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



11 Responses to “The reasons for using translation”

  1. philipjkerr December 11, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    I’ve just come across some more research that supports the use of L1 in teaching vocabulary. The following is a quote from ‘How the ELL Brain Learns’ by David A. Sousa (Corwin, Thousand Oaks, California, 2011, page 61):
    “One controversial topic in L2 vocabulary instruction is whether teachers should use the learners’ L1 in helping to explain the L2’s new word form-to-meaning link. Recent research seems to indicate yes. Here is why. Studies show that the initial form-to-meaning link consists of the new L2 word form being attached to a representation of the corresponding L1 word that already exists in the ELL’s long-term memory (Hall, C.J. 2002 ‘The automatic cognate form assumption: evidence for the parasitic model of vocabulary development’ International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching. Volume 40, Issue 2, Pages 69–87 – ). Consequently, an L1 translation is a natural vehicle for achieving this cerebral match, perhaps through using English-to-L1 word cards. Furthermore, we know that learning English word forms can be challenging, so using the L1 to facilitate the English form-to-meaning linkage may allow more of the brain’s cognitive resources to be focused on the English form itself (Barcroft, J. 2002 ‘Semantic and structural elaboration in L2 lexical acquisition’ Language Learning 52 (2), 323 – 363). As soon as the English-L1 link is established, more of the brain’s language processing resources will be freed up to focus on learning the more contextualized types of word knowledge.”

  2. Zarina January 5, 2012 at 11:45 am #

    For me personally, there is one more reason for using translations, which I’ll tentatively call ‘educational’. It’s a by-product of text translations – when a text (both in L1 and in L2) looks so alluring that students actually read the book tempted by the extract they’ve had to translate. It’s a kind of reward.

  3. philipjkerr January 8, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

    There’s a chapter by Ross Forman called ‘Ten Principles of Bilingual Pedagogy in EFL’ in a recent collection of essays edited by A. Mahboob, ‘The NNEST Lens: Non-native English Speakers in TESOL’. You can read the first chapter of the book here:
    Peter Medgyes reviews the book in the January 2012 edition of ELTJ, and says this:
    “Ross Forman in Chapter 4 argues for the judicious use of L1 in the classroom, emphasizing that L2 learners should be regarded as ‘bilingual plus’ instead of the long-held view that they are ‘monolingual minus’. In agreement with Cook (1999), he points out that despite the teacher’s best efforts to stick to L2 in class, L1 will be invariably present in the learners’ minds. If so, why not make the best of this resource, instead of excommunicating it from classroom discourse at the urge of monolingual bigots? Based on lesson observation and follow-up teacher interviews at a Thai university, he then puts forward a list of well-established principles in support of L1 use.”

  4. Zarina January 9, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    The link to the article by Hall isn’t working.
    Of course, the idea of using learners’ L1 semantic knowledge is not a new one. Back in 1956, Vygotsky wrote ‘When learning a foreign language, the child fully employs his/her semantic knowledge acquired in a process of continuous development. Thus, teaching a foreign language is based on knowing the mother tongue.’ (Vygotsky, L.S. 1982 ‘Myshlenie i rech’ (Thinking and speech) Moscow: Pedagogika, pp 246-247) It seems natural then for educationalists of Vygotskyan school of thought to support and use translation in FLT, perhaps in teaching not English, but other languages. In this respect, a comparison of the attitudes and approaches would be interesting to read.
    Loved ‘The NNEST Lens’. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Zarina January 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    I’ve already seen this. Thanks for the trouble.

  6. Zarina January 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    Thought readers of this handout might enjoy Michael Byram‘s talk about translation and mediation. Among other things, he discusses the potential of translation for developing intercultural skills.
    I‘ve been thinking of the extent to which translation activities could be integrated smoothly and convincingly into contemporary foreign language teaching. To me the problem only partly lies in the inherent tension between the ‘traditional’, which aims for formal accuracy, and the ‘communicative’, which aims for fluency. This tension can be reduced with activities of the kind suggested in this handout. But which language should teachers give feedback in? Discussing in English issues of your own language and culture with people who share the same language and culture feels artificial, awkward and even counterproductive. Even in foreign language teaching, it seems more natural to use L1 in such cases. On the surface, this shouldn‘t be a problem, especially now, with the new trend of rehabilitating L1. In practice, however, in classes where comparatively large texts are discussed, there is a danger of overusing L1. Or is there? How does critical assessment of film subtitling or of title translations, or of different translations of the same text in L1, when discussions in / about L1 will inevitalby take place, conform to one of the postulates of the contemporary FLT, namely maximum interaction in the target language? The issue has been discussed neither by Guy Cook nor by Michael Byram. Perhaps this could be done here, in this blogohandout.

