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Should Language Students Learn to Translate?

June 16, 2013

As you may be aware, as well as blogging here, I also run (with not inconsiderable help from others) another website – The Echo Chamber – which provides links to other education blogs. Although part of the ethos of the site is to publicise blogs from teachers whose opinions are not widely represented in education debate outside of the blogosphere (i.e. people like me) the criteria for inclusion in the site are fairly broad and I frequently share blogs that I do not necessarily agree with.

One interesting blogpost that I shared yesterday, although I didn’t particularly agree with the conclusion, was about translation in language teaching. It has always surprised me when reading about the school days of people who were educated in the first half of the 20th century that language teaching (both ancient and modern) often seemed to include translation of passages of English into another language. Frequently this was with the intention of preserving the style and genre of the original, so poems were to remain poetic even after translation. This always surprised me because the level of fluency required for such a task is far, far beyond anything I was ever taught at school, despite getting a grade “B” in my particular language qualification.

I should have realised that this is another example of dumbing down and that translation (in either direction), the most obvious test of mastery of the written form of a language is out of educational fashion. The post I shared describes the debate in these terms:

Here are reasons usually mentioned for not using translation:

  • It is radically different from the four skills which define language competence; listening, speaking, reading and writing
  • It takes up valuable time which could be used for the four skills and comprehensible input in the target language
  • It discourages students from thinking in the foreign language
  • It is a bad test of language skills
  • It produces interference from the mother tongue
  • It tends to be text-bound, focusing only on reading and writing
  • It only focuses on form and accuracy
  • It is too hard and boring for many learners
  • It encourages lazy teaching, with teachers being able to practice without fluency
  • It is really only appropriate for training translators

Of these, I would argue that the prime reason for limiting translation is that it takes away valuable time from communication in the target language. In saying this, I am assuming that learning takes place primarily by natural acquisition processes.

On the other hand, some theoreticians argue that translation has a valuable role to play. Some reasons they put forward are as follows:

  • Translation helps expand a learner’s vocabulary
  • It helps students understand how the language works
  • It consolidates structures which can then lead to greater comprehension and fluency
  • It takes advantage of students’ knowledge of their own language; why not profit from this advantage which very young children do not enjoy?
  • It is the most efficient way to improve grammatical accuracy
  • Many students enjoy it
  • It helps students to monitor their accuracy
  • When done orally it provides opportunities for listening and speaking practice

Needless to say, attempts have been made to provide evidence for and against translation. Some of these can be found by doing an online search. There is, for example, evidence that when parallel groups of students are taught with or without translation into the target language, those who practice translation show improved accuracy.

The following is a response to the post which I received from a reader of this blog who works in education, but isn’t a teacher, which I found mirrored a lot of my own thoughts. (Before anyone asks: no, it isn’t from Michael Gove.)

I read French Teacher’s blog with great interest and not a little surprise, as I am not a foreign language teacher and had not realised that translation was in general so frowned upon. However there were two points in his post that particularly scratched at the edges of my brain.

First, one of the reasons he says is often advanced against translation: “It is radically different from the four skills which define language competence; listening, speaking, reading and writing”

And secondly, in his summing up of these reasons: “Of these, I would argue that the prime reason for limiting translation is that it takes away valuable time from communication in the target language. In saying this, I am assuming that learning takes place primarily by natural acquisition processes.”

When I started to think about these in the context of everything I know about language acquisition and learning to read (thank you Diane McGuinness and many others) I became very uncomfortable. First of all, how can rendering a French text into English be seen as something different from listening or reading, or an English text into French as something different from speaking or writing? And try as I may, I cannot understand how learning to translate into a foreign language can be said to take time away from communication in the target language, especially in writing. Is this not where the understanding of differences in idiom and ways of structuring thought should be developed, especially as the child moves from literal beginner renderings to more sophisticated expression?

And then I went further. What if there is a parallel between teaching children to read and write in their own language and teaching them to understand and communicate in foreign languages? Think about it.

