Translation in language learning and teaching

Over the course of my nearly fifty years of language learning and latterly teaching, both in the classroom and through my books, I have become more and more convinced that translation has a key role to play in the language learning process. Even when the teaching methodology bans translation, or it cannot be used because students in the class have different mother tongues, the students themselves undoubtedly continue to make use of it, if for no other reason, because it is something we do automatically.

But before we embark on any discussion of translation in language learning, we need to be clear on what we mean by ‘translation’. To this end, I would make the following distinctions (the terms are my own): formal translation – written translation of a continuous text or individual sentences, from or into the foreign language, as a form of practice or testing; instrumental translation – a paraphrase of the meaning in the student’s own language, as clarification or a form of comprehension testing (reading or listening); comparative translation – comparing phrases in the two languages to see how alike or different they are, to make students aware of similarities and differences, including literal translation to further illustrate how the foreign language works; ad hoc translation – giving the equivalent in the students’ own language of new words and expressions that occur in the course of a classroom activity.  Let us look at each of these in turn.

Formal translation was once an integral part of any foreign language study. The so-called Grammar Translation method of language learning dates back to the earliest of times and still survives in many academic institutions today. In this methodology, translation is used to practise and test grammatical knowledge. This kind of translation is normally a written exercise, which reflects the fact that the GT method is not particularly concerned with oral communication. However, translation from, and especially into, the foreign language requires an extremely thorough knowledge of grammar and vocabulary and is an excellent way of practising the skills of reading and writing. It is ironic that although formal translation is totally banned from English teaching in Brazil, it is arguably the best way to perfect the two skills that the vast majority of Brazilian learners are most likely to need in the course of their work or studies. As a form of practice and testing, translation into the foreign language is superior to free composition (essay writing and the like) as it can be directed by the teacher to test specific areas of grammar, degrees of difficulty and formality and vocabulary content, whereas in free composition students can show off what they do know, but also avoid what they do not.

Instrumental translation may be used when you want to give students an idea of what something in the foreign language means without actually translating it word for word, i.e. conveying the gist or intent but not the exact word(s). This can be something as simple as explaining that ‘You’re welcome’ is what you say in response to thanks in English, and is therefore functionally equivalent to (but not an exact translation of) expressions like “de/por nada”, “não por isso”, “não tem de quê” in Portuguese. Students can also be asked to produce instrumental translation in reading and listening comprehension exercises by posing questions and requiring answers in their mother tongue. This is actually a very useful skill because the ability to pick up the gist and important factual details (numbers, dates, times, instructions etc.) in the foreign language and relay them in your own has many practical applications in real life.

Comparative translation involves using carefully selected sentences and their translations to illustrate how the foreign language works. Even where translation is allowed, this is probably the least used form of translation in language classrooms. It is widely used in language-teaching books, particularly those designed for self-study, in the form of example sentences. I talked in a previous post (Empathy and the non-native perspective) about how example sentences and their translations, if well done, can convey more information than whole paragraphs of explanation, and there is no reason why such example sentences cannot be used in a classroom setting too. Furthermore, they can be utilized in a number of different ways: have the students look at the foreign-language sentences first to make observations and draw conclusions about the grammar; have the students attempt a translation themselves; have the students compare the foreign-language sentences with the “correct” translations of the same and comment on similarities and differences between the two languages. Literal translation also has a part to play here especially when sentence construction or the form of expression in the foreign language is very different. For instance, in a Japanese course, the example watashi wa kumo ga kowai = ‘I’m scared of spiders’ is far more instructive if you add an intermediate literal translation ‘as far as I’m concerned, spiders (are) scary’ which shows how the Japanese expression is constructed, making it easier for the learner to adapt it into variations such as ‘I’m scared of snakes’, ‘Are you scared of spiders?’ etc. As this is a purely illustrative exercise, we might also allow ourselves to leave certain elements untranslated if there is no direct equivalent. For example, in Chinese, ta hanyu shuo de bi wo hao means ‘he speaks Chinese better than me’ but it helps enormously to point out that the Chinese sentence literally translates as ‘he Chinese speaks de than me well’. This not only shows what means what and what comes where in the Chinese sentence, it also neatly demonstrates how the untranslatable particle de is required to introduce an adverbial phrase. But perhaps the most important role of comparative translation is to alert the student to potential pitfalls, cases where the two languages operate differently and therefore mistakes are more likely to occur. Depending on the students’ ability, it may even be possible for them to diagnose these problem areas themselves and formulate their own rules simply by comparing the two languages. This does not need to be at all complicated or subtle. I think most Brazilian students would spot the obvious difference between ‘I am fifteen years old’ and “Eu tenho quinze anos” even if they don’t immediately pick up on the less obvious one (‘years old’ vs. just “anos”).

Ad hoc translation entails giving a translation of individual words and phrases as they come up in the course of classroom activities or, for example, in a vocabulary list after a reading text in a book. It serves the twofold purpose of explaining new vocabulary items while maintaining the dynamic of the class. If the teacher has to stop to give a roundabout explanation in the foreign language every time a new item comes up, it breaks students’ concentration on the activity in hand and often leaves them unsure as to the exact meaning and usage of the item. A quick translation is far more efficient in this respect, but the teacher should make sure the translations given are accurate and not misleading, so some preparation may be necessary. Or the teacher could use it as an opportunity to teach the students how to use dictionary resources effectively, for example by having them look the word up themselves in a recommended dictionary app. After all, acquiring dictionary skills is also an important part of language learning.

It seems to me that learners, especially beginners, want translations. They want to know what a word or expression means in their own language, and I would argue that it is easier to memorize foreign words when you can link them to their translation in your mind, which I think is how most of us do it anyway. Even if the students’ own language is banned in the classroom, they may well use their own dictionary resources to find the translation of new items during the class. Why not embrace this within the teaching methodology instead of trying to pretend it does not happen, or worse, forbidding it? Even if students are forbidden from using dictionaries in class (which is a little extreme, but then so is the direct method as a whole), they will still continue to think in their mother tongue and process the new information they are receiving through the filter of their mother tongue. Claims that learners will stop thinking in their mother tongue and start thinking in the foreign language are utter nonsense. It will be a long time before they can think in the foreign language (only after many years of study and using the language on a daily basis), so if they do manage to stop thinking in their own, it can only mean they have stopped thinking altogether. Some students seem to do just that in direct method classes, and frankly, I don’t blame them.

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