Sunday, July 22, 2012

Translate or not Translate?

There have been a lot of debates around using L1 in the classroom. Some teachers think that translation helps our learners to understand texts better, and also that they become better at translation skills. In addition, they say that if grammar rules are explained in L1, students don't have problems understanding them. I have been in these discussions so often that I thought it is the very time to blog about it. 

When talking about translating texts, I do not necessarily agree that these texts need to be translated. Not all our learners are planning to become translators so this is not a skill they have to have. I understand that many teachers would like to teach an additional skill to their learners, but what if the teacher doesn't speak the native language of the students s/he is teaching? What does that mean? Does that mean that the teacher should be replaced? I don't think so. 

There is also another point that I would like to make. A lot of English Language learners nowadays are learning English in order to study in an English-speaking country. If these students become dependent on translation, they are likely to have serious problems with their entry exams (as there isn't enough time for translation in an exam situation). Moreover, they are going to have difficulties studying abroad, because they may have to read a lot of books within a short period of time but a translation-dependent student is hardly going to be able to cope with it.

I have prepared a Prezi which I presented at a conference in Vanadzor in July to illustrate my point that we don't have to translate reading tasks for our learners, we can only prepare some images or videos or definitions for them to understand what certain words mean (this would require an individual approach because it is only the teacher of the class who knows which words their students know, which they don't). The sample text I used is again from The Kite Runner as the book is quite easy for Intermediate level students to understand.

With regard to grammar, I would agree that students at low levels may have problems understanding grammar in English. However, at higher levels they should not have problems with it. So if at Elementary level students hear grammar explanation in English parts of which are translated into L1 because they are difficult for students to understand, these students should not have any real problems understanding grammar rules in English at higher levels, because they have the necessary vocabulary to understand it (words such as noun, verb, adverb, etc.)

I would be happy to hear your opinion about this.


  1. Dear Anna,

    I agree with you about translation.
    Unless students are in a translation course, it shouldn't be used as a technique in class.
    Sometimes, when I have new adult students with an intermediate level they tell me that when they're listening to me, they're at the same time translating into Spanish, and when talking, they don't think in English, they translate everything in their minds (very hard).
    We should give students texts according to their level of English (neither too hard nor too easy) and they should get the meaning from context.
    After reading some texts that I know have new useful new vocabulary, I always tell them to ask for meaning and we do this as a group activity, guessing meaning.
    When explaining grammar to students with a low level of English I use our mother tongue if I know that otherwise they won't understand, but I never do that with higher levels.
    A problem that I find with readings is that nowadays students start studying English when they're 3 or 4, so when they're 16-18 they're preparing for Advanced international exams (C2 and C1) and they find the topics of the texts difficult to understand because of their youth. Many times readings are meant for adults and don't grab students' attention.
    Another issue I have in my lessons (especially with lower level students is to make them speak in English as much as they can.

  2. Hi Anna! I've often thought about this issue. I tend to speak English all the time and ask them to do it but I make a point that Spanish is not forbidden. Sometimes, it's just easier to translate a term and more efficient as well! Hugs!

  3. Thank you girls for your comments. What Claudia is saying about her students thinking in Spanish and then translating is exactly what slows students down when they have to take an exam. There is surely the problem of the text being above their understanding, not in terms of the vocabulary but in terms of the concept discussed, but the reading section n an exam is about skills more than about understanding the whole text. This is when it becomes a problem: students want to translate, they fail in doing so and then they cannot finish the task on time. This is the biggest challenge for me when teaching exam classes and my students are not always teens, they are mostly young adults.
    @Barbara I also do not ban using Armenian in class, but I still remind them every so often to speak English as that's the language they are learning. After a couple of classes, I notice that they actually speak a lot more English (90% of the time). But then if our learners get a native-speaking teacher or find themselves in a native-speaking environment, what are they going to do, if they have to translate everything they hear or want to say?