In praise of non-native speaker teachers part four: Translation

Used wisely, translation can be one of the best weapons in the non-native speaker teacher’s armoury. Yet whilst it may have been undergoing something of a renaissance over the last few years, translation has certainly not always a good rep in ELT. Indeed, my own path to recognizing its potential has been a long and winding one. Back in 1993, when I did my four-week CELTA course, there was certainly no mention of it, and in the two main bibles that I read at the time in order to glean ways forward – Jeremy Harmer’s PRACTICE OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING and Jim Scrivener’s LEARNING TEACHING – there wasn’t much to get me thinking about translation either. In the latter, there was no mention of the phenomenon at all, whilst in the Harmer, I was told it was “a quick and easy way to present the meaning of words,” but then immediately warned that it was “not without problems” – it’s not always easy to translate words, and even where translation IS possible, it may make life a bit too easy for the students by discouraging them from interacting with the words.

Having not learned how to make life easy for my students, I set off to a monolingual school in Indonesia to get started on my teaching career – and quite soon I started noticing a strange thing happening. Students would ask me what a word meant, I’d go through contortions to act it, draw it and explain it and after a few minutes of killing myself, students would suddenly look pleased. I’d think “Finally. They understand what a frog is and say to each other, for example, “Oh! Kodok!”

As I was learning Indonesian myself, I learnt a lot of it from hanging out with English and American friends who had lived there longer and who spoke the language better. I’d often find myself asking them So how do you say . . . in Indonesian? and essentially teaching myself chunk by translated chunk. I also started slowly realising that a lot of the problems I was having were down to having learned a word and thinking it’d always work the same in Indonesian. I learned, for instance, how to say in Indonesian to my low-level classes OK. Let’s check the answersMari kita periksa jawabannya – and so logically assumed that the Indonesian word periksa must therefore be equivalent to the English word check. However, when Indonesian friends came round for dinner and I told them Saya akan periksa makanannyaI’ll check the food – they’d laugh and correct me and say coba makanannya – which for me meant try rather than check.

Once back in the UK, I noticed the same thing the same thing happening in reverse. In classrooms, I’d frequently be trying to elicit a missing word – say, for instance, here:

He’s got a really good job. He ………… a hundred thousand a year.

and students would shout out WINS! WINS!! and I’d end up retorting “Maybe in Portuguese, yes, but in English anyone?”

As time went by, I also started to recognise very common mistakes from certain language groups of learners, which I realised must be down to poor word-for-word translation, so my Japanese students would say I was stolen my mobile / bag, while Spanish speakers during tutorials would enthusiastically report that was a course very interesting.

So as you can see, I’d spent many years skirting round the fringes of the translation in language teaching issue, but had never really paid that much mind to it, if truth be told. What really made a convert of me was actually one little feature we wanted to include when writing OUTCOMES – a section called Language Patterns. The idea was that we somehow wanted to focus on lexico-grammatical patterns that weren’t strictly grammar, but that were definitely beyond single words – the kind of thing you can see below:

Mongolia is known as ‘the land of the horse’.

Shanghai is known as ‘the Paris of the East’.

Aubergines are also known as eggplants.

The area is known for its oysters.

The village is well known for its leather goods.

This rare species of shark is known to inhabit fresh water.

Very few details are known about this rare species.

And we wanted to encourage teachers to get students to notice them. Now, you’re all undoubtedly aware of the importance of noticing – it’s been central to theories of how language is acquired for over twenty years now. Back in 1990, Schmidt stated that while noticing does not automatically guarantee acquisition, it nevertheless remains true that features of the language cannot be learned UNLESS they are first noticed. Schmidt was talking more about structural grammar in its traditional sense, but Rod Ellis went further in 1997 and stressed the importance of drawing students’ attention to items that do not conform to expectations and that may therefore not otherwise be noticed.

Noticing is so central to learning that you could quite easily claim it is one of only four or maybe five things that needs to happen for any item or structure to be acquired. Essentially, to learn a language people need to:

• hear or see the language

• understand the meaning of what they hear or see

• pay attention to the language and notice aspects of it

• do something with that language – use it in some way

• repeat these steps for the same language repeatedly over time

The question was, though, what was the most useful way of trying to encourage noticing when space in the book was limited and when these were not the kind of core structures that teachers expected to find in the book. Was it enough to simply sort structures, show them to students and ask them to ‘notice’ the patterns? What might encouraging noticing actually involve and how could a teacher say with any degree of certainty that their students had noticed?

As we were to find out, facilitating noticing in class proved far more problematic that we’d initially anticipated. Initially, our rubric for these sections was simply Which patterns can you see in these sentences? Now, you think about how you might answer that question with particular reference to this particular set of language patterns from OUTCOMES below:

It’s hardly the same thing!

Hardly an instant solution then!

It’s hardly surprising people are concerned about it.

Hardly a day goes by without hearing one of these stories.

I hardly know anyone who agrees with it.

There’s hardly any funding available for research into it.

What WE noticed when we asked students to do this and to then share their insights in pairs or groups was that (a) they didn’t actually notice all that much and (b) it was hard to verbalise whatever awareness of underlying patterns they might’ve become aware of in this manner. Even if both of these barriers were overcome, there was then still the nagging doubt that none of this would lead to better production; that the noticing would all essentially be in vain. We then tried translation and in one particular class I had my eureka moment. Now, again, you might like to stop here and try the previous exercise, but this time with the following rubric: Write the sentences in your language. Translate them back into English. Compare your English to the original.

I had a French student in one class, who spoke very well, but often in a kind of French-in-English way, and who was also very resistant to the idea of using translation. “But I understand it all,” he would protest. “There’s no need!” “Please!” I would beg him. “Just do it for me!” “But it’s the same in French,” he would try to persuade me. “It can’t be,” I’d point out – “for starters, it’s in French! Please! Just to shut me up, try it.” So translate he did. I then kept the translations and the next class I pointed at one of his translations almost at random and asked if he could say it in English. “Of course,” he replied. “It’s Hardly a day is passing without that I hear about one of these stories.”

“Ah-ha!” I suddenly screamed. “That’s the FRENCH pattern, but you haven’t noticed the ENGLISH one!”

Translating back and forth between languages like this forces noticing in a way that nothing else does. So why, I started thinking, don’t more teachers do it? The bulk of classes around the world are monolingual with relatively bilingual teachers. And many of us who are proficient to at least some degree in two languages code switch all the time – with friends, relatives, lovers. It’s the norm rather than the exception.

Yet monolingual teaching has come to be seen as the norm, as the most desirable model! However, as Guy Cook points out in his quietly furious tome Translation In Language Teaching, the reasons behind this dominance owe far more to commercial and political imperatives than to science or pedagogy! How can this surreal state of affairs have come to pass? And how have so many teachers who could potentially benefit from a world in which their language skills were allowed fuller expression been brainwashed into believing they have to try and emulate the sad, sorry islands of monolingualism natives so often find themselves on?

In many ways, I fear, we are STILL suffering from an ongoing backlash against grammar translation, a backlash that has gone on so long and been reiterated so mindlessly that it’s become almost a subconscious knee-jerk state of mind. Grammar Translation was very much the dominant mode of language teaching right up until the tail end of the 19th century. Rooted in the teaching of Greek and Latin, with which modern languages vied for respectability, the emphasis was very firmly on writing, on grammar, on accuracy and on the ultimate aim of allowing the student to read literary classics in the language they were learning. Grammar Translation is what people often imagine either when thinking of traditional approaches to language teaching or else simply to translation in language teaching in general. As well as learners memorizing huge lists of rules and vocabulary, this method involved them translating whole literary or historic texts word for word. Unsurprisingly, new methodologies tried to improve on this. The Direct (or Natural) Method established in Germany and France around 1900 was a response to the obvious problems associated with the Grammar Translation method. In the Direct Method the teacher and learners avoided using the learners’ native language and just used the target language. Like the Direct Method, the later Audio-Lingual Method tried to teach the language directly, without using the L1 to explain new items.

The Reform Movement, which was the initial reaction against Grammar Translation, placed the primary emphasis on speech, and generally insisted on an English only approach, but still allowed some translation. These ideas were picked up and simplified – and then codified – by schools during the first great language teaching boom and Berlitz, founded at the end of the 19th century, insisted on natives only, speech only and no use of L1. Indeed, translation became a sackable offence. This led directly to the pillars of practice that haunt us to this day: monolingualism; naturalism – the idea that learning L2 can somehow mirror the ‘natural’ way we learn L1; native speakerism and absolutism – the belief (or claim) that Direct Method is the one true path!

Subsequent so-called ‘humanistic’ methodologies such as the Silent Way and Total Physical Response and communicative methodologies moved ever further away from L1, and from these arose many of the contemporary objections to translation. Sure there was the odd exception, such as Community Language Learning in the 1970s, which accepted the whole human range of approaches, including negotiation between student and counselor teacher, within which translation was seen as one tool among many, but such approaches were few and far between.

All of which brings us to our current state of play, where countless – and often groundless – fears abound: students will end up using L1 all time, when aim is use of L2; the skills involved in translation are not suitable for all learners – and may only suit those who are analytical, older or better; learners may not see the value of translation value or only see it as hard or specialised; it’s hard to set up and run in class; it requires extra motivation from students; it needs a teacher with a good knowledge of students’ L1 and culture and thus doesn’t work in multilingual classes – and on and on it goes.

At its worst, anti-TILT (Translation in Language Teaching) rhetoric is rooted in dialogue focused on monolingualism and the supression of other languages – as can be seen in the States at the moment, where folk proudly sport Speak English or Die T-shirts and where a recent airport best-seller is entitled His Panic: Why Americans fear Hispanics in the US.


Yet as I hope I have already persuaded you, there are many strong reasons in favour of using TILT. Some of the strongest are actually evidence based. For instance, in a 2008 study, Laufer and Girsai taught vocabulary to three groups using three approaches – meaning-focussed, form-focussed without translation and through contrastive analysis and translation. Both passive AND active retention was way higher with the third group.

