Number one for English language teachers

Teaching approaches: translation as a language learning tool

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article discussing the benefits of translation as a language learning tool.


Translation has not always enjoyed a good press. Indeed, at the height of what we can call the "communicative" period, it was actively discouraged by many practitioners and regarded as a hindrance to second language fluency rather than an aid to language learning. In the brave new world of the Communicative Approach, translation (and the use of the mother tongue in general) came to be regarded as a relic of the past, a symbol of the bad old days of Grammar Translation, an echo of those long forgotten secondary school lessons when paragraphs of English prose were translated into Latin for no apparent purpose other than as an intellectual exercise.

Such a view, however, takes no account of individual learning styles. Some learners appear to need to be able to relate lexis and structures in the target language to equivalents in their mother tongue. This also gives them the opportunity to compare similarities and contrast differences. Put simply, they need the reassurance of their mother tongue in order to make sense of the way the target language operates. In the case of teachers, an ability to translate into the mother tongue of the learners can offer a convenient and efficient way out of a tricky situation – why bother to spend ten minutes trying to explain the concept behind a particular utterance when a simple translation can achieve the same goal in seconds? For example, it is quite difficult to get across the meaning of useful, everyday expressions such as "As far as …. is concerned, …" or "On the other hand …. ". Learning target language equivalents to key phrases like these in the mother tongue can be an extremely effective way to build up a good working vocabulary. Translation can also be extremely creative. It is not only the translation of words from one language to another but the translation of ideas, concepts and images.

Some of the resistance to translation amongst certain teachers might stem from the kind of exercise they were required to do when language learners themselves. Dull, overlong, uncommunicative texts that were difficult to translate into the target language did little for motivation. But why should translation involve whole texts? Surely it is more relevant (and practical) to start with short, communicative pieces of language. When teaching grammatical structures, it can be very useful to check with your learners that they have fully grasped the concept of the language taught by asking them to translate into their mother tongue. As a checking stage, this could usefully come at the end of the lesson. The structure used in "If I had worked harder, I would have passed the exam", for example, is relatively complex and a quick translation check can avoid misunderstandings.

An illuminating exercise is to divide your class into two groups, give each group a short text (3-4 sentences) to translate into the target language. Then get the groups to exchange papers and ask them to translate the other group’s translation back into the mother tongue. The results, when compared, can be extremely interesting and often amusing!

Finally, in case any language teachers are worried that they might be replaced by computers, here is a translation of a well-known English proverb, translated into German and then back into English by a computer programme: "If the away cat, the mice plays".

* When the cat’s away the mice will play 

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