For years we trained teachers in the mistaken belief that children could learn to read and ‘make meaning’ without going through the apparently tedious business of learning to decode efficiently. Now we know that fluent readers do decode: they simply do it so efficiently that it has become an automatic process of which they are completely unaware. What many teachers thought was a distraction that got in the way of ‘making meaning’ was in fact the essential pathway to highly skilled reading.

In the same way, are we deluding ourselves in thinking that children can simply be trained to think directly in a foreign language? Perhaps there is a parallel with decoding and encoding in learning to read and spell: perhaps what skilled second language speakers actually do is to translate their thoughts from their first language (ie encode) so rapidly and efficiently that they don’t even know they are doing it. If this is in fact the case, then by attempting to limit or avoid translation we could be doing our utmost to prevent children from developing the automatic processes they most need. Could this be why we find it so hard to turn out truly fluent speakers of other languages?

I would love to hear more on this from those who know more about language teaching than I do.

(And by way of an aside: my 12 year old, whose school French is clearly being taught in the prevailing mode, has just discovered Duolingo and can hardly be dragged away from the structured translation practice it provides – her comments are along the lines of ‘why didn’t anyone tell me this was how it all worked’.)

I would also be interested to hear from any language teachers about this, particularly if you do spend class time on translating and, even more so, if you encourage students to translate from English into another language.

36 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. What’s this about ‘the first half of the 20th century’? I had to translate passages into French and German in my O levels in 1983. It was bloody hard but one of the main reasons why I can still use those languages thirty years later.

    However, I might also add that the early 1980s were, in my experience, the moment when things changed for the worse in language education. We were given a very old-fashioned grammar and vocab-based course in French (largely because the textbooks we used had been written by the father of one of the SMT), but a brand new, utterly cutting edge phrase-book and real-world-related course in German. I’ll leave you to guess which a) which language got the better O level results for our cohort; and b) which language I am far more proficient in today.


  3. I have also thought there is a connection between language learning and what we know about learning to read and that this can help show a better way to learn a foreign language. Our current system of language learning seems to deprive children of the building blocks to understand how the target language works. The assumption that exposure should allow child to learn a language like a young child would, clearly fails. I wish my daughter’s French teacher would just decide what she really wants the class to know that year and then keep practicing it until the class remember it. Instead they spend the year jumping from topic to topic remembering very little of any of it and with no knowledge of how the language was constructed. I did some off the Michel Thomas French course recently and that was a revelation. He focuses on building the language word by word rather than phrase by phrase. In 2 hours of a CD I realised so much about how French works and felt able to use what I learnt in a way I never could from my very trendy French teaching at school.


    • I agree with you Helen; that method of learning languages is a revelation, especially for perennial monoglots like me. For more on the Michel Thomas method, have a look at this blog post: http://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/michel-thomas/


      • It was your blog that directed me to Michel Thomas. I googled something along the lines of French and direct instruction and found your blog!


  4. I found this article on the subject really brilliant when I first read it. It took me a while to find it again but it was well worth the search.
    http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/7308918/textbook-error/


  5. Interested to read this blog and the comments. The argument about translation not being part of the four skills is that it is said to be a secondary activity in language learning. Second language learning theorists generally agree that natural acquisition processes are important, probably the most important, aspect of language learning. To achieve fluency and excellent comprehension there are no short-cuts; you need as much contact with the spoken and written language as possible. Translation does not involve, so the argument goes, speaking, listening, reading and writing in any natural way. All of these skills can be practised more effectively in other fashions.

    If translation lessons reduce the use of the foreign language in communicative ways, then fluency may be delayed, as many who learned with grammar-translation will attest.

    Now, grammar is very important, and I believe explanations are important and that translation can have a place, but there are other ways of mastering grammar which also allow for the use of the foreign language. Non-specialists are probably not so aware of this as teachers and researchers in the field. Skilled use of practice drills, question-answer, matching exercises and cloze exercises are just a few of the ways that language teachers successfully get students to internalise grammar rules.