Translation is, by its very nature, highly communicative and is a real world activity for the vast majority of students at some point in their language-using lives. On a more meta level, you could almost argue that translation makes the world go round – the UN, the EU, business, academia, and so on all rely on it.  Whether we like it or not, the process of understanding L2 by looking for L1 equivalents has always been a frequently used strategy for learners. If you accept this, then there comes a need to develop it in the right way – to hone it.

Lower-level students use translation all the time – and for higher-level learners, it’s almost by definition what it means to be good! I’d be amazed if I were to go out for dinner tonight with any of you reading this and found that you were unable to translate an L1 menu, for instance!

In terms of student-centeredness, many students – especially younger ones and those at lower levels, though perhaps not only them – look more favourably upon bilingual instruction and, therefore, translation than has previously been admitted.

Irrespective of all arguments in favour of using TILT, the bottom line is that it’s the most effective way of doing stuff that needs to be done! In many ways, as well, translation is one of the most authentic tasks that we can engage in in the classroom as it’s something we all do all the time – in the so-called real world. There’s also the very real possibility that for many students, translation will be the main – or maybe even the sole – activity connected to English that they engage in later in their lives!

In addition to everything else, it’s a time-efficient way of dealing with such time-honoured problems as false friends, it requires minimal preparation – and, let’s be honest, the recommendation that foreign-language classes be taught exclusively in the foreign language remains, shall we say, ‘aspirational’ at best!

To those of you who STILL remain sceptical, look at it this way. From L2 to L1 is less an absolute act and more just part of a spectrum. When we explain new language in simplified language or with gestures, we’re already engaging in a form of translation! Given this, surely it should not be too much of a leap to then allow the principled use of L1?!

Henry Widdowson once said that that the error of monolingual teaching is that it misunderstands how learners of English engage with their new language, and the purposes for which it is being learned. He warned that to proceed as though the learners’ own languages do not exist, attempting to induct learners into a local monolingual native-like perspective, is to profoundly misunderstand what is happening. Learners will ALWAYS relate new language to their own, even if only in their own minds, and if forbidden to do so, will nevertheless continue the practice as a means of resistance!

In short, humans teach and learn by moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, by building new knowledge onto existing knowledge. Language learning is no – or should be no – exception!

Interestingly, the grammar-plus-words model of language that still prevails in many coursebooks works least well with TILT. What works best is collocations, chunks and patterns. Lexis, in other words. What clearly rarely works at all is single words – and, to a lesser degree, grammar, especially if we’re looking for direct equivalence, though as I said earlier, it can still be useful to understand L1 transference errors.

This does all seem to suggest, then, that if we are to get the most from TILT, then the time has come to drop the dominant model of grammar plus structures and to embrace instead an approach to language that sees grammar and vocabulary as inextricably intertwined and contextually bound.

So what kind of activities can we do that might take all of this on board? Well, to close, here are five that I have done in recent months – and that you might want to try for yourselves. I should add that I work with multilingual groups in London, and have still found these tasks work fine. I expect that many NON-natives working in monolingual contexts where students share their own L1 have plenty of other ideas on how translation might be fully exploited – and I hope to read more about these in the comments section below!

1 If you come into class and students are chatting in L1, get them to write the conversation they’re having first in L2, and then translate it. Help them with any expressions they’re not sure and maybe, if you can, round up by pooling a range of new expressions / chunks that have emerged through the process of translation on the board.

2 When students lapse in L1 during freer speaking activities, note this down and then during your round-up either give or else elicit English versions.

3 Give – or ask for – translations of single words as a STARTING point, but then show ways in which these words are NOT the same! So say, for example, the sentence I’m responsible for hiring and firing comes up, you might want to say the L1 equivalent of responsible, but then say that in English, you‘re responsible FOR doing something, not responsible of.

4 Allow students to translate things that they may have to translate in ‘the real world’. Use L1 as a resource and as a bridge to L2. As Guy Cook notes, there are countless possibilities here that lend themselves to communicative / task-based activities: a company entering negotiations with foreign partners may receive documents and communications which first need translating by bilingual staff; evidence in a court case may need translating before a judgement can me made – or, as in this exercise from OUTCOMES intermediate, a menu may need to be translated before diners can decide what they want – and don’t want – to eat.

Conversation practice

A            Write a typical menu for a restaurant in your country. Write it in your own language.

B            Work in pairs. Imagine you are in a restaurant that does not have an English menu. You are trying to decide what to eat.

Student A: you are visiting the country on holiday or on business. You do not speak the local language.

Student B: talk Student A through the menu.

Student A: reject at least two of the things on the menu. Explain why.

5 As a self-study device, make students aware of things like the Word Reference forums for bilingual learning communities and encourage them to use them.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, questions and comments on this paper.

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37 responses

  1. Hi Hugh.

    I do love this one as it seems to have become the ‘cool topic’ again after years of ‘English only’ and condemnation of the grammar translation approach. So, we are now back to square one and only interested in teaching mononationals who have bilingual teachers who don’t place fluency in the L2 as first on their agenda. These were all the opposite of my CELTA, I even recall the ‘foreign language’ lesson as being a real shock but have never really managed to pull it off myself though I have taught complete beginners the alphabet, numbers and upwards so I must have been doing something right.

    As I was saying, translation in my French context is exactly what I don’t want. It is the reason why my students have crap English and every single time a students starts translating and using the L1 it spreads, their accent reverts to their L1 and their fluency goes down the pan.

    Translation in the ELT classroom demands a teacher who is fluent in 2 languages which means that you can only teach that nationality, not very useful in an international context perhaps. I have wandered into translation myself and found it a minefield. I’ve also used in class with the same results.

    I’m currently rewriting a book that is full of ‘translate this into…’ and ‘what’s the English equivalent of…’. This is not the first and I’ve even seen newer titles have space in the back for translation or have trilingual dictionaries. If you want a teacher get a teacher, if you want a translator get one but don’t expect a teacher to be a translator and a teacher and a miracle worker.

    One last example. I do a lot of testing and I always know a student who’s had a ‘translation heavy’ student because 1)They get bad marks in their oral 2)They ask me “how to say X in English” and 3)They spend all their time trying to translate and mumbling in French. The end result is not pretty.

    1. Hi Phil –
      Thanks as ever for reading – and for taking time to write the comments.

      I have to say, though, I think we’re kind of thinking at cross purposes.
      You seem to be talking about students having to translate from L1 word for word because they don’t know enough English to do anything else.
      Whether you like it or not, translation is what you’re going to get until students know how to say things better in English.
      The only way you can NOT translate when speaking a foreign language is to already know in that language exactly what it is you want to say.
      Given that L1 is inescapably the bridge across which students have to travel to reach l2, surely rather than simply placing a blanket ban on translation, it makes far more sense to discuss it, explore its (admittedly many) pitfalls and ensure students understand the dangers of word-for-word translation, which seems to be what you’re talking about here.
      I would argue, though, that the reason for ‘crap English’ is quite simply not knowing enough language, rather than translation!
      Indeed, surely they translate BECAUSE they have ‘crap English’ – not vice versa.

      If they’re trying to translate from French into English what they want to say, it’s a perfectly normal survival strategy. Indeed, you could easily argue it’s one way of continuing to be ‘fluent’ in difficult circumstances. The teacher’s role surely then becomes to say “Yes, OK. I know what you man, but you’re translating directly from French. The best way to say that in English is . . . ” – and then NEXT TIME they want to express that idea, they’ll be able to do so more fluently AND accurately – and won’t need to translate it (assuming they remember it, of course!)

      What else? Well, I don’t think anyone’s saying that we should ONLY be “interested in teaching mono-nationals who have bilingual teachers”.
      That is, however, the reality for most people learning English around the world, though, isn’t it?
      I don’t see why this reality should mean that bilingual teachers automatically have to be the type of teachers who “don’t place fluency in the L2 as first on their agenda”.
      Over the years, I’ve met loads of non-native teachers teaching in mono-national situations, but still very much focused on fluency (AND accuracy) in L2.
      I just fail to grasp why you feel one context should lead so directly to one kind of teacher?

      Next up, I’d contest the idea that “translation in the ELT classroom demands a teacher who is fluent in two languages”.
      Whether you’re talking about translation from L1 to L2 or vice versa, both work well in multilingual classes where the teacher doesn’t share any of the students’ first languages.
      Two examples: one is the LANGUAGE PATTERNS exercise I blogged about in my main post. This works in multilingual groups as students see the English and translate back into L1, asking for help understanding the English if they need to. If there are other students who share the same L1, they can check with each other, but it’s not necessary. The next lesson, students pair up and point at each other’s translations. They try to say the whole sentence / chunk in English AS IT ORIGINALLY STOOD and then correct any mistakes their partner makes. From L1 to L2 is also possible. Say some students are chatting in L1 during the break, simply stop them. Ask them to explain in English what they’re talking about . . . and then rephrase it into better English. Ironically perhaps, perfectly compatible with a Dogme approach, I would’ve thought!

      I’m not saying translation cannot be problematic. For me, though, this just means we need to be clear of why we’re using it, when we use – and when we don’t – and have clear principles about its uses (and benefits).

      In terms of translation in books, it IS something we have as an option in OUTCOMES.
      I don’t see it as expecting the teacher to be a miracle worker, though.
      Say I’m doing this exercise below:

      C Use the extra information in 1-12 to guess the meanings of the words in bold. Translate the sentences into your language. Then check in the Vocabulary Builder.
      1 Their shoes are really good quality. They really last. I’ve had these for three years and I wear them quite a lot.
      2 If you’re going to buy a computer, go to World PC. They’re very reliable. If you have any problems, they’re always quick to solve them.
      3 I usually go to Davy’s for food. They’ve got a really wide selection. You can get whatever you want there.
      4 They’re open on Sundays. In fact, I think the only day they’re shut is Christmas Day!
      5 I bought this nice thick coat for the winter. It’ll keep me warm in the cold weather.
      6 They’re nice shoes. They look cool, but they’re not very practical. They’re a bit uncomfortable to walk in!

