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.


12 Responses to “The return of translation”

  1. philipjkerr December 23, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    Jeremy Harmer, in a sign of the times, devotes a full double-page spread to using the L1 in his new book ‘Essential Teacher Knowledge’ (Pearson, 2012). Jeremy’s previous books (such as ‘How to Teach English’, Pearson, 2007) have made passing reference to L1 usage by the teacher. ‘Occasionally, the teacher’s use of the L1 may help [students] to understand things that they are finding difficult to grasp,’ he wrote in 2007, for example. Four or five years later, he now recommends that teachers (and, by implication, schools) should have an ‘L1 policy’. This policy needs to reflect the following considerations:

    • We should always acknowledge the students’ L1 (and other languages which they speak), for example, by asking them to contrast that language with English, or talking about pronunciation differences.
    • Teachers should not overuse the students’ L1. Remember, it is an English lesson!
    • We should make sure that the students know when it’s OK to use their L1 (when they are discussing answers in pairs, for example) and when it is not (when they are trying to communicate in English, for example). It is a good idea to get them to agree a policy about this, perhaps as part of a code of conduct.
    • We should use the L1 (if we are able to) to help our students understand differences between English and their L1. (‘Essential Teacher Knowledge’, p.171)

    He also provides a summary of the arguments for and against L1 use in the classroom, along with some sensible suggestions for activities. Jeremy has read the Guy Cook book on translation and clearly appreciated it.

  2. philipjkerr February 15, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    You can watch a short clip of Guy Cook talking about translation here:

    You can also watch a short clip of Tessa Woodward discussing the role of translation in the ELT classroom here:

    And here’s Rod Bolitho on the same subject:

    And here’s Jenny Johnson on the same:

    And Jane Willis adds her views:

    And Barry Tomalin:

    Strangely, I can’t find a clip of anyone arguing against the use of L1 / translation.

  3. philipjkerr February 25, 2012 at 11:28 am #

    It seems only fair to give some space to who is implacably opposed to translation. E.V. Gatenby (‘Translation in the language classroom’ in W.R. Lee (ed.) ELT Selections 2: Articles from the Journal ‘English Language Teaching, OUP, 1967, pp.69-70) wrote the following:
    To ask for a translation is to ask for something unnatural. Often no literal translation is possible, or a phrase with an entirely different basic meaning is used in the other language … Translation, then, especially literal translation, is often no test at all of comprehension. A pupil may understand perfectly well what the English means – as a bilingual child does – without being able at once or with any facility to put it into the vernacular … And there is another reason why testing by translation is bad pedagogy. We as teachers are trying to bring our pupils to use English without translating in their own minds, to say without hesitation the right things on the right occasion …. Our aim is to get our pupils … to the stage where they can use English without having to think. Abruptly to interrupt this process and to ask a pupil to put an English sentence into his own tongue when our whole endeavour is to train him to dissociate the two languages is to give ourselves a Sisyphean labour.
    I especially like the bit about how we don’t want our students to think!

  4. philipjkerr February 25, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    Another often cited critic of translation in the language classroom was Dennis Newson (‘Translation and Foreign Language Learning’ in Malmkjaer. 1998, pp.63-64). He offered the following list:
    1. It encourages thinking in one language and transferrence into another, with accompanying interference.
    2. It deprives teacher and learner of the opportunity to benefit from the accruing advantages of working with one language.
    3. It gives false credence to the naive view that there is such a thing as simple word-to-word equivalence between languages.
    4. It does not allow or make easy the achievement of such generally accepted foreign language teaching aims as:
    a) Emphasis on initial fluency in spoken language
    e) Communicative language use
    f) Learner-centred language learning.
    I wonder what his view is these days ….

    • philipjkerr March 8, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      Criticism of translation as a learning / teaching method goes back to Berlitz (1916 Method of Teaching Modern Languages; English Part, Volume 1, p.3) whose method drew on two fundamental principles, the second of which was ‘constant and exclusive use of the foreign language’. He gives three reasons for abandoning translation. (1) In translation methods, too much time is taken up using the mother tongue, and not enough in using the language to be learned. (2) You never really get used to the ‘spirit’ of a foreign language if you study with translation. The learner ‘has a tendency to base all he (sic) says upon what he would say in his mother tongue’. (3) ‘A knowledge of a foreign tongue, acquired by means of translation, is necessarily defective and incomplete; for there is by no means for every word of the one language, the exact equivalent in the other.’

    • amanda February 7, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

      He is still opposed, quite implacably, to translation. I was reading a blog post on Scott Thornbury’s A-Z of ELT page and he was quite vehement.

      • philipjkerr February 9, 2013 at 10:13 am #

        Thanks, Amanda. I think I’ll try and drop him a line and see what he says!

      • philipjkerr February 9, 2013 at 11:10 am #

        Dennis kindly got back to me. He wrote: ‘I believe I am as against the use of translation in language learning as I always was, and for the same reasons. It could even be that this conviction is more deeply embedded than it was formerly.’

  5. philipjkerr August 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    There’s an interesting post (and follow-up discussion) by Hugh Dellar on the subject of translation at his blog:

  6. philipjkerr December 19, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    Penny Ur, in the new edition (CUP, 2012) of her book ‘A Course in English Language Teaching’ adds her voice to the growing orthodoxy on L1 use in the English language classroom:
    It has been taken for granted in the past that the aim of an English course is to make the learners communicate like native speakers. This is for most learners an inaccessible goal; and these days it is not even an appropriate one. Even if the aim is to communicate with, among others, native speakers, this does not necessarily mean trying to be a ‘native speaker’ oneself. The appropriate model in most cases, as suggested above, is probably the non-native-speaker teacher. For most students today, English is a tool, like basic arithmetic, or literacy, or computer skills: an ability they need to master in order to function effectively in today’s world. The L1 remains the learner’s primary language and the one they identify with. What we as teachers are aiming for is functional English-knowing bilingualism (or, in many cases, multilingualism). There is, therefore, no particular reason to ban the use of L1 in the classroom. On the contrary, the L1 is likely to play a valuable role in the acquisition of English, and translation – at least at word or sentence level – is a useful activity, to be promoted rather than discouraged. (p.6)

  7. Amar Belhadia May 10, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    Being a teacher of English as a foreign language and inspector of English for the last four years of my carreer,I have always belived in the usefulness of L1. It’s been hard for me to justify my opinion which was fed by a real foreign language practice as a teacher who has always targeted achievement in class.
    After having climbed the scale to the inspector stage ,I could finally adress important numbers of English as a foreign language teachers and ask them for the reasons behind their negative attitude towards the use of L1, and all I got from asking is that it’s not more than a heritage transmitted within an oral culture based on a monlolingual perspective.

    • Mohammad Saleh May 15, 2016 at 5:05 am #

      Right, … and this is most probably the reason for the topic being left under-researched for so long time …

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