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).


7 Responses to “Did translation ever go away?”

  1. philipjkerr February 11, 2012 at 11:31 pm #

    Back in 2000/2001, there was a lively online discussion about the use of L1 in 2nd language classrooms. A majority of participants used L1 and were happy to justify their approach. The discussion is reproduced at TESL-EJ under the title ‘Using the First Language in Second Language Instruction: If, When, Why and How Much?’ It can be accessed here:

  2. philipjkerr February 20, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

    One place where it’s hard to find translation in ELT environments is a language school in, say, the UK. Cook devotes just under a page (p.151/2) to the subject and begins by saying that, ‘at first glance, it might seem that translation cannot be used at all in mixed-language classes’. He then makes a couple of suggestions about when it could be used. ‘Pair work or group work where each language has more than one representative’ is his first idea. ‘Students can be encouraged to reflect upon and explain translation problems they encounter, even though the teacher may not be able to verify them,’ is idea #2. Idea #3 is, I think a good one: students may be asked to bring in short significant texts or recordings in their L1 and translate them for the class. But, by idea #4, Guy Cook is scraping the barrel: ‘Students can be encouraged to make use of bilingual resources both inside and outside the classroom’. It’s not a great list, to be honest.
    But language schools in the UK do more than run classes of multilingual general English. Most schools have a ‘business English’ side, where higher fees are charged for smaller groups (or even one-to-one), with the participants often coming from the same company and the same language background. There are the kids’ classes in the school holidays, often groups from the same high school in, say, the suburbs of Brussels or Bucharest, with their worn-out regular teacher(s) in tow. There are the teacher training courses, especially in the summer. There is the fact that many of the teachers in these schools will have worked or will be working in monolingual environments. These are, I think, all good reasons for people in the UK language schools to know about the current discussion of L1 use and translation.

  3. philipjkerr February 25, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    It’s interesting, I think, to look at how approaches are different in different countries. Mouhanna (2009)’s article describes the situation in the UAE. There, many Institutions ‘have prohibited the use of L1 in the classroom which is commonly perceived to be an impediment to EFL learning’. He points out that it is a controversial issue. Within higher education institutions in the UAE, English is the medium of instruction. Prior to 2006, the instructor evaluation system for the program was designed to prohibit Arabic use. I will be in the UAE in a few months, and I look forward to finding out more.
    Also referring to the Arab context, O.J.Odeh (2008, ‘Language 1 in the Teaching, and Learning, of English Language and
    Literature’ First National Symposium on Quality English Teaching: Encountering Challenges, 30-31 August, 2008, Birzeit University) has written that the use of translation ‘has often been held as anathema’ as a tool in foreign language teaching. Sulaiman Jenkins, writing in 2010 (ELTJ 64/4 ‘Monolingualism: an uncongenial policy for Saudi Arabia’s low-level learners’ pp.459-461) about Saudi Arabia, refers to the ‘infamous no-Arabic rule, a policy that strictly prohibits L1 usage in the class.’

  4. philipjkerr February 25, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

    P. Sewell, writing in 1996 (‘Translation in the Curriculum’ in P. Sewell and I. HIggins (eds.) Teaching Translation in Universities. Present and Future perspectives London; CILT, p.139), had the following to say about preferred learner strategies:
    It would seem that very many lovers of languages love to translate, it is a very motivating activity, more so perhaps than some other language learning activities conducted exclusively in the target language. This feature is perhaps something teachers can capitalize on.

  5. philipjkerr February 25, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    Richard Stibbard (1996 ‘The Principled Use of Oral Translation in Foreign Language Teaching’ in Malmkjaer, p.70) described the situation in Hong Kong at the time: ‘the code-mixing and switching is so characteristic of the Hong Kong linguistic situation that to ignore it in the classroom would be foolish and to ban it would be futile.’ I wonder if this has changed since then. My guess is not.

  6. philipjkerr August 29, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    In an interesting article in ELTJ (July 2012), Andrew Sampson lists six main uses of code-switching in a language classroom. In his study, the number of times that students code-switch was not related to their level – an interesting finding. The six functions are:
    ‘Equivalence’ code-switches are those that appear to be triggered by the absence of the lexical item in the learner’s interlanguage. (e.g. ‘So how do you say ‘frontera’?’)
    While learners usually perform tasks in English, discussion about the tasks and other procedural concerns are often articulated in L1.
    Floor holding
    This code-switching function is used by learners wishing to continue without pausing or being interrupted, and so a switch from L2 to L1 occurs because the item can be retrieved more quickly in L1 (e.g. ‘Er, to make a ‘reservacion’, or booking’).
    L1 is used when messages have already been expressed in L2, yet are highlighted or clarified in L1, particularly in cases where they are perceived to have not been understood.
    These switches appear to develop a sense of group solidarity, often occurring in gossip or jokes.
    L2 avoidance
    These switches occur when a learner appears to have the linguistic resources to convey the message in L2, but instead chooses to do so in L1.While the resulting utterance may be loosely related to the task, it more commonly represents divergence from the lesson focus.

  7. philipjkerr December 24, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    In an interesting lecture for the British Council, Richard Smith of the University of Warwick suggests that the use of L1 to help learners acquire English had always been pretty standard until the 1970s. During that decade, he suggests that a shift in the focus of ELT discourse to the world of private language schools and EAP in universities resulted in a loss of interest in the use of L1, which was a feature of teaching in secondary schools. You can watch his lecture here:
    He also suggests that an interest in the use of L1 is returning.

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