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 … ‘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 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.

Practical ideas III

25 Oct

Just the day-to-day business of managing classroom activities … There’s no reason why there should be a ‘translation’ phase of any lesson. Here are some ways of experimenting with translation / L1.


When you are speaking to the class in English and you use a word or a phrase that you think they are unlikely to know, provide a quick gloss of it in the students’ own language, repeat it in English, and then carry on. Butzkamm and Caldwell suggest that this should be a central technique of any foreign language teacher.

Speaking activities

When learners are ‘involved’ in a speaking activity, you may be relieved if they’re speaking at all. One way of making speaking activities less intimidating is by allowing a certain amount of mother tongue. When a learner really feels the need to express themselves in their mother tongue, another student’s job should be to translate and write down the challenging words / expressions. Exactly how you fix the rules is up to you! (Thanks to Sheelagh Deller and Mario Rinvolucri for first putting this idea my way.)

Allow groups of students to prepare their ideas for a discussion task in their mother tongue. Then get them to summarise these ideas in English. They then move into a different group to do the discussion itself.

Experiment with code-switching in the middle of, or at various moments during, an activity.

Add an extra dimension to roleplays by including a third person who interprets for the other two (one of whom only uses mother tongue, the other English).


During some activities, allow some students to use a bilingual dictionary and others to use a monolingual English one. At the end of the activity, encourage them to discuss the relative merits of these tools. This is a lot more fun if the dictionaries are apps on a handheld device, rather than a great clunky book.

The Babel fish

25 Oct

Douglas Adams came up with the idea of a Babel fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. You stick a Babel fish in your ear and you can instantly understand and be understood by all. But such technological wizardry comes at a price because, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between races and cultures, it has caused more wars than anything else since the beginning of history.

You can watch a 2 minute Youtube clip if you want

Yahoo! picked up on this idea when they named their online translation tool ‘Babelfish’.

Web resources

25 Oct

[Translation] is learners’ ‘preferred strategy [and] an inevitable part of second language acquisition’ (Atkinson 1987).  In other words, like it or loathe it, it’s going to take place. At the same time,  our learners are going to be familiar with online short-cuts to translation (in fact, I’d argue that they need to have an informed opinion about the relative merits of online translation tools). Increasingly, they’ll have these available on their smart phones. We can do quite a lot with these tools in the classroom.

There are quite a lot of options available, but the starting point must be

Then, there is the Bing / Microsoft tool and Yahoo’s Babelfish (not such a wide choice of languages)

Compare them for yourself. Cut and paste the first paragraph of this post into one of these translating tools and decide which you prefer.

Suggestions for further reading

25 Oct

If you’re a language teacher and have any kind of interest in translation, I’d recommend two books. Guy Cook’s Translation in Language Teaching (OUP, 2010) is rightly recognised as the ‘dernier mot’ on the subject. He knows his stuff and he has a sparkly writing style. David Bellos’s Is that a Fish in your Ear? (Penguin, 2011) deals with more general issues related to translation, but makes for a fascinating read. I enjoyed it a lot, at any rate.

There isn’t much that is terribly useful for practical suggestions. One of the best books, by Françoise Grellet is out of print and only available in French, anyway. Another one that stands out is Maria Gonzalez Davies’ book.  Some are too literary for my taste; others very academic. Here’s a fuller list of what I referred to and what you may find useful:

Alexander, L (1987) The use of mother tongue in class (Practical English Teaching 7/3)

Atkinson, D. (1987) ‘The mother tongue in the classroom: a neglected resource?’ ELT Journal 41/4

Atkinson, D. (1993) Teaching Monolingual Classes Harlow: Longman

Baker, M. (2011) In Other Words: a coursebook on translation 2nd edition. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Bawcom, L. (2002) Over-using L1 in the classroom? (MET 11/1)

Bellos, D. (2011) Is that a Fish in your Ear? London: Penguin

Benson, M. J. (2000) ‘The secret life of grammar-translation’ in Trappes-Lomax, H. (ed.) Change and Continuity in Applied Linguistics. BAAL / Multilingual Matters:Clevedon,England

Butzkamm, W. & Caldwell, J.A.W. (2009) The Bilingual Reform: a paradigm shift in foreign language teaching. Tübingen:Narr Studienbücher

Cameron, L. (2001) Teaching Languages to Young Learners Cambridge: CUP

Carreres, A. (2006) Strange bedfellows: Translation and Language teaching 6th Symposium on Translation, Terminology and Interpretation in Cuba and Canada (December 2006)

Cook, G. (2010) Translation in Language Teaching Oxford: OUP

Cook, V. J. (ed.) (2002) Portraits of the L2 User Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

