos succinctly puts it, that ‘new knowledge (e.g. of the L2) is constructed on the basis of existing knowledge (e.g. of the L1)’. Prohibiting L1 is to deprive learners of their most valuable resource.

It has often been suggested that the use of translation techniques in language learning can lead to negative transfer from the L1. Researchers are now suggesting that, when used appropriately, translation can actually ‘counteract learners’ tendencies to transfer structures from their mother tongue’ (H. Zojer in Witte et al, p.38) 

  • Intercultural and Humanist

With the growing interest in intercultural aspects of language learning has come an awareness that the business of translating between languages and cultures must assume ‘a central place of relevance for anyone involved in the complex project of interculturality, including, and foremost, foreign language learners.’ (Witte et al, p.6-7) What’s more, ‘referencing the learners’ L1 validates their linguistic and cultural identity, while proscribing it might be considered a form of linguistic imperialism’ (Gabrielatos).

We also know that the more a learner believes in their possibility of success in the language learning enterprise, the more successful they are likely to be. If teachers attempt to ban one of most learners’ preferred learning strategies (i.e. translation), they are unlikely to be doing much good for the learner’s confidence. Judicious use of L1 may also reduce anxiety … so important for lower-level learners.

A final point worth making here is that it is generally agreed that it is important that learners can express personal meanings in the classroom. Bolitho (1983, quoted by Atkinson, p.242) points out that ‘an important role of the mother tongue is to allow students to say what they really want to say sometimes (surely a valuable ‘humanistic’ element in the classroom). Clearly, once it is established what the learners want to say, the teacher can then encourage them to find a way of expressing their meaning in English or, if necessary, help out.’

  • Technical

Online translation technologies (e.g. Google Translate) and apps for handheld devices have radically transformed the world for anyone involved in negotiating meaning in another language. Our students will use these technologies, whether we like it or not. We need to help them make use of these resources critically and intelligently.

  • Practical

‘Translation is one of the most authentic activites imaginable as it is done constantly in ‘real’ life – outside the classroom – and in many cases is the only activity connected with the foreign language that our students will be involved in later on.’ (Grellet, p.11)

Translation can also be the most time-efficient way of dealing with some classroom problems (e.g. false friends); it requires little or no preparation … and let’s be honest – the recommendation that foreign-language classes be taught exclusively in the foreign language remains ‘aspirational in [many] real life classroom situations, especially if the class in question is still at the beginning of its long path to linguistic perfection, or where the level of target language required to follow instructions is not as yet adequate’ (Zojer in Witte et al, p.36).


There is a very strong research-based consensus that the use of L1 and translation in foreign language classrooms has much to offer. The onus of responsibility now rests with those who continue to argue the contrary to support their arguments with more than anecdotes, hunches and feelings.


Going through my files today, I found a copy of an article from 2002 by Luke Prodromou. Since it may not be easy to find in libraries, I thought I would put it up here.

IATEFL Issues April-May 2002 Prodromou2 Prodromou3


Practical ideas I

14 Nov

Here, and in the other ‘Practical ideas’ section below, I am assuming a monolingual class where the teacher shares the students’ language. Guy Cook’s book (pp. 151-153) offers some very useful suggestions for adapting activities for contexts where classes are multilingual or where the teacher does not speak the students’ language.

  • Students are presented with a text in which they are asked to underline the passages which they think will be challenging to translate. They also have to explain why they have marked certain passages. Also, all necessary information relevant to the translation (i.e. information regarding specific local, cultural customs, traditions, etc.) is discussed and, if necessary, provided by the teacher. In the next step, small groups of three students translate the text. (Zojer, p.43)
  • Students have to translate a text, but key words are given in translation (without, perhaps, any indication of their referents in the other text).
  • And if you’re a native speaker, get the students to translate stuff that interests you – for you!
  • Students listen to a lecture and take notes in their own language.
  • A phrase is whispered to a student, who mentally translates it into L1 and says it in L1 to the next student who translates it into L2 and passes on to the next student, etc.
  • Students translate a text into L1. The texts collected in. They are redistributed another day, when they have to translate it back into English. They then compare their version with the original.
  • A good variation of ‘reverse translation’ (see the previous 2 bullet points) has been suggested to me by Roger Marshall. This technique is especially useful for students taking examinations. Take a model composition (these can often be found on the websites of the exam boards) for one of the writing tasks in an exam (e.g. FCE). Translate it into L1 and give this to the class. They work together at translating it into English, before being asked to compare their versions with the original. Another suggestion by Roger Marshall is to get students to write part (or all) of an examination writing task in L1, and then pass it on to other students for translation into English.
  • Students discuss word-for-word translations and mistranslations (hundreds of fun mistranslations can be found online: Google ‘Chinglish’)
  • Tell the students a lateral thinking puzzle. Students must ask yes / no questions to solve the puzzle. They can ask these Qs in MT (perhaps limit the number of MT Qs that can be asked), but someone, a stronger student, say, will translate these into English and write them on the board. (this activity is taken from Dellar & Rinvolucri, p.32)
  • Modify roleplays and other speaking activities by having one person speaking MT, and one person translating. (e.g. tourist / student as go-between)
  • In discussion tasks, sts work first in MT, before summarising their points, then translate them into English, and presenting their idea to other groups / sts. Or tell students to code-switch in the middle of an activity.
  • In speaking activities, one student has to write down anything that is said in MT. This is then worked on later.
  • Students compare two translations of the same text without seeing the original.
  • Give students two or more different syntactic translations (from MT into English) of a sentence from a text. Their task is to decide which is most appropriate.
  • Different groups work on translating the same short text. They then compare and decide which versions they prefer – perhaps compiling the versions to make one collectively improved version.