      I’d simply start by asking my multilingual students what good quality was in their language – and see how sure they look / sound.
      If anyone is unsure, I’ll explain it again and maybe give one more example, then ask again.
      I then leave students to translate, making myself available if they need me.
      As I’m rounding up, rather than ask for translation, I work / explore the language instead, as a check, so I’d ask things like “Is shut a verb here? No, OK. It’s an adjective. What’s the opposite in this context? Yeah, it’s open” and “What kind of word is last here? yeah, it’s a verb. And what other things can last? yeah, OK. Good moods can last the whole day. Courses last eight weeks or one year maybe. Yes. German cars generally are built to last.” Often while I’m doing this, I see students change their translations, so it’s as good a check as any.

      One final question . . . if you take the example of my French student that wrote about and those patterns I wanted him to ‘notice’.
      If not via translation and becoming aware of the gaps between l1 and L2, then how else?
      Interested to know your ideas on that one.

      1. Sounds like the ‘wonderfully perfect EFL class’ I’ve always dreamed of.

        Of course it’s true that they will translate and you see them doing it and you can give extra time if you wish but effectively utilising it in a teaching context requires more than “what does this mean in your language” or “is it the same structure?” etc.

        In my limited 14/15 years of teaching I am yet to see any teacher use translation as effectively as it could be done, even in L1 taught English grammar classes. In one uni we even had books in Chinese for teaching English. Most of the local teachers had great English and would translate but without enough exploration. there’s always been an element of X is Y and then it’s been included in the final test.

        The same in my last uni, they had translation questions in the final exam, as many corporate schools seem to use too. The problem is that nobody seems to agree on the answers, for me that is the point ie discussion.

        Back to my initial point. I tend to teach a lot of short intensive courses, expensive ones and those with a speaking focus. I also teach on the phone and online. I tried using translation today in one and it just got messy. I then filled in my ‘post class’ sheet which is meant to have English and French translations on. Again, this is difficult to do as I am bot bilingual and some things just don’t exist in the other language. As a result, I don’t add the French as I spent the first few lessons arguing over the French and the class ended up about grammar and in French. Now I write the English, they look it up and either write the translation or an example or a question for me.

        In the phone classes using French kills the lesson and turns it into a vocab/grammar class. Whereas, explaining in English and getting students to write down in English really improves their, well, English.

        Another moan is that the average English person doesn’t know grammar enough to delve into the linguistic differences between language. If you’ve taught a few books then you’ll be able to bluff your way through tenses , conditionals and modals but if you are teaching French or Italians who may have been brought up with grammar as a staple course you could end up in trouble. I have seen this many times with the teachers I’m working with. They have to get rescued a lot when they need to go into grammar land which is not covered in the book, some of which are yours I think. the boss says “the book is a safety net” for this reason.

        One last one. Where am I supposed to fit in all this multilingual grammatical analysis in my 10 hour intensive course?

        I must go as I have some lessons with local English teachers who can’t speak English and cling to out-of-date prescriptive grammar rules (honest, well, in the morning).

        Thanks again for all the great posts Hugh.

      2. Hi again Phil –
        Thanks for this – and for all your contributions to the debate.

        Not sure I’d ever classify any of my classes as the ‘perfect EFL class’, but they’re not bad at all, even if I say so myself!
        Don’t think they colour my perspective too much, though, tbh, as I’d like to believe I’d be teaching in more or less the same way wherever I happened to find myself.

        I hear you on the problem of exploiting translation fully and to the best of its potential in the classroom – and the perils of using it tritely too.
        I don’t, though, personally have a problem with plain old-fashioned X = Y if it’s done properly – and not all the time – and in such a way that students not only get to learn the chunk / collocation / sentence they want (or have been presented with), but also develop their awareness of how translation works (ie; NOT on a grammar plus single words basis!)

        In terms of no-one agreeing on the answers to translation, that’s a slightly different issue for me as I’m not really advocating translation forming part of the way we TEST EFL students. I’m also talking much more about only working at a maximum of sentence level, more usually at chunk / collocation level, where the translations are much easier to agree on.

        I was interested to see what you do using French, though. Sounds pretty sensible to me.
        One thing I always do with my students is suggest they keep day-by-day chunk / collocation/ sentence lists – with translations in l1.
        I show them how I might do using Indonesia, explain the problems an Indonesian might face if they then translate literally back into English – and stress the importance of learning the whole. I then simply encourage them to do the same. In monolingual classes, these bilingual lists could even be used as warmers. One student reads the French, their partner has to say the correct English. That way, they come up against L1 interference errors.

        I do wonder though if my initial point about this really being an area in which NON-NATIVES have the upper hand hasn’t simply been born out by these responses.
        Let’s go back to that exercise I showed earlier:

        C Use the extra information in 1-12 to guess the meanings of the words in bold. Translate the sentences into your language. Then check in the Vocabulary Builder.
        1 Their shoes are really good quality. They really last. I’ve had these for three years and I wear them quite a lot.
        2 If you’re going to buy a computer, go to World PC. They’re very reliable. If you have any problems, they’re always quick to solve them.
        3 I usually go to Davy’s for food. They’ve got a really wide selection. You can get whatever you want there.
        4 They’re open on Sundays. In fact, I think the only day they’re shut is Christmas Day!
        5 I bought this nice thick coat for the winter. It’ll keep me warm in the cold weather.
        6 They’re nice shoes. They look cool, but they’re not very practical. They’re a bit uncomfortable to walk in!

        A bilingual teacher can give students the chance to translate in pairs and then round up, picking up on any bad translations. For instance, some students are bound to translate last as ‘the final’ based on the first entry they find in their dictionaries, or what they think the word means already from previous knowledge, and do it without properly looking at context. The teacher can pick up on this, point out the error of their ways and elicit / give better translations. They can also point out grammatical and collocational errors. For instance, OK, so in English it’s a wide selection, but we say seleksi yang besar – a selection which big. Different adjective, yeah? And different grammar, with our adjective after the noun, not before.”

        In terms of fitting translation into short intensive courses, I honestly don’t think it needs to take up more than a few minutes here and there – mainly based on the ideas I outlined above, that I do with my classes. It’s not going to solve everyone’s problems, but it both raises awareness of issues and also gives them a technique that may well help them improve the way they record, translate and try to learn vocabulary.

        AND it can be done without the teacher having to get dragged into any long-winded or complex exploration of grammar!

  2. Some great ideas here, and I fully agree with the points you make. Perhaps it’s worth being even more explicit about the fact that you don’t have to share the students’ language (s) to make use of translation. As with your French student, asking students to translate a short text into L1 and then, perhaps a week later, back again can help each of them individually to ‘notice the gap’, and they can then be asked to write a list of, say, five things that they noticed about the difference between the L1 and L2 versions.
    As you say, noticing is key, and we all really notice things which stand out as being different. For example, I learnt very quickly that in Polish there is a word which means ‘forearm and hand’ or that ‘buty’ are actually shoes as well as boots.

    1. Hi Rachael –
      Thanks for reading – and for finding time to write a response!

      I totally agree with you about not needing to share students’ L1 to use translation in class, and this is something I’ll write in more detail about when I reply to Phil’s comment above. That said, I do think that if you DO all share a common L1, things can be done even more constructively.

      I think you’re spot on, though, about the way translation can be used to help students notice the gap, yes.
      That’s exactly the kind of thing I was talking about with the way we ended up treating the LANGUAGE PATTERNS sections in OUTCOMES.

      That said, I’m not always sure it’s then reducible to listing, which is part of the problem.

      The grammar may sometimes be, and things like prepositions, and so on, but more often it’s simply “OK, so in my language we express this idea like this, but in English it’s done like that” – and generally has to then be learned on an item by item / chunk by chunk basis.

      Interestingly, by the way, Indonesian also has just one word that is used for hands and / or arms as well!

      Hugh

  3. Monika Sobejko | Reply

    I’m very happy to see translation becoming a hot topic. I’ve always used it in class, even when it was something you weren’t supposed to be doing. But then, I teach monoligual classes and I’m a NON-native speaker of English myself (both my students’ and my native language is Polish), so it’s a somewhat different perspective. I find that this kind of contrastive analysis really helps noticing when it comes to chunks. Also, if you teach English for specific purposes, translation is helpful. Some of my students will need to use translation during their studies or later at work. Having said that, I also have a feeling that using translation might be detrimental to fluency, so it must be used really very, very judiciously. Personally, I use it rather sparingly. And, as you suggest, these tasks should be as close to real-life activities as possible. In my classes that will be, for example, having the students correct what GoogleTranslate has done with a short (3-4 sentences) of a scientific text. And even with a short text, it’s possible to notice and analyse loads of language problems. Or “revisiting” a text that they read some time ago – this time showing them an L1 translation and asking them to retranslate. I find that various kinds of translating and then retranslating tasks work fine. And – what’s particularly important – with translation there’s no “one correct answer” (that they can find at the end of their textbook)! The notion of “correctness” is replaced with that of “what sounds natural” or “more appropriate in a given context”. And one more example of what worked really well – I asked my advanced students to translate subtitles for several of the Khan Academy videos as a group project (i.e., translating from L2 to L1) – a minefield, yes! But for them it was a very creative and stimulating minefield. Suddenly, they discovered that there were limitations to what they could succinctly convey using their L1.

    1. Hi Monika –
      Thanks for taking the time to read – and for posting your comments.
      It’s really interesting for me to hear the perspective of non-natives working in monolingual contexts.
      After all, you are in the great majority when it comes to language teaching around the world.

      I totally agree that translation can really help raise awareness of chunks and how they differ between languages.
      That’s exactly what I was getting at when I was describing the way we’ve handled the LANGUAGE PATTERNS in OUTCOMES.

      I was also interested to see that you also feel many of your students will actively need to be able to translate well in their later language-using lives.
      I think this will become more and more true in the future – and as I blogged, for some students may well end up being pretty much the only kind of interaction with English they really end up having!