Deller, S. (2003) The language of the learner (English teaching Professional 26)

Deller, S. & Rinvolucri, M. (2002) Using the Mother Tongue: making the most of the learner’s language. Peaslake,Surrey: Delta Publishing

Duff, A (1990) Bringing translation back into the language class (Practical English Teaching 10/3)

Edge, J. 1986. ‘”Acquisition disappears in adultery”: interaction in the translation class.’ ELT Journal 40/2: 121-4

Eldridge, J (1996) Code-switching in a Turkish secondary school (ELTJournal 50/4)

Gabrielatos, C. (1998) ‘Translation impossibilities: Problems & Opportunities for TEFL’ TESOL Greece Newsletter 60 December 1998 pp. 21-24

Gonzalez Davies, M. (2004) Multiple Voices in the Translation Classroom. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins

Grellet, F. (1991) Apprendre à Traduire. Nancy: Presses Universitaires de Nancy

Hall, G. (2011) Exploring English Language Teaching Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Hall, G. & Cook, G.  (2012). ‘Own language use in language teaching and learning.’ Language Teaching, 45, pp 271 – 308

Harbord, J (1992) The use of the mother tongue in the classroom (ELTJournal 46/4)

Harmer, J. (2012) Essential Teacher Knowledge.  Harlow: Pearson

Heltai, P (1989) Teaching vocabulary by oral translation (ELTJournal 43/4)

House, J. (2009) Translation Oxford: OUP

Howatt, A.P.R. with Widdowson, H. (2004) A History of English Language Teaching 2nd Edition.Oxford: OUP

Jabr Dajani, D. (2002) Using mother tongue to become a better learner. (MET 11/2)

Kim, E.Y. (2011) ‘Using translation exercises in the communicative writing classroom’ ELT Journal 65/2: 154-60

Levine, G.S. (2011) Code Choice in the Language Classroom.Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Levine, G.S. (2012) Principles for code choice in the foreign language classroom: A focus on grammaring. Language Teaching, Available on CJO doi:10.1017/S0261444811000498

Linder, D (2002) Translation (English Teaching Professional 23)

Littlewood, W. & Yu, B. (2011) ‘First language and target language in the foreign language classroom’  Language Teaching, 44, 1, pp.64-67

Malmkjaer, K. (ed.) (1998) Translation and Language Teaching Manchester: St Jerome

Medgyes, P. (1994) The Non-Native Teacher Macmillan

Mouhanna, M. (2009) ‘Re-Examining the Role of L1 in the EFL Classroom’ UGRU Journal Volume 8, Spring 2009

Murphy, B (1988) Teaching translation and teaching through translation (MET 15/4)

Naimushin, B (2002) Translation in foreign language teaching (MET 11/4)

Nation, P. (1997) L1 and L2 Use in the Classroom: A Systematic Approach TESL Reporter 30,2 pp.19-27

O’Keeffe, R. (2011) Towards a principled use of L1 Humanising Language Teaching October 2011 

Parks, G. (1992) The Role of Translation in the Communicative Approach (Paper presented at TESOL-Italy, Rome, November 27-28, 1992)

Phillipson, R. (1992) Linguistic Imperialism Oxford: OUP

Popovic, R.  (n.d.) The place of translation in language teaching

Prodromou, L. (2002) The role of the mother tongue in the classroom (IATEFL Issues 166)

Rinvolucri, M. (1990) Translation as part of learning a language (Practical English Teaching 10/4)

Rinvolucri, M. (2001) Mother tongue in the foreign language classroom. (MET 10/2)

Rivers, W. M. (1975) A Practical Guide to the Teaching of French New York: OUP

Sampson, A. (2012) ‘Learner code-switching versus English only’ ELT Journal 66/3 pp.292-303

Stern, H.H. (1992) Issues and Options in Language Teaching Oxford: OUP

Titford, C. & Hieke, A.E. (eds.) (1985) Translation in Foreign Language Teaching and Testing. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag

Tudor, I.(1987) ‘Using translation in ESP’ ELT Journal 41/4

Turnbull, M. & Dailey-O’Cain, J. (eds) 2009. First Language Use in Second and Foreign Language Learning.Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Vanderplank, R (1988) The value of teletext sub-titles in language learning (ELTJournal 42/4)

Vermes, A. (2010) ‘Translation in Foreign Language Teaching: A Brief Overview of Pros and Con’ Eger Journal of English Studies X (2010) 83–93

Widdowson, H. (2003) Defining Issues in English Language Teaching Oxford: OUP

Witte, A., Harden, T. & Ramos de Oliveira Harden, A. (eds.) (2009) Translation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Bern: Peter Lang