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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