      I don’t agree, though, that translation may be detrimental to fluency. Either you’re translating back into l1 because you already know and understand the chunks / sentences in English and can thus already process them fluently (and may also become more aware of any L1-L2 differences if ever required to translate back into l2 later) or else you’re sort of translating word for word and so kind of speaking Polish in English, say, as you simply don’t know how to say things better in English. Outside of class, you’ll often still be understood. Inside class, the teacher – or other students – can give you better ways of saying what you’re trying to say in English. It’s a win-win situation.

      That said, I’m with you in that I think we do need to use these things sparingly. I conduct the vast bulk of classes in l1 from Elementary level and think it’s good practice to do so. Just feel we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, that’s all.

      Finally, I like the idea of having students correct Google Translate. Raising awareness of how those online translators work (generally word by word. Much harder to programme things to do chunk by chunk) and having them feel confident enough to challenge and correct them is a vital life skill for many people.

      Do you usually look at Polish translations or English ones? And why?
      I’m guessing the latter, but thought it worth asking.

      Regarding there not being a definite answer to the translation, that’s obviously true with texts, but less true with words / chunks, of course.
      I’ve always thought ELT would be moved on considerably if only we could replace all those word lists – and the implied word in L2 = word in L1 mentality they breed and replace this instead with collocations / chunks translated.

      By the way, do you know the book IS THAT A FISH IN YOUR EAR by David Bellos?
      Great book on translation and translation theory.
      Very very readable – and highly recommended.

      1. Monika Sobejko

        First of all thanks for the book recommendations – both are now on my reading list 🙂 I teach English at a university to science students, so that’s why I think some of them might eventually be proficient enough to even work as translators or interpreters, who knows? In their field of study they would do a better job as translators than a translator with the background in, let’s say, English literature. But I’m also realistic – many (if not most?) will never be good enough to make that quantum leap and actually start thinking in English, for various reasons. And they will always be mentally translating what they want to say. Obviously, you need a really massive exposure to the language you’re learning to be thinking in it as you’re speaking. What I’m wondering about is whether if a teacher uses translation in the classroom as regular practice, does he or she reinforce this mental habit of thinking first in L1 and then translating into L2? Or is this “reinforcing bad habits through using translation ” just another myth?

        As for your question about machine translation – we usually look at English translations and correct those. Why? I want them to improve their English rather than Polish, and so it we do this kind of exercise the focus is on the text in English. After all, I teach English and not a translation course 🙂 Also, I noticed that this boosts the students’ confidence if you tell them “you can do better than Google Translate” and they actually do better (and see themselves the positive result of their efforts). And it’s a bit less daunting if it’s at least partly translated, though obviously badly by the machine.

        And I also wanted to say a word to Amanda – hi, I completely agree with all that you’ve written, especially about the importance of paraphrasing. And I also find it sometimes dificult to recall an English equivalent of a Polish word if asked about it by a student – just out of the blue, the way sometimes students do it. Or, conversely, a student asks me for a Polish translation of an English word they don’t understand – and I really can’t think of the Polish equivalent, though I know what the word means in English. It can happen either way. And I’m not talking here about the situation when I simply do not know the English word – which, of course, may happen just as well to a non-native speaker of English like myself. What I’m trying to say is that the need to translate seems to interfere with recall somehow.

      2. Hi again Monika –
        Thanks for this. Glad the recommendations proved useful.

        In terms of that near-mythical state, “thinking in English”, I’m never completely convinced it really exists.
        I think the best that we can hope for is NOT having to always think first in l1 when talking / writing in English – and the only real way this can be achieved is for enough English to be automatic / proceduralised that we just know it and re-use it wholesale. I now when I;m talking Indonesian well, I’m basically doing it because I’m saying things I’ve said many times before and know without having to think about. And yes, that’s all about huge amounts of exposure, loads of recycling and loads of chances to practise the language until large chunks of it become semi-automatic.

        In terms of whether or not principled use of translation reinforces the mental habit of thinking first in L1 and then translating into L2, I’d argue that this is simply what students do already anyway . . . and that using translation of the kind I outline in the LANGUAGE PATTERNS section is a way of interrupting that, making students more aware of differences, etc. I think what happens a lot is that even very good students see things in English, understand them very quickly, but fail to really take on board the fact that when they themselves try to express that idea, they do it in a way that’s rooted more in L1. Good learners will notice the differences and remember the wholes, and by translating from English to Polish and then – later – back into English again, you’re actually helping make the use of the whole and the chunk and the L2 sentences more automatic, you’re flagging up L1 interferences should they arise and you’re drawing attention to the reality of how the mind works, all of which aid rather than hamper, I’d suggest. In short, yes I think that “reinforcing bad habits through using translation ” is actually just another myth!

        As I guessed, you look at the English translations that arise from Google Translate being fed Polish.
        Great task, I think, when used in moderation, and clearly both empowering and awareness-raising, as you say.

        By the way, are you planning to be at Poland IATEFL this year?
        I think I’m down to do a talk on translation in language teaching there, if you are!

      3. Monika Sobejko

        Hi again Hugh –

        thanks for taking time to respond to my comment. It really clarifies the whole issue for me, I guess. And when I look back at some of the examples of the students’ responses to my translation exercises, they seem to confirm your view. This ‘flagging up L1 interferences’ does help. Anyway, I find the discussion really enlightening – everybody’s comments, no exception! It’s always a good thing to analyse the assumptions and beliefs that underlie your practice in the classroom, and more often than not we take these assumptions for granted and don’t even try to notice that they are there, let alone question them. Particularly after years and years of teaching. That’s why, I think your talk at Poland IATEFL will be a success – there’s a lot of interest in the subject at the moment. I wish I could go to the conference, but unfortunately there’s another one – a small Polish event – roughly at the same time, I’ve already decided to go there and I can’t do both. This year Poland IATEFL is going to be in Wroclaw, as far as I know, which is a city with fabulous architecture and interesting history, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

      4. Hi again Monika –
        Thanks for this.
        Glad you’ve found the posts – and their responses (which have been fascinating this time around, I agree) – useful.

        Yes, Poland IATEFL is Wroclaw again this year.
        Have been there a couple of times before, but always great to return – and to have the chance to work with Polish teachers again.

      5. Monika Sobejko

        Hi again Hugh –

        is there any chance of you coming down to Krakow again this September after Poland IATEFL? I greatly enjoyed the talk you gave to our teachers in Krakow about writing – last year, was it?

        Also, I’d like to say a word about paraphrasing – this relates to what Amanda has written and to your comment on her post. It’s one my favourite kinds of exercise. Paraphrasing does help students develop their vocabulary (or, “add to their lexicon”), I think. I remember from my own days as a student over twenty years ago – we were often required to do paraphrases of chunks/sentences or even short texts – but not to translate! Translation was taboo – we had a translation course as a separate course, later. But in our practical English classes, translation was a no-no. The argument being, I suppose, that it hampers fluency. Some myths have a long life!
        And then, if we were asked to paraphrase, I’d often need to use a monolingual dictionary and/or a thesaurus (good old Roget’s 🙂 for that, thereby learning lots of new collocations or learning better how to use a word that I’d already come across, but this time in a new context. Checking with a monoligual dictionary and cross-checking with a bilingual dictionary – and still sometimes getting it wrong! Like in the case of translation, it’s dangerous – trying to paraphrase, you might fall into all kinds of pitfalls. But, the more mistakes you make, the more you learn – that’s my view.

        There’s, I think, one more thing – when translation does NOT work as well as relying on L2 entirely does. I’m thinking of a situation when a student wants/needs to develop a good knowledge of a particular word (or a kind of “feel” for the word, if you like) – and they ask you about these fine distinctions in meaning or usage – for example, what’s the difference between “assess”, “evaluate” and “appraise”? Or “fog”, “mist” and “haze”? “Hazy”, “foggy” and “misty”? In Polish the latter three words all translate either as “mgla” (or “mgielka”), and the adjective “mglisty” (though, come to think of it, there are also adjectives “zamglony” and “przymglony”…). Unfortunately (or fortunately?), students very often come up with questions like these. Sometimes these questions will be just plain red-herrings, but not always. Then, I think, a better way to help them grasp these subtle distinctions would be by showing them lots of examples (multiple contexts) in which a word occurs – I occasionally work with concordance lines from a corpus for this (if I don’t find enough examples in a monolingual dictionary), drawing students’ attention to collocations or register, or other aspects of meaning that seem important (metaphorical versus literal uses, for example – a hazy idea or misty-eyed), or else I’d ask students to draw their own conclusions from the examples. And then perhaps have students translate some of the chunks from the concordance lines? I’ve never actually used translation in conjunction with concordance lines…so far. But why not?

      6. Hi again Monika –
        Honestly not sure if I’ll be asked down to Krakow.
        Haven’t finalised the details of the trip yet, so don’t know what they want from me this time around.
        Would love to, though, of course, as I love the city and have always enjoyed the audiences there.
        Anyway, great to know you enjoyed the talk last year so much! Thank you.

        I was very interested to hear that even though you were banned from translating – explicitly at least (I’m assuming they couldn’t ban internalised translation!) – during your old English classes, you nevertheless still had other classes where you studied translation. Makes some weird kind of sense in a way. At least you still had the chance to learn from the insights that could’ve been provided in those classes and to take that awareness with you into your English classes, which could then, in a sense be more of a practice space for lessons learned elsewhere.

        Mt feeling about paraphrasing is it only boosts the lexicon if the end result of it is you get the item you needed or were trying to say.
        If that happens, that’s fine. But otherwise, how does the learner know they’ve made mistakes or how do they learn how to say what they were trying to say better next time around?
        But I can’t see any reason why this way of getting a word / phrase you want in English is in any way superior to – or should replace – translating.
        Both can operate concurrently and both can be beneficial.
        I guess much also depends on level too, of course.

        I terms of developing a feel for words – developing what Michael Hoey calls your (lexical) priming – of course translation can’t take you any further than a basic sense of initial meaning.
        With many of the words you mention above, the difference isn’t so much in terms of meaning as in terms of context, usage and co-text.
        Students can only learn that by meeting and re-meeting these words and having their attention drawn to the contexts, surrounding language, etc.
        In other words, good classroom materials and good teachers need to take priming their students seriously.
        And ultimately, even if we can condense, as it were, their exposure, it still takes time and input.
        It’s why reading is so central to language enrichment – it’s staggered input over time.