The dangers of overuse

30 Oct

In a nutshell:

We do not equate the use of the first language in the second or foreign language classroom with passing out a license to overuse of the first language, that is, to become so dependent on the first language that teachers and learners cannot function in a second or foreign language classroom without it. Whatever benefits first language use may bring, it is clear that the ultimate goal of a second or foregin language classroom remains the learning of the target language; practices that undermine this ultimate goal must be avoided. (Turnbull, M. & Dailey-O’Cain, J. 2009 p.2)

Atkinson (ELTJ 41/4, 1987 p.246) lists the following dangers of overuse:

1. The teacher and / or the students begin to feel that they have not ‘really’ understood any item of language until it has been translated. 2. The teacher and / or the students fail to obersve distinctions between equivalence of form, semantic equivalence, and pragmatic features, and thus oversimplify to the point of using crude and inaccruate translation. 3. Students speak to the teacher in the mother tongue as a matter of course, even when they are quite capable of expressing what they mean. 4. Students fail to realise that during many activities in the classroom it is crucial that they use only English.

It would not be too hard to add to this list!

Practical ideas II

30 Oct

The suggestions in this group all make use of online technology. In some cases, the students will also need access to this technology.

  • This activity is a valuable way of looking again at a text that you have already studied in class, perhaps four or five lessons previously. But it can also be used with any text that has intrinsic interest (e.g. current news). Type a text into an online translation tool (see 25 October posting: Web resources) and convert it into your students’ mother tongue. Distribute this to the students, whose task (in groups) is to edit the translation to make it ‘acceptable’. To help them, you may underline the bits that need attention.
  • Google Translate offers translations that are usually riddled with errors. However, if you point the cursor over the offered translation, it breaks it down into shorter phrases which you can then click on to be offered alternative translations. Students can usefully work in groups going through the alternatives that are on offer, selecting the best … or rejecting them all, and replacing with their own versions.
  • Find a movie clip in original English with subtitles in the students’ language. Show the students the clip with the sound down. Their task is to work out what was actually said. Once done, they can compare their versions with the original. If you think your students would enjoy this kind of work, check out http://levis.cti.gr/ … ‘levis’ stand for ‘learning via subtitling.
  • Translating video clips (from English) is often more motivating than using a paper-based text. If your students work with movie extracts, they will also be focusing, inevitably, on dialogue. They will enjoy seeing their own subtitles appear on screeen, and this is easily achieved. See http://www.ehow.com/how_4784602_own-subtitles.html for easy-to-follow instructions.
  • Chuchotage (or lectoring) is a voice-over simultaneous translation that is still used on TV in some countries. Find short clips that you want your students to work on (or, perhaps, they can select their own). In groups, the students prepare a mother tongue voice-over script to accompany the clip. It usually works best if the students must do this orally, without taking written notes. They then practice delivering their mother tongue voice-over so that it is synchronised with the clip. Finally, they present their work to other groups of students.

Translation and teacher education

27 Oct

If language teachers come across translation during their training as teachers, it is most likely to be as part of their university language studies when they attend classes that tackle a literary text using a ‘Who-wants-to-take-the-next-sentence’ methodology. It is unlikely that they will be asked to build reflective bridges between the language and pedagogical modules of their courses.

For the (predominantly native-speaker) teacher trainees following courses like the Cambridge CELTA or DELTA, translation will be largely ignored and, most often, frowned upon.

I’m not sure that adding to training courses a seminar or two devoted to translation and mother tongue use would be especially fruitful. Trainees learn much more by example than anything else, so a training course that wants to encourage trainees to make the most of the opportunities that translation offers needs, in advance, to work out what its own approach to code-switching will be.

There’s an activity in Dellar and Rinvolucri’s book (p.15), however, that can be easily adapted for use in teacher education contexts. The trainer dictates a series of questions. These include the following examples:

How much do I translate inwardly when someone is speaking to me in English? I am reading an English text and there’s an unknown word. Do I want an English definition of the word or an accurate translation into my own language? When I write English, what happens in my head?

Trainees discuss the questions in groups. It would seem to me that a logical way to conclude this discussion is to shift the focus on to the relative uses of English and mother tongue in the training course itself.


26 Oct

The first presentation on this subject that I will give is in Istanbul (at Doğuş University) and I hope to learn more about dragomans while I’m there. Dragomans (or dragomen) were official translators in Ottoman Kostantiniyye (as Istanbul was then known) and some of them lived extraordinary lives. The one in the picture here (1809) is busy negotiating meaning between a British ambassador and a Turkish Kaymakam.

David Bellos illustrates the kind of language required when speaking to the Ottoman functionary:

Having bowed my head in submission and rubbed my slavish brow in utter humility and complete abjection and supplication to the beneficent dust beneath the feet of my mighty, gracious, condescending, compassionate, merciful benefactor, my most generous and open-handed master, I pray that the peerless and almighty provider of remedies etc etc

What, one wonders, were the original words of the British milord wanting to enlist Turkish support against Napoleon?

OK, tell him this, but say it nicely, OK? And we’ll pay lots of money.

Translation is by definition an intercultural activity: dragomans knew it better than anyone.