    The fact is, however, that we do not know for certain what works best, so discussions often revert to anecdote!

    My main concern, as regards the new GCSE document, is that teachers will be encouraged to overuse a technique which is best used “avec modération”..


    • ‘Fluency may be delayed’ – OK, it’s anecdotal, but I see no sign that fluency in French or German has been achieved in any of the pupils I teach English to at a girls’ grammar school. They are taught in exactly the way criticised by the Spectator article linked to, and enabled to pass their GCSE orals by being coached in a number of phrases linked to topics determined in advance: so that the specification isn’t actually disobeyed (‘A student’s response must not be identical to that of another student in the centre or to any published model answer’) the girls write their own sentences, based on a booklet they’re given, which are then corrected by the teacher before being learned by heart.

      I, on the other hand, being now 61, learnt the old-fashioned way, with lots of grammar, practice exercises and so on – dull but effective. Oral practice was almost all confined to half an hour a week with the French assistante; there was no class trip to France, but we were encouraged to have exchange visits as individuals. Et je peux encore parler assez bien le francais. (Sorry – can’t manage the cedilla here.)


  6. I left school 3 years ago and found the method of learning MFLs absolutely terrible and useless. I also studied Latin to A-level (in a comprehensive) which is taught entirely translationally with a strong focus on grammar and style. I left school with a hugely better understanding of Latin than French or Spanish which I knew practically nothing of.


  7. Sorry – I should have said that the ‘practice exercises’ were all translation, and the further one went, the longer the translations.


  8. I recently came across an article by a researcher called Keith Folse, who works in adult second language acquisition. In an article for the journal TESL Reporter called “Myths about Teaching and Learning Second Language Vocabulary: What Recent Research Says” (2004), he talks about how translation can be very beneficial for language students. He doesn’t advocate 100% grammar-translation, but the research he discusses in the article seems to show that students learn vocabulary faster and better when they are allowed translations.

    My own experience as a student of several languages and teacher of French and English have led me to feel that some students do better with lots of target-language-only communicative practice, and others do better with a more “academic” structure (i.e. grammar-translation). Ultimately, anyone who wants to really be fluent in a language will need both; my feeling is that a teacher should find a balance of the two based on his/her own strengths, the strengths and weaknesses of the students, and the goals of the course. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of teachers are taught that one method is “correct” and must be used 100% of the time, which is hard on both students and teachers who don’t respond very well to the method in question.


  9. I taught foreign languages for six years – 2 years in Spain and 4 years in the UK.

    I don’t really agree with the commenters that have lumped together translation and grammar instruction, on the one hand, and target language and whole phrases, on the other. It’s perfectly possible to stick to the target language *and* teach grammar systematically, and in fact that exactly what I did when I was teaching. Moreover, the main objection to using translation is not trivial: first-language interference is a real problem and is aggravated by translation.

    With that said, I did occasionally use translation as a teaching tool and, in hindsight, could probably have used it more. But it requires maturity on the part of the learner and isn’t suitable for young children.


  10. The Folse article is interesting, though it confines itself to vocabulary learning and deserves quoting from:

    “. . . Without a doubt, teachers need to encourage the use of the target language in the classroom for all the obvious reasons. However, when learners first encounter a new word, it is normal for them to translate the word in their head or in their notebook.

    The myth is that students must learn new English words in English, as if establishing a mental link with the Ll translation were somehow harmful.

    Research shows that translation is not only what learners prefer but also more effective than English glosses.