        If you’ve not read the Hoey book, by the way, do so!
        It’s astounding!

      7. Monika Sobejko

        Hi again Hugh – I’ll keep my fingers crossed then, but I understand, of course, that you have a busy schedule during such trips. Still, it’d be very interesting to hear your talk about translation or any other aspects of teaching. And I’m really glad you enjoyed speaking for us in Krakow.
        As for our translation classes back then during my studies, they were intended to help us become professional translators (rather than interpreters, because we mostly worked on written translations, and not so much with spoken language). There was one course focussed on translating from the L1 to L2, and another – from the L2 to L1). And actually after graduation, some of us would take up jobs as translators, and some were hired as teachers. I worked as a translator on a freelance basis for a while, juggling the two jobs – as a teacher and a translator. Interestingly, these courses started when we were in our third and fourth year, i.e. when we were already quite proficient at English – prior to that,I think, our university teachers assumed we couldn’t be expected to translate well. First of all, you needed to have an excellent knowledge of the foreign language as well as of your native language. As you say – mentally it was (and probably still is) going on all the time anyway! And this seemed to escape everybody’s attention, which I find kind of funny, really. I think what helped me enormously – and here I totally agree with you – was reading, “this staggered input over time” of literary and non-literary texts we were required to read for our various classes (English literature, history or…methods of teaching, etc., all in English). Up until now I’ve been regularly reading more books in English than in Polish, and deliberately so – to keep up my English. By the way, can I quote you as an authority on the subject of the importance of extensive reading 🙂 ? Getting my students to read in this way, when it’s not obligatory, is next to impossible – and I’ve tried all kinds of tricks (such as discussion forums, “bookclubs”, etc.) I can easily get them to watch a videoclip on YouTube or even a TED presentation, but reading extensively is another matter. If I could quote an authority, it might help…

        Michael Hoey’s book is a revelation, I agree. At least it was for me. It completely changed the way I look at language. However, if you take lexical priming or teaching lexically really seriously, it doesn’t make teaching easier. In terms of keeping track of the new vocabulary for recycling and revising, it’s quite a challenge. And equally challenging (I mean time-consuming) is the task of preparing tests. So, yes, I do agree that it’s even more important to have good materials (in terms of rich lexical input) as well as good teaching practice. Also, I think this approach is easier for native speaker teachers – knowing immediately what sounds perfectly natural, and what’s more clunky or awkward, they can better, more naturally reformulate what a student has just said or written. We (non-native speakers) are at a disadvantage here. Hopefully, my reformulations will be somewhat better than what a student has originally said, but they will not be ideal. And this is also true about my corrections or reformulations of students’ translations into English, by the way.

      8. Hi Monika,
        I just wanted to thank you for commenting on my comments and to compliment you on your absolutely amazing command of English!!!
        I’ve only just read your last comment about the translations for “hazy”, “misty” and “foggy” and I think your ideas are great! It also echoes what I just wrote about advanced students needing to get to the nitty-gritty actual meaning of words and, as you suggest, the only way to do that is to find lots of examples. I was also thinking that the fact that there are all these words for essentially the same thing, i.e. forms of vapour, has to do with our weather. We get lots of different kinds of dampness in the UK, with it being an island surrounded by lots of water. Isn’t there some language (Inuit?) with all these separate words for different kind of snow? This is where I find that learning a language becomes a process of enrichment, not only of your knowledge of the target language, but also your own, as you search for suitable translations which match an L2 word as closely as possible.
        On the other hand, however, sometimes it can be necessary to shut students up if they are getting hung up on having an “exact” translation. I remember one older student in an elementary class once when I was a mere slip of a girl teacher who was like a dog with a bone over one particular word. She wanted to know what the translation of “Hartschalenkoffer” was and all I knew was that “Koffer” translated as “suitcase”, but I had no clue what the word for this special kind of suitcase was. She wouldn’t give up and I ended up saying, “Does it really matter that it is a “Hartschalenkoffer”??? Can’t you just say it’s a suitcase?!?!” In the end I think I told her to use the word “Samsonite”, because back then that company was practically the only manufacturer of that kind of suitcase. I think she was happy with that, but she was driving me nuts!!!
        With elementary students, I find it helps to try and give a more general word for some things, rather than offer an obscure word and try and convince them that this will be sufficient for most purposes.
        Oh, and by the way, where do you get concordance lines from? I sometimes just Google words to find out, for example, frequency, or simply if a particular phrase exists, but I haven’t had any luck finding concordance lists available free online. I was working on the assumption that the owners of the concordance banks guard them like Fort Knox!!!
        If you could post a link here, that would be great. Thanks, Amanda.

      9. Monika Sobejko

        Hi, Amanda,
        thank you for taking time to read my comments and for your compliments – that’s really very kind of you! Well, I’d better be good – especially that my job depends on it 🙂 And, I’ve just picked up quite a few new idioms from your posts 🙂
        It’s perhaps surprising, but often elementary level students are the least forgiving if you can’t translate “on demand” the word they want. The higher the level, the better they understand the complexity of a language, both their own and the one they are learning, and that it’s not easy or sometimes not even possible to translate word for word. They begin to see it for themselves. However, sometimes, it’s possible to pleasantly suprise students – I remember once a young, elementary level student asking me to translate the Polish word “rekawiczki” – and she was very surprised and, in a way, fascinated to find out from me that it depends because in English there two words “mittens” and “gloves”, so what kind of “rekawiczki” did she mean exactly?

        As for corpora, you’re right – many can’t be accessed. Regarded as precious resources and guarded accordingly 🙂 – like Ford Knox.
        I sometimes use the Corpus of Contemporary American English

        http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/

        It’s free and divided into spoken and written subcorpora, so it’s sometimes quite handy, but I needed to teach myself how to use it – not difficult, but it took me some time. It’s possible to generate concordance lines or search for collocations, depending on what you need. And, it’s American English, of course… Recently it has acquired a new interface – for academic English –

        http://www.wordandphrase.info/academic/

        And one more, also free – the British National Corpus:
        http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/

        It’s time-consuming to use these things, but for a language junkie like me, they’re a real treat.

      10. Never been sure the Inuit thing isn’t just a linguistic myth, but I know what you mean.
        Indonesian has loads more words for rice than English, perhaps predictable.
        Where in English you need to explain with several words exactly what you mean, like rice before you cook it, rice once it’;s first freshly cooked, etc. in Indonesian, there are single words to express concepts like these.

        By the way, the ongoing discussion has reminded of something Andrew and I wrote for a new methodology we’re in the middle of doing.
        Here’s a brief extract from it that I think gets to the heart of much of what you and Monika have been talking about:

        Giving further examples The coursebook you are using may or may not provide examples of how the words in the exercise are used. Many exercises, as we shall see later, only focus on single words. Irrespective of this, in all cases, it’s good to give your own examples of how the words in the vocabulary exercise – especially the words that have caused problems for several students – are used. Having said that, we should be honest and admit that thinking up good examples is difficult. You may want to look in a good monolingual learners’ dictionary (see book list) for help, while some coursebooks may also have support in the teacher’s book. When you give your examples, try to think about how the words you’re looking at are most often used in conversation or in writing. Often the ideal example may well be more than just a sentence, as longer examples can show more of the co-text that often goes with the word. As you become more experienced, it gets easier to think of examples quickly, but that is partly because you may have given the same – or similar – examples before. The main rule here, then, for beginner teachers is:
        • ALWAYS plan the examples you’ll give for words in an exercise before the lesson.
        You may give your examples orally, but it is also good to write some on the board, particularly for those words that you noticed students didn’t really know before (see the section on boardwork below). With words that are more difficult to explain, you should really give more than one example – maybe one or two on the board and perhaps one or two further spoken examples. Which perhaps leaves us with a final rule:
        • Extra examples help students more than additional explanations.
        The following example from an observed class illustrates why these two rules are important. The teacher in question was asked the difference between point out and point to. Could point out be used instead of point to in the following sentence? He points to the Danish system as a better model. The teacher said no (correctly). The student asked Why not? and the teacher struggled to answer this. They gave a definition of point to meaning giving an example, but were then uncertain with point out. Don’t you point out something because it’s an example? the student asked. Maybe sometimes, but not here, the teacher replied.

        In fact, this is a shortened version of the exchange, which involved some further (and increasing confusing) explanations, but even the edited version illustrates the difficulty of only relying on an explanation. Here are the definitions from the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English for point out, point to and point up (which we decided to throw in for good measure!).

        Decide which definition goes with which verb.
        There are two definitions for one of the verbs. 1 to make something seem more important or more noticeable 2 to tell someone something that they did not already know or had not thought about 3 to mention something because you think it’s important 4 to show something by pointing at it You may have been a little unsure of the answers here yourself, so imagine what it’s like for an Intermediate language learner! We could translate, and it may often be the quickest solution. However, if we were to take Spanish, while point up is given a different definition (subrayar) in the Collins English-Spanish Dictionary, point out and point to have the same translation (señalar). What makes them different in English is more the way they are used, and the patterns and grammar around them, than the meaning.