  7. philipjkerr February 15, 2012 at 10:42 am #

    I’ve just come across a very useful article by Angeles Carreres called ‘Strange bedfellows: Translation and Language teaching – The teaching of translation into L2 in modern languages degrees; uses and limitations’ from the 6th Symposium on Translation, Terminology
    and Interpretation in Cuba and Canada – December 2006. It can be accessed here:

  8. philipjkerr March 7, 2012 at 9:22 pm #

    There’s an interesting article in the EL Gazette (March, 2012)

    Software ‘can tackle translated plagiarism’

    STUDENTS LIFTING text from articles and passing it off as their own work is older than the internet, and anti-plagiarism software to detect this has become standard equipment for universities. A new trend is emerging in the plagiarism arms race – ‘internet-savvy students who are proficient in English’ increasingly seek out English language articles online, cut and paste them and then translate them into the language used as their own country’s medium of education.
    According to anti-plagiarism software developers iParadigms, plagiarism of English language articles which are then translated has become such a problem that their customers in the university sector regularly ask them for the means to detect plagiarism in translation.
    The company has responded to this demand by producing Turnitin, which translates work handed in by students into English and looks for matches between this and material contained in its ‘massive content database’. Current and forthcoming versions of Turnitin can spot cut-and-pastes of English internet articles passed off as students’ own work even after translation into fifteen European languages.
    There’s apparently no software yet to do the reverse – spotting whether English language essays by international students on English-medium courses are cut-and-paste translations of works online in other languages. Languages other than English account for an increasing proportion of global internet content, while English-medium degree courses continue to proliferate worldwide.

  9. philipjkerr December 18, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    Jim Scrivener has added his voice to those supporting the use of L1 in the ELT classroom in his recent book, ‘Classroom Management Techniques’ (CUP, 2012). Here’s what he says (p.69/70):
    Teachers of monolingual classes have sometimes felt a little guilty that they do not always follow the received wisdom that suggests they should use English as much as possible. Clearly, the more English that is used in class, the better for language-learning purposes. However, there are many occasions when it is faster, simpler or more efficient to use the learners’ L1; but we do need to make sure that we do not use these shortcuts too often or when they are not really justified. It’s all to easy to relax until suddenly the whole class is being delivered in L1 – because students seem to want it, and teachers find it easier. David Atkinson suggests a check question that teachers can ask themselves about using L1. ‘Will it help the students’ learning more than English would?’
    Here are a number of example instances when use of L1 might well be appropriate and tick a ‘yes’ to Atkinson’s question:
    1. One vocabulary item is seriously getting in the way of the lesson proceeding. You have tried explaining and demonstrating using English – but they still look blank. Just saying one word in L1 could unfurrow brows and solve all problems.
    2. You want to do a quick check to find out if they can see how the meaning of a new grammar item compares with a similar-sounding construction in L1. You say, ‘Can you translate that into …?’
    3. You have spent some time teaching a grammar point, and towards the end of the lesson there are two issues which students can’t seem to get their heads around. You switch to L1 to talk with them about them.
    4. A student seems upset and wants to talk with you, but is struggling to say what the problem is. You respond in L1 and say that he or she can use L1 to talk to you.
    5. You want to get some honest feedback on how a certain part of the course went to help you decide whether you should ever do it again. The students’ language level was up to doing the activity, but not good enough for them to explain their reactions.
    6. You want to do some in-depth tutorials with low-level students about their progress.

    Besides this eminently sensible little section, this is a damn good book!


  1. The Role of Translation in Language Learning « English@METU DFS–Ankara - July 25, 2012

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