    • Numerous empirical studies have shown the value of Ll translations in vocabulary-learning activities (Hulstijn, 1992; Knight, 1994; Prince, 1995; Chun & Plass, 1996; Laufer & Shmueli, 1997; Grace, 1998; Laufer & Hulstijn, 1998).
    • Vocabulary expert Paul Nation (1982) concludes that learning vocabulary is faster for many learners if the meaning of the word is given through an LI translation first.
    • Hulstijn, Hollander, and Greidanus (1996) found that marginal gloss translations of French vocabulary resulted in better vocabulary learning.
    • In a study of Dutch university students of Italian, Lotto and de Groot (1998) found that word retention scores were significantly higher for the students who worked with translations than for those who had pictures.
    • In a study of English speakers learning French, Grace (1998) found that translation is a viable if not preferable option for many L2 learners at the beginning level. Her results showed that students who had access to a glossary in their LI were more successful at retaining new vocabulary, probably because they had the opportunity to confirm the correct meanings.
    • In an EFL study, Laufer and Shmueli (1997) found that words glossed in the Ll were always retained better than words glossed in English regardless of presentation mode.
    • Finally, Prince (1995) found that less proficient students were able to recall more items when they had learned the words in the translation condition rather than in the context condition. Thus, this research showed that some students perform better when they were given only a list of L2 words and their translations.

    Research is clear: Translations are not bad; translations are in fact a helpful tool in learning new foreign language vocabulary. Our focus now should be on questions such as when (proficiency level) translations are most effective, whether translations work better with certain kinds of vocabulary (e.g., verbs or idioms), and whether translations work better at the initial presentation stage or subsequent review stages.”

    The article is worth reading and tackles this and a number of other myths and can be found free by googling “Myths about Teaching and Learning Second Language Vocabulary: What Recent Research Says”


  11. I was giving this some thought during a rather long invigilation session.
    As the original post said there are many similarities between arguments for ‘mixed methods’ in reading and modern approaches to teaching languages. 1. Focus on comprehension over accuracy. 2. The assumption that the process of learning is ‘natural’ and therefore an emphasis on exposure to aid memory over ‘drill’, leading to… 3. An aversion to explaining the rules of how language/reading works. Given that there is a mountain of research showing that these methods and assumptions don’t help children learn to read it makes me question whether they are right in language learning. I can see that while reading is not a ‘natural’ process language acquision can be. My question is, what is the research base for the assumptions behind modern methods in language learning? I say this because it looks very much as if the assumptions that have been made are really ideologically driven and based on assumptions that can be questioned. For example, it is clear (as the Spectator article says) that while a child moving to France may pick up French through exposure, they won’t in one or two periods a week. It becomes a grossly inefficient method when activities like translation and explain the building blocks of the language may speed up the process. I know that when children are taught to read using an exposure method such as ‘real books’ the failure rate is very high. I also know that language teaching I see gets nowhere near the fluency and confidence the methods claim. I am not a language teacher and ready to be shot down but it looks to me like the modern language teaching method is poor. It ignores the need for repetition (a new topic every week and rarely using the same core vocab)and the way translation can aid memory and also the need to help the child see the way the language is constructed so they are not faced with indigestible phrases. Phonics means the memory load on young children is much reduced when they learn to read and I can’t help suspecting that this gives us an insight into language learning also. Of course I want my child to understand French speech and speak with confidence but ‘a hazy blur’ would be the best description of her French knowledge currenly.
    ps sorry for any typos – I don’t seem able to edit.


  12. Personally, I don’t agree with translation in teaching. I am a teacher and not a translator. Translators are highly skills in the art of translating and I would need to retrain to be able to teach the skills to students. One of the aims of learning languages in school is to equip students with language, build confidence and get them interested in other culture. it is not all about knowing how to translate a sentence word for word. When someone talks about students being able to figure out what words means from previous language, this is, I believe, imported from their knowledge of English or mother tongue and how the english language works. Every year, I have to show students how you can “cut up” words and figure out meanings or make them look like words they have in English. Once students use the language and hear the language, progress happens at different speed for everybody but the main thing is it is happening. We do repeat vocabulary (by using it in different activities) and show how vocabulary transfers from one topic to another. I think it is by hearing it, reading it and most importantly using it that you remember the new material.


