Mar 24, 2013

A reply to a discussion on Translation in class

Thanks for your interest, Stephen. The age-old debate - personally I tend to steer clear of 'nevers' and 'always' when it comes to what is best in teaching situations - these can vary in many ways and dogma can be a real obstacle. Nonetheless, you need to be guided by ideas about what is most beneficial and effective - that's the point of having teachers.
My own guide (we're talking mono-lingual teaching situations here) is that relying on L1 in the classroom is doing learners a disservice, although it's what a fair number of them ask you to do. It can be a lazy short-cut - I think it probably often is - but there are several good reasons not to translate for convenience. 
One very practical reason (in the case of English mother-tongue teachers) is that it gives an unfair 'advantage' to teachers who know their students' language well, over their colleagues who don't - and some students might think teachers 'better' or 'worse' as a result. I've observed teachers mis-translate words in class - another good reason for the practice to be discouraged. It's also true that while some students want translation, many others dislike it - they find it de-motivating and a waste of valuable time.
From a learning point of view, regular use of translation doesn't do learners a favour - it teaches them a 'shallow' relationship with the new language, and although lessons will seem 'easier' it will make out-of-classroom interaction in the the new language more 'laborious' and stressful. There's also the fact that some things simply don't translate - this applies both for lexis and grammar.
However ........  translating new words can be a lazy shortcut, but refusing to do so can become a very long and circuitous diversion - like eating a kilo of celery to gain just a handful oif calories (I like celery but it's not a good source of energy). Lesson time is limited - a talented and perceptive teacher can often get meaning across economically and effectively - but in many 'no-translation at any cost' classrooms there's a lot of time and frustration before mission is accomplished (often by classmates whispering the translation anyway).
Do I translate? Yes - sometimes. At beginner level with new classes I will use some Italian (when I'm teaching Italian students - or Italian-speaking students, as is the case here), although not to teach the language content but to give little interludes of advice and information about what we are learning. I like to give a brief outline of the course and about what lessons will involve, and maybe to remind students about how things are going from time to time. 
I often point things out about English - unlike some languages it has no genders: "wow, that's easy!" - and what sort of things are difficult and take everyone time to begin to grasp. So, I translate for 'welfare' reasons rather than as a teaching tool. Sometimes students check with you that they have understood something - I acknowledge these 'translation for confirmation' requests, rather than pretend not to understand. 

One other thing  (this is much longer than I'd expected). Translation is a useful skill and I try to do short spontaneous translation activities - with elementary and first-intermediate levels. When we read short dialogues (phone-calls are good), I might also ask for an off-the cuff translation - not word-by-word but just what was said. 
This is a real-life need - it's not unusual to have to report and translate a phone-call or e-mail, or translate for a friend in a social setting. This is a useful and enjoyable translation activity to sprinkle in to lessons. It has to be quick, so accessible content is required.


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Hugo said...

That's pretty much my approach, too. I teach Japanese speakers and there are some areas of English grammar that simply do not make sense to them. A good example is the difference between the present simple and continuous tenses, which have a very misleading similarity to Japanese tenses but are mostly interchangeable in that language and are even used oppositely. Therefore, it is very useful to be able to refer to that fact and give a quick couple of examples of how they differ as this will save a lot of confusion in the long run.

You also have the situation in classes where half the students get something and the other half don't. Here, you can use translation AND reinforce what the students have already learnt by asking a student to ask another student to use, 'How do you say …. in Japanese?'

SO, yes, relying on L1 as a matter of habit is not a good thing but it does have its place when used practically and sensibly.