        Look at the examples of each below.
        What patterns do you notice? Environmentalists point to Denmark as a good example of using wind power. I was surprised he pointed to Britain as a centre of good practice. Many experts point to the lack of investment in education and training as the reason why the economy is failing. Many environmentalists point out that Denmark has successfully harnessed wind power. I did point out that, actually, Britain is a recognised centre of good practice. Many experts have pointed out that the reason the economy is failing is because there has been a lack of investment in education and training. We have retained the same basic contexts here to illustrate the similarity of meaning, but the grammar is actually quite different for each verb. They may have other patterns as well, of course, but the strongest patterns we can point out to students are: point to country / person / organisation as a model / example of / centre of . . . point to + cause + as the reason for / why . . .
        whereas point out that + noun / pronoun + is / has been / was . . . etc. In practice, it is always better to give one or more of examples like those above and to underline or highlight the key words so that students can see the patterns. In addition, you might also say the kinds of patterns that we have highlighted above. This means that we might say something like the following to the student who asked the tricky questions above: You can’t use point out here, because you point out that something is, for example (give an example here), whereas you point to a country or a person as something – usually as an example or a model. So, for example (give another example here).
        That is very difficult to do on the spot if you haven’t planned it or have never been asked about that particular lexical item before. If you find yourself in this that situation, though, and if you are sure the two words can’t be used in the same sentence, then say so. If you can, give one or two examples to show how each one is used. The pattern may become clear, but if you are not sure and you can’t explain, say so. Don’t waste time on unclear explanations. Think about it after the class. Look it up in a dictionary. Good learners dictionaries will show a pattern or at least give examples from which you may see some differences. If you can, tell your student later or at the very least, try to remember what you have learned. If you use the same coursebook or text, students often ask the same questions and next time you will be better prepared. However, you have to do the hard work first! What you can see from the story above is another very key point that relates back to our view of language. If our main focus is on teaching grammar rules, what are the rules that generate the different patterns for English words like these that have the same meaning in another language? If we only teach a meaning of a word and traditional grammar rules in isolation, it is highly unlikely that students will be able to produce correct sentences like those above. This is why linguists are increasingly coming to realise that in many cases grammar and words cannot be separated and that it is from repeated exposure to examples of words and their co-text that learners become fluent and accurate users of those words (assuming that they understand the meanings, and notice them and the language round them, of course).

        Oh, and a quick final thought.

        One great thing about the Internet is that if you need to go home and find out exactly students are asking about, the images are great.
        For instance, I decided to Google “Hartschalenkoffe” and to then look at the images – and as you said, they’re basically of some kind of Samsonite suitcase.
        Good tool to have, though!

  4. First of all, thanks to Hugh for once again providing us with a thought-provoking and informative article. However, the first person I want to address is Phil Wade:
    Hi Phil,
    Like you, I teach in a monolingual context, in my case in Germany. I have been teaching here in the private sector for over 20 years. I also have a degree in German and am a qualified translator, although I no longer work in this field.
    The first thing I want to object to in your post is this statement:
    “As I was saying, translation in my French context is exactly what I don’t want. It is the reason why my students have crap English…”
    You write here that “it (translation) is the reason why my students have crap English”, which is far too simplistic an explanation for their “crap English.” Your students have crap English because they haven’t learned enough English yet! It is not “translation” which is the problem, but their level of language learning.
    If a person has French or German or Indonesian as their native language, but are trying to communicate in English, why is it so “wicked” of them to have a word of their L1 in their head when they suddenly realise that that word is missing? What else could they possibly have in their heads?
    The other day I veered off my lesson plan in a one-to-one lesson to ask my student about his smart phone and what kind of contract he had and what it cost per month and so on. He is only elementary level and so he soon reached the limits of his vocabulary stores when he wanted to use the words “contract” and “extend”. He started off quite well, but then the words “Vertrag” (contract) and “verlängern” (extend) came into his head. As these were words which could be translated instantly, I simply gave the translations so as to help him stay as fluent as possible and he then continued talking in English. He knows I will say to him, “I know you can say it in English” or “If you try to explain it in English first, then I’ll give you the translation” if he starts to use German with me and faces a translation problem that can be easily expressed with a paraphrase or which we in English would express more simply than in German.
    Using L1 or translating isn’t the problem for our learners and, in my humble opinion, our L1 will ALWAYS colour our use of L2, whatever our level is. I would consider myself to be an extremely competent user of German, yet, every now and then, I still hear the echoes of English in my German as if – on some subconscious level – I had still “translated” from English. And why shouldn’t I? I AM bloody English! However, the difference between myself and my elementary learners is that, most of the time, I am also capable of using constructions that are a million miles away from English syntax and can use lexical chunks fluently and appropriately.
    I absolutely agree with Hugh that translation can be used in the classroom, but I can sympathise with you about the situation a teacher faces when use of L1 gets out of hand. It feels as if we have totally lost control of the lessson and of our students! However, if we as teachers think of how our students feel during our lessons, then we might be able to find ways of “allowing” L1 to be used fruitfully during – or after – our lessons.
    I think we need to remember that, especially for adults who we may be teaching in a business context, it can be extremely frustrating and tiring to use the L1 for long periods. You feel like you are “not yourself” because you can’t crack jokes or use witty repartee; maybe you also feel uncomfortable due to your inferior command of the language and feel like an idiot, using “baby” language when, in a work context, you are eloquent and fluent.
    For these reasons, I think it can offer our students a welcome break if we allow limited periods of L2 for them to recharge their batteries, so to speak, and to “be themselves” again for a few minutes. Of course, in order to use this “break time” productively, we then need to give them a task to do which will let them use L2, but which will also enrich their knowledge of L1. And what better task to give them than translation?!?! Most of us working in a monolingual environment are perfectly aware of the typical mistakes our learners make, so it shouldn’t really require a lot of brainwork on our behalf to come up with a translation exercise which will make our learners more aware of typical problems where improper translation is the root of a mistake our learners make.
    A feedback session can also usefully be conducted in the students’ L2. If we want a detailed and honest assessment of the time spent in the classroom, the book, a recent test, whatever, our students will be able to give us much more information in a shorter time if allowed to use their L1, than if we force them to mumble and stumble in English.
    However, I would agree that translation can have practical difficulties in the classroom, which I would like to mention now.
    I don’t know whether I am alone in this, but I have often experienced a rather weird phenomenon when my students – without warning – suddenly ask me for a translation from German. For whatever reason, the mere mention of the German word sometimes momentarily zaps the English word out of my memory! I sit there and say, “Erm, I’m sorry, but the word has just gone!” I therefore now use the strategy that I mention this phenomenon very early on with a new class or student and tell them that if they need a translation, they should always try to paraphrase, as this is what they will have to do in the real world. Even the very best learner will have bad days when they can’t remember words and the ability to paraphrase quickly and efficiently – in my opinion – is one of the most important tools that all language learners need. What’s more, the arduous task of paraphrasing will help them to remember the word as it will provide a situation and memory which will anchor the word more securely in their word store.
    Secondly, I also tell my students that I am not a machine! I had one student in a group once at an insurance company who used to click his fingers at me when he wanted a translation! He’d shout the word, snap his fingers and expect me to spout the word in question as if I was some kind of automaton! He was also the boss of all the other students and he seemed to expect that I would also allow myself to be bossed around by him, too. I pointed out – as humorously as possible – that, for the 90 minutes of my lesson, that I was the boss and that I wasn’t a horse who responded to clicks and snaps of the fingers!
    What’s more, I told them that it would be of no use to them if I allowed myself to be used as a translation machine as, in the real world, they wouldn’t have me to perform for them like some talking monkey. Using me in this way would only make them lazy and not improve their fluency. Most students found this explanation enlightening and gladly took on board various paraphrasing tips I gave them.
    If I face the case where a mention of a German word zaps the English one from my mind, I write the word down and tell them that I’ll tell them what it is later, as it usually comes back unbidden at some point.
    So, Phil, I can totally understand your objection to your students using French in the classroom if they are trying on the stuff I mention above: I wouldn’t put up with it either. However, to blame translation as the root cause of their “crap English” is to place the blame in the wrong place.
    Although I already use translation to a certain degree in my lessons already, I am going to buy the Guy Cook book and, in the meantime, consider how I can better use this tool.

    1. Hi Amanda –
      Thanks for such an incredibly detailed and passionate post.
      I’ll be honest and admit to having avoided replying to it simply because I was worried about when I’d find the time to do it justice!
      Apparently, that time is now . . . anything to get out of finally knuckling down for the day and doing some proper writing work!

      Now, where to begin?

      Well, firstly, I now realise you’ve already said much of what I ended up saying in my response to Phil. I couldn’t agree more that “It is not “translation” which is the problem, but their level of (Phil’s students’) language learning”. As I said, they’re not crap because they translate; they translate because they’re crap!

      I also know from experience that even now, where I’d say I speak Indonesian to around Upper-Int / Advanced level, when I don’t know how to say something, the easiest and most direct way is simply to ask my wife – in English – how do you say, for example, THEY NEED TO START ENFORCING THE LAW and she’ll give me the whole sentence, which I write down – next to the English sentence, and try to memorise and reuse! It’s hard to see how else I could actually get this expression. I could look up individual words, but still wouldn’t be sure of how they worked together, or what grammar went with them; I could simply wait till I encountered it in Indonesian, which doesn’t seem very time efficient . . . or I could start trying to explain what I meant in bad Indonesian – probably actually translating word-for-word from English – and hope my ‘teacher’ understood me sufficiently to give me the whole chunk / sentence that they would’ve been able to give me using direct translation in the first place!

      That said, I do also agree that we need to wary of overuse of L1 in the class (which for me is basically a different issue to principled use of translation!), but that allowing SOME use of L1 to give students the chance to banter, joke, etc. is also very sane – and another advantage non-natives (or fluent in local L1 natives such as yourself) have over natives recently arrived!

      I’m also broadly with you on the way translation can be used to test level and raise awareness of issues, though I think we’re using L1 / L2 differently.
      For me, L1 is the students’ mother tongue, whilst L2 is English. You seem to be using them in reverse?
      As I blogged initially, being able to translate WELL is almost by default the definition of a good student.
      I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat with various people around the world and asked them to translate menus, newspaper articles, conversations, etc.
      Indeed, in these situations, very fluent non-natives will often have fun by doiojng comical word-for-word translations that they know are ‘wrong’, but which serve to give a flavour of the local language! For instance, an Indonesian friend will explain “OH, she called him PRAWN BRAIN, you know, like an idiot!”

      Interesting that even someone as fluent as you freezes sometimes when students ask for an English translation of a German word.
      Not saying encouraging paraphrasing is in any way bad, but I do wonder if this is just another example of the powers of translation for NON-NATIVE TEACHERS and whether a German teacher would freeze in the same way? Not sure I totally agree that teachers should never give the direct translation, though. I remember watching an interview when the wonderful German goalkeeper Jens Lehman first arrived at Arsenal and he got stuck for a word. Rather than carry on, he stopped, pulled out a dictionary, looked up the word he wanted and then, looking very pleased with himself, used it – and even noted it down mid-interview. I’;d argue that THESE are the people who end up getting really good in L2, rather than the ones who don’t bother finding the precise words they want as they can explain more or less what they mean regardless. Not that it’s black and white, of course. I’m aware that there are many shades of grey between the two poles.

      Oh, and to finish, I’m bloody glad I’m not the PA of the finger-clicking boss!
      I’d end up taking a machete to hos hands, I fear!

      1. Thanks for taking the time to read my long response to Phil’s comments above! I was getting worried that you were just going to ignore my comments!
        I should have, of course, used the reply button in order to post my reply to him directly after his post but, not being terribly au fait with this blogging lark, I didn’t.
        Oh well, better luck next time.
        And thanks for pointing out that I got L1 and L2 mixed up! I wouldn’t normally, as it is pretty obvious that L1 stands for the student’s FIRST language and L2 for the student’s SECOND language.
        Anyway, back to the actual issue of translation.
        You write above, “Not sure I totally agree that teachers should never give the direct translation, though” which is not entirely what I practise or preach. If you read my post again, you’ll see that I wrote that just last week I gave a student the words for “extend” and “contract” because it was simply the quickest solution in order not to lose the flow of our conversation. Paraphrasing in this case would have been tortuous!
        These days, with 20-odd years of teaching (admittedly part-time) under my belt, I would say that I practically never use the word “never” in the context of good classroom practice. Flexibility is key and saying “never” can get you into very deep water!
        As for paraphrasing, maybe in my case, it is a German thing. As you may be aware, German has some lovely compound adjectives and nouns which can be used to encapsulate a lot of meaning, but, in most cases, there isn’t a direct word-for-word equivalent in English or, if there is, it would be a word which would sound far too formal in a spoken context. Hence, when I ask a student to paraphrase, it is often because the paraphrase would be closer to how a native speaker would express the idea the student has in mind than a “correct” single-word translation. In my experience, when speaking English, Germans tend to over-use very formal language and under-use small everyday words, particularly short sentences with people and verbs. When advanced students write English, they tend to use a very nominal style, which, when transferred into spoken English sounds stilted and unnatural to my ears.
        So, when I ask a student to paraphrase something, what often happens is that I say, “You know what? That’s exactly how we would express that idea in English!”
        One of the reasons I am so keen on helping students to learn how to paraphrase fast and efficiently is because I have taught a good few older students in the last few years, a lot of them women re-entering the workforce, or simply pensioners. Many of these are very very insecure about their language abilities and seem to have bad memories of their schooldays and are afraid to speak in case they make some “terrible” grammar mistake. I have found that helping my students to paraphrase well is a great confidence builder and helps to bolster fluency. Many of my students will also be using English in a context similar to the one you mentioned in an earlier post when a German asked, “Where is the nearest ATM?” at an airport in Istanbul and ended up having to mime using a cash machine, shouting “Money?”, as the only way to finally get his interlocutor to understand him, i.e. on holiday or travelling on business.
        I tell my students that not only will good paraphrasing skills help them to get over that moment of panic when they suddenly forget a word (which happens to us in our native language, too, of course, and we think nothing of it if we say, “You know, the thingy you need for…” etc) and give their memory time to maybe recall it after all, but it may also be useful when they are faced with another non-native speaker – as in your priceless anecdote – whose knowledge of English is at best rudimentary.
        And, of course, it can be a fun way to revise vocabulary! A week beforehand, I would ask my students to revise a vocabulary list (this is an English for Tourists course for elementary students) and then, in class, they are split into two groups with one group being the paraphrasers and the other the guessers and then vice versa. In the meantime, they are good enough to actually act out a situation where they have to explain what their problem is.
        So, as you can see, I have lots of reasons for being a champion of paraphrasing!
        Finally, when I ask my students to paraphrase, I would always “reward” them for their efforts by giving them the translation they needed!
        What’s more, I believe, from my own experience, that paraphrasing helps to BUILD vocabulary, rather than make a student lazy. I have found myself that the effort of paraphrasing a word I was looking for in German helped me to remember the word I tried to paraphrase, because, inevitably, in the real world, the process ends with your interlocutor saying something like, “Oh, you mean XYZ!!!”, at which point, I kick myself and tell myself never to forget this word again!
        Your tale about Jens Lehman is wonderful! You have to admire the fella for having had the cojones to pull out a dictionary in the middle of an interview! However, I totally agree with you about the difference between a very good language learner and a middling one: at some point, you have to become interested enough and motivated enough to get that dictionary out. Before I did my translator’s exam, I used to read a lot of German and would note the words I didn’t know, look them up and then copy out the definition in an alphabetised file I made for the purpose!!! Totally anal, I know, but it helped me pass that translator’s exam with flying colours!!! My dear husband, a German native, is the same and used to have a little notebok in which he wrote down new words or words and phrases he wanted to look up. His pinboard used to be covered with little scraps of paper he’d scrawled new words on! In the meantime, he is so good at English that when he asks me what a word means (whilst reading an English novel, or The Economist), half the time, I have to get our Collins Millenium Dictionary and look the word up myself!!! As an English teacher, I always try to give a definition or example, but the anal part of me usually has to check my explanation against the dictionary. My bookmarks are also usually covered with words I’ve noted in the books I’m reading, too!
        As for the “freezing” when asked for a snap translation, Monika in a post above says that she has a similar problem with both her L1 and L2; it seems that it is merely the surprise, the shock effect that sometimes has this zapping quality. I can imagine, though, that you are right and that a non-native speaker would react differently to the translation question. I’ll ask my DH and get back to you!
        Sorry for another long post, but I’m just passing the time waiting for some anaesthetic to wear off after a dentist’s visit. Now the numbness has gone and I’m off for something to eat! Thanks again for your reply.

      2. Hi again Amanda –
        I have to say, I’m impressed by quite how animated this whole subject seems to have made you!
        Glad to see we’ve sorted out the great l1 / L2 conundrum en route:-)!

        I realised after posting that I’d sort out misread you about NEVER giving direct translations.
        I also like the edict of never saying never!!

        One thing I think is underused in EFL is giving translations TO BEGIN WITH.
        The fear often seems to be that nothing translates exactly, words collocate differently, translation only helps receptively, etc.
        Of course, there is obviously some truth in all of that, but if you look at direct single word translation simply as a starting point, I think it’s fine.
        Good bilingual teachers can also give extra info perhaps whilst doing so, such as “By the way, it’s uncountable in English, unlike in our language, so doesn’t take plurals” or “Oh, and in English it’s MAKE a mistake, whereas in our language we DO a mistake”.

        I get you on the value of translation in the contexts you’re talking about, and having spent a lot of time in Germany over the years know exactly the kind of language you’re referring to.
        Maybe the ‘rule’ that’s emerging here, then, should be that if there IS a more or less direct translation, and the teacher knows it, then the teacher should simply provide it; where things don’t really work on anything like a word-for-word basis, though, encourage paraphrasing, point out the lack of direct correlation and judge / comment on the degree to which the paraphrase matches how YOU would express those ideas in English! Again, the ability to do all of this very much depends on the teacher’s own grasp of the students’ L1, of course.

        Incidentally, I also do exactly the same revision game as you – and agree it encourages / develops paraphrasing.
        Crucially – for me, at least – though it ALSO tests recall of specific items, and in the end, you can paraphrase as much as you like, but the only real way you’ll ever get better – as I’m sure you agree – is to keep adding to your lexicon and develop your range of expressions through new items.

        Glad you enjoyed the Jens Lehman story. Just one of many that demonstrate how far removed he was from your average footballer!
        I miss him greatly!

        Finally, I think being anal in language learning can only be a good thing – and should be encouraged in our students!
        Oh, and if it makes you feel better, my Indonesian wife asked me the other day what EXEGESIS meant!
        Suffice it to say, an explanation didn’t trip off the tongue!

      3. Just looked up “exegesis”!!! What a word!!! Your wife’s English must be bloody good if she’s asking about words like that!!! What on earth was she reading?
        Another thought on this translation business I had was the importance of getting across to students what the core definition of a word is so that they can see patterns across, say, compound nouns, or why words which would require a completely different word in their L1 (got it right this time, phew!), are the same in the L2. What often then comes across is how the words don’t match exactly, but only have a certain portion of their meaning in common.
        The examples that come to mind are the English word “tray”, as in “teatray”, “in-tray” and “out-tray” and “ashtray”. In the case of these words, they are all flattish objects which can contain something as they have low shallow “walls”.
        In German, however, there is not this similarity: cigarette ash is put in a “beaker” (Aschenbecher); work documents are put into “baskets” (Korb) and the teatray is a foreign word, “Tablett”.The tea-tray example is an easy one to draw on the board, and I love to do crap drawings as a way of providing another way for my students to record the word(s) in their memories.
        Another similar word is “sheet”, as in a sheet of paper or a bedsheet. They are both rectangular, thin, flat, and often a single colour, either made of paper or cotton. I think it can be helpful to point these things out, again to avoid the typical assumption that word X in L1 ALWAYS equals word X in L2.
        In one class, I used this as an example of showing how the meaning of words in different languages do not correspond to each other 100%, and drew slightly overlapping circles on the board to show this. And, of course, this is true of many other words, too. I think if our advanced students, in particular, start to consider what the core meaning of a word in their own language is, as well as those they are meeting in their new language, then they also be inclined to think more flexibly about the whole translation issue.
        I came across a word like this in German recently which had always puzzled me, because I couldn’t understand why it was used in such different contexts. It is the German word, “Ampel”, which would be translated by most English learners of German as “traffic lights”. However, you can also get “Ampelpflanzen” (= traffic light plants, heh???) and “Ampelschirme” (= traffic light parasols??? heh???). After 24 years in Germany and 36 years of trying to learn German, the penny dropped with me the other day!!! I finally “got it”!!! What all of these things have in common is that they can be suspended: traffic lights are often suspended over the road in this country, plants in hanging baskets are also suspended, and the parasol I got from Aldi the other day is also suspended from a high point!!! But, for years I had been asking myself, “What the heck have traffic lights got to do with parasols and hanging baskets???” And it wasn’t till a couple of days ago that I had that lightbulb moment…
        Learning languages is such fun!!!

      4. The exegesis question came about because she had heard a thing on Radio 4 about the boom in the study of Koranic Arabic, and the way this was affecting the way university departments structure their Standard Modern Arabic degree courses and so on, and someone mentioned the fact that lots of young British-born Muslims want to study tafsir – essentially, commentary on the Holy Koran. She Googled it, and the first thing that came back was exegesis!

        I totally agree that one of the things that happens when learning a foreign language is you start to come to a position of relativity, where you realise how arbitrary the way your language divides the world up actually is – and how there are other ways of doing things elsewhere!

        The tray / sheet examples are spot on. Really good to point out not only the fact that different kinds of sheets / trays exist, but to point out the commonalities they share conceptually, yes – as these will certainly not be divided up in this way, linguistically, in all other languages.

        By the way, and before I forget, I once saw a talk about usage / collocations across languages – actually based on a study of 3000 words in German and English – and one of the conclusions was that not a single worked in EXACTLY the same way on both languages. Of course, some words work in similar ways often, but then differ – as in my example of periksa / check when I was learning Indonesian!

        Obviously, this has real implications for the kid of priming we need to ensuring our students get exposure to!

  5. I was just looking at a lesson I am going to do this afternoon and I found various translation exercises in my old lesson plans!
    Anyway, back to Phil’s anti-translation stance:
    To put it in a nutshell, the problem for our learners ISN’T translating from L1 to L2, it’s learning how to PROPERLY translate from L1 to L2. Apart from true bi or multilinguals, most of us have ONE L1 which is what we will always fall back upon when we can’t find a word in L2. To believe that learners will one day think entirely in L2 is, in my opinion, just wrong.
    However, translation exercises into L1 do need to be handled with care because most students are crap translators – at least, initially. The most common thing that happens in my elementary classroom is that my ladies translate word for word and would be happy to leave it at that! It is necessary to point out to your students that coming up with a good version of the English in L1 involves at least two steps: first, translate word for word, and then, ask yourself, “Do we REALLY say it like that in our language?” If the answer to this question is a resounding “NO!”, then you need to think of a more normal-sounding version which still gets across the same meaning as what is written in English.
    What I have found strange is that some students have so little language awareness, so little “feel” for their OWN language, that they will happily provide a “translation” that is not really kosher at all and don’t seem aware that what they have said sounds utterly horrible. At this point, I intervene and throw the phrase or sentence to the rest of the class and see if someone else can come up with something better. At the end of the process, especially if we have accidentally come across something which is a typical problem, I will note the various translations on the board, or dictate them.
    This kind of exercise is excellent for highlighting major differences between the rendition of everyday phrases, with “Here you are!” being one such example. If you translate this literally, word for word, into L1, then it becomes obvious that this phrase doesn’t mean “Here you are” at all, but is a rote expression used in a particular situation and, in German at least, is expressed entirely differently.
    As Germans would often say “bitte” or “bitte schön” in this context, focussing on the correct translation for this particular situation makes it crystal clear that translating accurately from and to the L1 and L2 involves paying attention to the context of the word and not just blindly believing, for example, that “Bitte” always translates as “please”. (Younger school students, for example, are exceptionally inclined to believe that Word X ALWAYS equals Word Y and such an exercise shows them very well that they need to think a little more flexibly about language.) If time allows, I might also ask my students if they knew of any other situations when “Bitte” is used and what the translation might be then. This usually throws up the fact that “Bitte” is also used when you don’t hear something properly. I can then explain to them that, in this case, “please” would again be an incorrect translation and that in this situation we would use – again depending on context – either “pardon”, “sorry” or “what”.
    I believe that the amount of language awareness that such translation exercises generate is priceless. The process of translation makes learners instantly aware of the danger of believing their often long-held dictum of “one word in L2 equals one word in L1” and can help them to have a more flexible understanding of language, as well as a greater awareness of the foibles and irregularities of their mother tongue. Students all too often believe “their” language is logical and that English is silly and illogical, Once they have engaged in an in-depth translation exercise, it becomes clear that, in reality, both have their plus and minus points, in terms of logic and clarity.

    1. Only just realised I’ve not yet responded to this Amanda. Apologies!

      Again, I couldn’t agree more with much of what you say – the fact that what’s really important is NOT never translating, but rather learning how to PROPERLY translate – and THEN remembering and re-using the wholes learned as a result; the fact that when we can’t find a word in l2, L1 is inevitably our fallback and the myth of ‘thinking of English’!

      The fact that most students are crap translators – and even if they translate sentences / chunks well into l1, they invariably – to begin with, at least – translate back into L2 very literally – is, for me, one of the key reasons why we NEED to look at this. It’s not as if the movement between L1 and L2 is an incidental or peripheral activity. For most students, especially lower level ones, it’s what’s going on pretty much all the time they’re suing English. It’s only once you get relatively fixed repertoires down pat in English that you can escape this.

      I liked the stuff you said you do in class – and do very similar things when in monolingual contexts or, where possible, with mixed groups as well.
      Translating things like HERE YOU ARE, as you said, makes you relaise just how much everyday language is idiomatic / opaque – and not just in the A BIRD IN THE HAND OS WORTH TWO IN THE BUSH type way of thinking about idioms that still seems to prevail in ELT! Even very very basic exchanges in any language are idiomatic. recently I was in Bulgaria for work and often, when I said THANK YOU, people would reply – in English – FOR NOTHING, which was obviously literal word-for-word translation, but which sounded comic and borderline rude to my ears! Literal translation is the natural default setting, and the sooner students grasp the fact it often doesn’t work, the better.

      How that can be done WITHOUT some translation happening – whether explicitly by the teacher, or internally by students – is beyond me!

      1. Just had another thought on using translation in a multi lingual context where students ‘notice’ differences. I think this kind of work can also be great for raising the teacher’s awareness of key grammatical differences such as word order, articles etc, which is helpful for understanding where some problems originate.

  6. Enjoying reading the comments on this one. I don’t think anyone has mentioned Mario Rinvolucri and Shelagh Deller’s book: Using the Mother Tongue, which has some nice activities both for teachers who share a language with the learners and for teachers with multi-lingual classes (sorry, Phil 🙂 )

    1. Good call Rachael. It’s a great book, yes.
      Well worth a read.

      Some others on the same subject that folk may find interesting:

      Butzkamm, W. & Caldwell, J.A.W. The Bilingual Reform: a paradigm shift in foreign language teaching. (Tübingen:Narr Studienbücher 2009)
      Cook, G Translation in Language Teaching (OUP, 2010)
      Duff, A Translation (OUP, 1990)
      Duff, A Bringing translation back into the language class (Practical English Teaching 10/3, 1990)
      Laufer, B. & N. Girsai. Form-focused instruction in second language
      vocabulary learning: a case for contrastive analysis and translation. (Applied Linguistics 29: 694-716, 2008)
      Prodromou, L. The role of the mother tongue in the classroom (IATEFL Issues 166, 2002)
      Widdowson, H. (2003) Defining Issues in English Language Teaching (OUP, 2003)

      Oh, and Philip Kerr has a great blog based on his recent talk on translation:
      http://translationhandout.wordpress.com/

  7. This is an interesting and thought provoking posting along with good responses.

    The reading list is useful. I would also add that Phillipson argues that teaching solely monolingually is one of the fallacies in “Linguistic Imperialism”,

    1. Thanks Patrick.
      I’m no fan of Phillipson for a whole host of reasons, but good to know we concur on this at least!

  8. Woaw, this is great reading. Thanks to all of you for these thoughtful comments and the reading list.
    Hugh – hope you’ll continue your blog in praise of us NNST. 🙂

  9. Once again, I have to thank you, Hugh, for having written this article. I am now halfway through reading the Guy Cook book and am already experimenting a little with using translation in my teaching in new ways. It is proving very interesting for me as a teacher and I hope it will be fruitful for my students. I have put a few other books mentioned here on my amazon wish list and am very grateful for all of the contributors here who have mentioned different titles and posted links. Great stuff for the lone freelancer in a small village near the Black Forest in Germany. Keep on keeping on, Mr Dellar!!! Your writing style is a pleasure to read, so you can keep churning out these blog posts as far as I’m concerned!!!

  10. Hugh,

    A very good text. As a teacher of almost solely monolingual classes, I have found it immensely useful to use Polish on a number of occassions: checking understanding of instructions, checking understanding of or complementing my grammar explanation in English, lesson recap (‘What’s the English for…?’), post-speaking feedback and a few others.

    Admittedly, I have also faced a lot of distrust and incredulity when talking about this to my colleagues. We have all been brainwashed into thinking that exclusive L2 instruction serves our students best.

    There’s been a lot of talk in ELT about modalities, learning styles. I think some students have an analytical approach to learning; therefore, translation and comparing L1 and L2 are their learning style, something that has not been very much catered for.

    I’m very glad we’re talking about it now. Many teachers’ eyes are about to be opened:)

    Take care,
    Piotr

    1. Thanks for the kind words – and the comments, Piotr.
      I’m always really interested to hear the perspectives on this of non-natives working in monolingual contexts, which is, let’s face it, the reality for most English teachers around the world.
      My hunch is that much of the distrust and fear lies in a feeling that this represents the thin of the wedge somehow and that before you know it, we’ll be expecting students to ‘speak English in Polish’!!
      I do think, by the way, that it goes beyond (the fairly dubious, imho, concept of) learning styles and modalities, and that learning by relating L2 to L1 is just the way of the world for all learners everywhere.

  11. […] unusual searches that led here included: Speak English or Die (9), Marge Simpson Mona Lisa (8), You Always Talk Such Rubbish (7), Traditional German Breakfast […]

  12. […] more attention to the language and to notice how things work in English is two-way translation. Now, I’ve written before – and at some length – about translation and its many uses, but I feel it’s still a very under-used and under-appreciated technique / […]

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