  13. Goodness me you like to be controversial oldandrew!

    MFL teaching in this country is characterised by factional ideological dogma based on general assumptions and dare I say it personal anecdote and little evidence. From grammar-translation to audio-visual to communicative and now the ‘eclectic solution’ – the latter which is the one I have to say I favour as a teacher. I need to be able to teach the group in front of me in the way they best learn and it can be quite different from pupil to pupil and often group to group.

    Foreign language learning also brings to a head the question ‘What is education for?’ Getting a job, broadening horizons, cultural improvement, improving English literacy, asking for a beer on holiday or brain exercise. Mostly it is led by ‘holiday language’ requirements and therefore speaking becomes the most important skill – even though it is the most difficult.

    Translation from English to the target language is very useful. It allows you to build up grammar practice and to review vocabulary. Translation the other way around both improves English literacy and the understanding of how languages work – just how all those little words fit together. It ensures pupils focus on meaning including how we convey meaning in English.

    Dictation is also very useful. I use that too. It really makes children focus on words how they sound, what they mean and how they are written. It is a very intense exercise which really helps improve concentration.

    One thing annoys me more than anything. When people learning foreign languages as an adult then say how wonderful the Michel Thomas method is. You are an adult learning a foreign language – quite, quite different from a teenager in secondary school whose grasp of English is often poor. Indeed even the blurb on the MT method packet says to be used to supplement language learning at school and not as a GCSE course. Unless you are a teacher using Michel Thomas in your lessons, personally I think the contribution to this debate is virtually worthless.


  14. It is clear Michel Thomas can only be used by adults and that he absolutely relies on the sort of understanding that requires maturity and probably a relatively well educated student. However, the reason I think his methods are still relevant to the debate is that he makes students work at a word level which doesn’t overload the memory, ‘jigsawing’ phrases from what they already know. He also prioritises repetition which ensures memory, as does the way the jigsawing makes you think hard. These are transferable principles , even for teenagers with poor English. I think language teaching would benefit from applying the principles of direct instruction. A systematic approach, aiming for automaticity at each stage.


  15. Any MFL teacher I know works at word level at first. In fact every MFL teacher I know does that. Every MFL teacher I know incorporates a lot of repetition. I am not sure what you mean by jigsawing. that sounds to me like communicative practice – putting phrases together without understanding how it all fits together to make sense but maybe I have misunderstood that.

    Every MFL teacher I know teaches grammar and gives time for practice. Every MFL teacher I know reviews grammar and vocabulary at various times during the term and year. Every MFL teacher I know uses cognates and/or makes reference to the links between the target language and English. Every MFL teacher I know works hard to produce a variety of ways of encouraging repetition in all four skills, so that children have ample time to practise.

    I honestly don’t think you realise just how ignorant many children are about English grammar. Every MFL teacher I know bemoans how little children know about verbs in particular and worse still how little many English teachers know about how English verbs work.

    How do you say ‘am’ they ask. Any MFL teacher knows we have to say – give me the context / give me the sentence. ‘Why can’t you just tell me the word’ they say. What do they want to say ? ‘ I am going.’ They don’t understand the present tense in English and they don’t understand you cannot translate word for word. The argument about translation revolves around this problem. Some say that translation encourages children to think you can translate word for word but I think as do some others that it is a good way of making sure children realise they are expressing meaning and that you cannot translate word for word.

    Personally I think MFL teaching is usually characterised by intense direct instruction and constant teacher intervention – modelling, repetition, working through examples, scaffolding, elliciting responses, and correcting.


  16. Hi Chestnut, as I said previously I appreciate that as I am not an MFL teacher my ground is shaky but although you describe a method that sounds fine what that actually means on practice does not look so good to me. I can only talk about what I have observed (which to me seems representative of common practice.) When I have looked at modern textbooks for a child beginning the language they begin with phrases not words. More and more phrases are introduced in each new section. Yes, there are word lists but they largely expand on topic related vocab. Although my impression is there is much within lesson repetition I never see books that aim to ensure the child does not forget the phrases they have learnt under previous topics and there is not even much repetition of root phrases that could used with different topic material. Combine this with the fact that children are spoken to in the target language and have to infer meaning which leads to an ambiguity which is anathema to direct instruction methods. A direct instruction approach would have systematic repetition of what has been learnt previously this would mean that each new chaper in Tricolore have a section working through previous learning. My daughter is using Tricolore, she is bright enough, learns well, but if I were to ask her what she remembers of what she has covered this year, using her textbook (which has structured her lessons) she will only have vague and very patchy recall of some words and the odd phrase.. Her teacher is very happy with her progress because this is the norm. By no means is this the systematic cumulative approach of a direct instruction method.


  17. I also wonder why word for word translation for those starting the language is dismissed. This sounds very similar to the argument against using phonics, so many words can’t be decoded by beginning readers. Actually what happens in the case of reading instruction is that they start with decoding simple words which means they understand that sounds are made into words and there is no memory overload. They are then well able to cope with increasingly complex words that don’t relate to the original rules. My daughter can cope with the fact that some things are not direct word for word translations. Presenting phrases ‘so the child doesn’t make the mistake of thinking translation is always word for word’ actually seems to lead to the child actually gaining no understanding that the words that are within the phrase, could be used individually and are far more easily learnt as discrete units where possible, before being put into phrases.
    I think the biggest argument against the standard method is that it clearly fails. I teach in a public school (sorry) and the language teachers receive children at 13 from different feeder schools who have done at least 6 years of French and who are largely in the top half of the ability range. Despite this it would be rare to find children that can use French with any confidence at all. These children go on to sit French GCSE, getting grades no better than in other subjects and often worse. The same would be true at other schools I have taught. A cumulative approach to language learning would at least mean that what they know they really know, rather than some vague mumbled half learned phrases and some bits of vocab that they can’t really use because they are not confident about how they can use it in sentences, except perhaps the one sentence used when learning that piece of vocab.
    BTW I have taught in a very difficult school and do understand what you say about grammar. Are you saying that it therefore better to teach in a way that avoids the need for much explanation of grammar?


  18. Heatherf,
    I take your point about text books. In my sphere of MFL teachers, text books are used rarely. Your point about being able to use a foreign language is an interesting one. Problem is there are enough people who were taught the grammar-translation method who were unable to understand and speak the target language after their O level – yours truly included. Personally I don’t have too much of a problem with that for either O level students or modern day GCSE ones. The only real way to become proficient in a language, after the foundations have been built, is to spend some time in an environment where (to paraphrase a support member of staff at my school) you speak French or you don’t eat!

    Please forgive me if you ever thought that I suggested not teaching grammar. No the exact opposite is true. Language teachers often spend a lot of time teaching English grammar before getting onto target language grammar but we are asking a lot of students and then expecting them to be proficient and spontaneous after two or three years – it simply isn’t going to happen.

    It is true to say that children nationally score half a grade lower than in other subjects. But ask children how strict our controlled assessment rules are for example and you will soon see why. Furthermore there is always the question of time. When I was in secondary school in the 70’s we had at least three lessons per language and in year 8 that was French, German and Latin. It rose to four lessons in years 10 & 11. In many schools now that is down to 2 hours or 1 and a half hours and in years 10 and 11 for example I teach 5 hours per fortnight – whilst English and Maths get 4/5 hours each, every week with the same bright children.

    The final problem facing language teachers is that learning a language is hard work. Teenagers are simply reluctant to put in the hours of hard work that is required.


  19. That all makes sense chestnut. My school has oodles of time for language so it isn’t the issue for us but I can imagine it often is and I also take your point about CA, and the requirement for hard work! I also agree that to a large extent there wasn’t a good old days although I do think that people I know educated to the same standard as myself and over 50 do seem to still remember much more than my generation although the lack of emphasis on spoken French can’t have been good. I am also struck by the fact that our au pair is not academically successful in Germany and had never been to the UK and thought her English was bad compared with her peers, but she had no problems communicating and seemed to have a very firm foundation of knowledge and I can’t believe it isn’t possible to do better than currently. My daughter is only 10 and in year 5 but she has just completed her third year of French, taught by a specialist, in two 40 min lessons p/w. She has built some awareness pf the French language but now at the end of her third year she cannot reliably say a single French phrase (e.g. my name is, I would like etc) let alone construct her own phrases despite having covered reams of material over this last year. She is in a selective school, her French reports are fabulous and this school prepares students for selective secondary schools that have French as one of the entry exams. I have every reason to believe this lack of progress is entirely normal but it does not say much for the methods. I know that it is possible to ensure the children really remember things through a cumulative systematic approach. For goodness sake, my 5 year old has learnt to read with all the memory necessary to make that happen. That my daughter should retain something meaningful from 3 years of study is a reasonable expectation. That isn’t quite the same as saying let’s do languages like in the olden days but it does seem some effective strategies have been ditched and standard methods care far more about securing the sort of vague understanding that means you can guess stuff rather than havinga foal of building secure knowledge.


  20. Seems to me (not being steeped in educational theory) that the question being wrestled with here is how to use the “triangulation” between mind/native language/foreign language.
    How can it not be that the path above (mind to native to foreign) is not used, or at least best utilised, when first gaining an understanding of how to express one’s thoughts in an unfamiliar tongue, in order ultimately to progress to the more direct (mind to foreign) route that must be the aim?


  21. Peter Jones takes up the theme in this week’s Spectator

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8940351/its-vital-that-children-translate-english-to-latin-at-gcse/


  22. HeatherF
    In the old grammar-translation method it would be years and years before you are able to say ‘I would like’. But today I would teach that to bright children in year 7 and definitely in year 8.

    Primary French is different and if you had spoken to your au-pair when she was learning English in her German Primary it wouldn’t have been that good either. They just don’t rush it on the continent, and their knowledge of their own grammar is very impressive. They start learning a foreign language early and they carry on until they are 18. By comparison we do very well in a short space of time.

    I don’t think one can compare phonics and decoding words in English to translation. Decoding does not imply reading for meaning. Translation is all about understanding. Decoding a foreign language as in knowing which letters make up which sounds is phonics, and helps with spelling and often listening. Translation is important from target language to English as it makes children understand how a language works at a very detailed level.

    It would not be good if translation were part of the testing regime as it was in the past. Why? Because in my opinion, teachers would be obliged to spend an inordinate amount of time practising translation for exams as opposed to using it as a way to improve language learning.


  23. I was taught using Tricolore (when it was first published) and endless flashcards for vocab. It is interesting to hear that previous methods took so long to reach the stage when phrases could be constructed and there are clearly good arguments in favour of getting the children communicating but I think this has been over emphasised and to some extent has the opposite effect to that intended, leaving adults tongue tied on the continent because they mainly remember set phrases when what they have in their mind are a multitude of other English phrases that they don’t feel able to translate to French.
    I think in your situation it is understandable that you blame the genuine constraints upon you rather than the method. However, I teach in a sector where none of your constraints could be used as excuses. The methods are very similar though and the results are poor.
    Amusingly the majority of those that teach reading would argue as you do over translation that it is not about decoding, but making meaning, i.e. ‘all about understanding’. Phonics advocates argue that you can’t make meaning unless you can decode and I would similarly argue that you can’t effectively understand (or speak) in a foreign language unless you know how it is constructed.
    I also agree with Stephen Bailey’s comment (if I have it right) that until you are more fluent you are translating mentally. To me, English to French translation seems a good way to practise the very skill needed when communicating in another language.


  24. This seems to be turning to a conversation between you and me Heatherf! I guess I am really surprised that in your public school they seem to be wedded (according to you) to what I would call the communicative method. I really would not have expected that and I am not convinced it is widespread now. I do understand that it may have been widespread for your generation. You don’t have to convince me of the importance of translation – I practise it. When I was at school translation would have taken one lesson a week – all lesson. I would not return to that as there are other skills such as speaking skills to practise.


  25. I enjoyed your post and wanted to add my own thoughts, as someone who works for a translation agency. Training to be a professional translator can be a good way to make a living and leverage your language education into a viable income.
    Having said that, not every language student, even a brilliant one, will make a good translator. A good translator will have good writing skills and be able to think outside of the box, not just exchange one word for another.


  26. Chestnut. It may well be because I am not a language teacher and so don’t notice some distinctions between methods but I can’t see much difference between the the teaching you describe and what I see, not just in my own school but also more generally. I understand that you don’t use the textbooks I have mentioned but they reflect the prevailing methods and are used in schools.


  27. I have looked at some information on different MFL teaching methods and the parallels with the teaching of reading are becoming uncanny. Your ‘eclectic method’ has the same rationale as ‘mixed methods’ in the teaching of reading. The problem with the mixed methods approach with beginning reading is that the different methods are not compatible. Similarly (it seems to me) in language learning you can’t just use the traditional translation/grammar approach for certain activities and claim to be gaining the best from the method as you can’t possibly gain the proficiency necessary to make the method work. My hunch is that the reason I can’t see the difference between more modern methods is that I would largely level the same criticisms at all of them.


  28. […] Should Language Students Learn to Translate? (teachingbattleground.wordpress.com) […]


  29. I honestly do not see the that the parallels between learning to read and learning a foreign language are uncanny. You seem to think that if its a traditional method it must work the best. It didn’t before and doesn’t now – there are down sides to every method. Learning a language is not just about learning to read and write but listening and speaking as well. I teach very much in a building block way, this suits some children really well but some children find it too pedestrian.

    The biggest problem I find teaching a language is the inability and lack of motivation of the children to learning words off by heart. It is the content side of learning a language which really takes a hit in todays schools. ‘Back in the day’ we learnt vocabulary over and over again and that is why it seems that older people seem to remember more of their foreign language learning. This is what we have in common as subjects. They don’t want to/ are not practised in learning historical facts and detail and they don’t want to learn their vocabulary or grammar rules either.


  30. Just want to say thank you very much for introducing me to Duolingo. My 11 and 9 year old daughters have become addicted to it. I’m sure it is not enough on its own, but getting your kids to choose to practice languages in any way without prompting/bullying/nagging has to be a good thing!


  31. […] reader who wrote the second half of the “Should Language Students Learn to Translate?” blogpost in June , who isn’t a teacher but does work in education, has sent me some more […]


  32. Hi, Great post about language translation. Translation is always enjoyed a good press. Indeed, at the height of what we can call the “communicative” period, it was actively encouraged by many practitioners and regarded as a hindrance to second language fluency rather than an aid to language learning. So learners really need translation.
    Thanks for this informative post.


  33. Hi, I am quite an enthusiastic language learner, and these are my thoughts on the matter:

    You’re both wrong. Or, to put it a different way, you’re both right!

    Translation is an important part of language acquisition, especially as regards sentence construction. It needs to be taught in terms of functionality. What does the learner want to be able to say? If he wants to say “I would like a doughnut”, the most annoying thing you could tell him is “wait until next term”. The reason people learn languages is to be able to to express what they want to say – in a different language. That’s why google translate is so good, because it lets you say whatever you want to be able to say, when you want to say it.

    However, I digress. Translation is a very important tool, which we can use to get students to the point where they can engage with the language and start to understand what’s going on. When they have enough vocabulary, they should start using synonyms IN the second language as definitions, and slowly work their way into the language, depending less and less on L1.

    Flashcards are highly recommended – I recommend the app anki flashcards, and students should make basic sentences in the L2, with the word in context so they can start to embark on the process of understanding from context, which is a crucial skill in language development.

    I would therefore say that translation is a vital part of early language acquisition, which should act as a precursor for understanding from context once the learner understands the basic grammar of L2 and has enough vocab to go at it. Then consolidate and refresh. Flashcards are key. