translation in the foreign language class – a valid teaching tool?

This post is my answer to an agony letter I received a while ago. The question was “Is teaching through translation a good idea?”

Screenshot from “Lost in Translation”


Dear Luiz,

Whenever I use translation in class, I feel a little guilty, but I still think it’s a good way to explain things. Are you in favor of the use of L1 in an English class? Is teaching through translation a good idea?

Yours desperately,

Solange, São Paulo.

This is my reply:

Dear Solange,
If you’ve felt the need to be reassured about the use of the mother tongue in your English class, it’s probably because, in the past, you’ve been advised – or perhaps instructed – to steer clear of translation in your lessons. Am I right in assuming this much? If so, then the first logical question is: 

Why is the use of L1 (=mother tongue) in class generally frowned upon? Why is translation still a no no?

Students need lots and lots of exposure to L2.

Students need lots and lots of exposure to L2.

Let me begin by stating the obvious: students need to hear as much English in class as they possibly can. The teacher’s English is still an important source of comprehensible input – along with YouTube, cable and ipods. Students of all levels and ages need a substantial amount of exposure to English in class and that can’t be disputed. If using L1 class means depriving students of precious exposure to comprehensible input (=raw material for acquisition), then there are convincing grounds for restricting the use of translation and L1 in class. Going back to the grammar translation era is definitely not the way to go.

However, conducting part of the lesson in the students’ mother tongue is one thing, using translation to convey/clarify meaning (e.g.: “Budget means orçamento”) and contrasting the two languages (e.g.: “I have been there” does not mean “Eu tenho estado lá”), quite another – at least as far as the exposure trade-off is concerned. In other words, a teacher who conducts her lessons in L2, but uses translation for clarification / contrast purposes (5%, 10% of the lesson?) probably won’t deprive students of any significant amount of exposure to English.

And yet, it’s precisely this “pedagogical” use of the mother tongue in class that mainstream ELT still seems to have mixed feelings about. True, over the past two decades, few teachers, teacher educators and policy makers would go so far as to dismiss the use of L1 / translation out of hand. Instead, the current orthodoxy seems to advocate the “judicious” use of the mother tongue when strictly necessary, on a last resort basis. In other words, if you really need to use L1, fine. If you don’t, so much the better.

So, Solange, I could try to answer your question without ruffling too many feathers out there by simply saying that “There are moments when using L1 / translation can save you a lot of time in class” or something to that effect. If I wanted to be a little bolder, I could even argue that lexical chunks, as has been suggested by Michael Lewis, arguably lend themselves well to translation.

But that’s the easy way out.

The question that we really need to examine, I believe, is why the use of translation for clarification and contrast is something to be done with caution rather than wholehearted belief.

Let me tell you upfront that I don’t have the answer to this question, perhaps because relatively few people have sought to shed new, unbiased light on the relative merits of using translation in the EFL class (in multilingual ESL contexts this is, for obvious reasons, less of an issue). What I have heard, over and over, is that using L1 for clarification and contrast might encourage students to “think in their mother tongue” and this, in turn, might get in the way of interlanguage development and delay proceduralization. Honestly, I have never really bought the “think in L1″ argument for two reasons.

What if we don't think IN a language?

What if we don’t think IN a language?

One, “think about a language” is not synonymous with “think in a language.” Two, even if it was, how do we know that people do actually think in English, Portuguese, Russian or whatever? What if we think in some sort of abstract “language of thought“, which some people refer to as “mentalese“?

Again, I don’t know the answers to these questions. Perhaps in common with you, Solange, whenever I make deliberate (rather than last-resort) use of translation to convey meaning or contrast languages, I still hear a little voice inside my head telling me that maybe I shouldn’t. 

But this voice had better come up with a plausible set of reasons why I shouldn’t use translation in class or else I will continue trying to ignore it.

Thanks for writing.
Um grande abraço (translation = hugs)
Luiz

E-mail me at luizotaviobarros@gmail.com if there’s something you’d like to ask, share or simply get off your chest.

 

Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Teacher Luiz Otávio.
    Very well put. Nothing compares to your rich comments.
    I quite agree with you.
    I would also like to take this moment to wish you and yours the very best during this holiday and a very very Happy Nes Year!
    See you around.
    Gilberto.

  2. Luiz Otávio says:

    Gilberto,
    Thank you for your kind words. I’m sure I don’t deserve them.
    Happy New Year!

  3. Dear Luiz Otávio,
    estava lendo seu blog e pensando…
    sempre gostei mto dessa questão da metalinguagem… é muito mais legal olhar as coisas de cima e analisá-las do que estar dentro delas, não é verdade? o que não consegui deixar de pensar é o seguinte, quanto de tudo q se fala sobre second lgg teaching dá de fato (de fato!) para ser aplicado numa aula? pergunto isso por mil motivos, um deles é que eu estava lendo um livro (pra celta preparation) e vi como hoje todos gostam de se colocar de fora, de olhar as coisas de cima, de nomear, de objetivar, de generalizar, e etc… e eu fico pensando, são tantos fatores que vc tem q levar em conta numa sala de aula… será que é tão simples tudo que falam? ninguém considera que second lgg teaching é aplicado em pessoas, que são subjetivas e complexas?
    não sei, só estou perguntando mesmo (longe de ser uma crítica), são só pensamentos que ficaram depois de ler bastante coisa nessa área…
    abraços

    • Luiz Otávio says:

      Oi Luciana,
      Olha, por conta dos nossos últimos 8 anos de Brasil, o uso de metáforas me dá um certo arrepio, confesso. Mas, às vezes, elas são bastante úteis. Teaching, por exemplo. Acho que, generalizando bastante, dá para dizer que podemos enxergar teaching como “science” e teaching como “art.” Os pontos que você levantou me levam para o lado “art” do continuum: subjetivo, complexo, orgânico, imprevisível, foco no sujeito não no objeto, mutável, processo e não produto etc etc… Ou seja, looking at each lesson and each group in its own right / in its own terms. Do lado “science” temos objetividade, produto, princípio, regra, parâmetro, causa e efeito e tal.
      No final das contas, Luciana, quem já deu aula sabe que “art” ganha. Sempre.
      Entretanto…Entretanto… acredito que precisamos de parâmetros – SLA research, Applied Linguistics, Education in general, Psychology, neuroscience… Acho que insights dessas áreas nos ajudam a construir, Luciana, a sense of plausibility, de tal forma que possamos ser ecléticos com princípios. Se não, a nossa profissão vira um grande free for all, entende? Em uma sala de aula, fazemos escolhas sem parar, segundo após segundo. Acho que essas escolhas são influenciadas, SIM, pela subjetividade dos alunos e do professor, mas precisamos ter um arcabouço teórico para fazer escolhas com princípios.
      Acho que nossa profissão sofre muito com a falta de sustentação teórica. SLA research, que seria o campo mais próximo, ainda tem uma influência muito, muito pequena no que acontece em salas de aula ao redor do mundo, eu acho. Talvez, por culpa do campo em si (SLA studies), que, muitas vezes, é encabeçado por gente que não entre em uma sala de aula há décadas e, se o fez, foi em um contexto ESL e não EFL. Enfim, mas é, em parte, por conta disso que estamos tão sujeitos a modismos que oscilam de década em década, entende? Se não temos nada para orientar o nosso SENSE OF PLAUSIBILITY, entra drilling, sai drilling, entra mother tongue, sai mother tongue, entra task based learning, sai task based learning e a gente nunca entende exatamente o por quê e acaba abandonando certas práticas e abraçando outras de forma automática.
      Esse blog, na verdade, é uma tentativa de questionar isso…
      Olha, não sei se a minha resposta tem algo a ver com o que você comentou, mas é isso que me ocorre agora.
      Thanks for stopping by.

      • Olá, thanks for your answer!
        Na verdade, dei aula por uns 7, 8 anos e depois parei um pouco, agora faz uns 3 que estou novamente na área.
        É, o que vc gentilmente comentou responde em parte aos meus questionamentos atuais…
        Minha área é, na realidade, francês, mas é a mesma coisa na questão ensino de língua, correto?
        Mas, por exemplo: já fui “criticada” por usar português em sala, por não usar, por checar lição de casa, por não checar, por corrigir demais, por não corrigir tanto, por dar pouco exercício escrito, por dar muito exercício oral/escrito, etc, etc etc… (em diferentes grupos, de diferentes idades, etc)
        Fico me perguntando, dessa maneira, sobre a questão “subjetividade do aluno” ou “percepção do aluno” frente à aula de língua (obviamente, que para casos de alunos maiores, como adolescentes, adultos). Pelo que estou vendo, isso é uma coisa que interfere MUITO no contexto sala de aula, que é o que vc disse, “art” pesa mais do que “science” (mesmo porque, de outro maneira, seria um estudo da língua, não ensino da língua)…
        Enfim… obrigada pela resposta, vou continuar antenada aqui! Li bastante coisa interessante, gostei bastante dos artigos!
        abraço

  4. sharon Noseley says:

    I feel it’s a delicate issue because, as you pointed out we are told going back to gram-trans is ‘old hat’ but using some translation can be beneficial as it saves time when clarifying…so leaving time for communicative activities in L2 when you are limited to time and have to follow the CB religiously….I have found myself translating for this reason………it is a quicker route if the ss are not ‘noticing’ the L2 input and then translation means a quick way to clarifying the form and gives me time to encourage more ‘freer ‘ and productive activities..

    • Luiz Otávio says:

      Hi, Sharon
      Thank you for stopping by!
      What you’re saying makes an awful lot of sense to me: get meaning out of the way quickly and then focus on practice and communication.
      I wonder, though, whether the issue of translation is inherently delicate (to use your word) or whether ELT has made it that way.
      Anyway, thanks again.

  5. Another great text.

    • Luiz Otávio says:

      Thank you, Bruno. There seems to be some sort of inter galactic conspiracy against this article, though – it keeps ranking really low in google searches. :-(

  6. Luis, I never think that I will say that the Grammar Translation method works for me as I get demotivated technical school students to interact with me to say and learn some English lexis. I have started my course speaking L2 and many students tune out as they are also illiterate. As my primary objective is to get the pupils to recognize technical words in English and perhaps have these words in their vocabulary, I believe this is the way for this particular group of students. (My L1 is less than 3/4 fluent, but allowing my students to laugh at my L1 mispronunciations and sentence structure is worth my discomfort if they at least learn the English words).

    • Luiz Otávio says:

      Ken,
      The whole issue’s pretty context-sensitive, of course, so translation may or may not work depending on your teaching context. At any rate, we’re not talking about a comeback to grammar translation, of course, but the selective and principled use of translation within a communicative methodology.

  7. Maurício says:

    I found your words so well put and wisely chosen that I decided to share them with my coworkers at school if it’s okay with you.

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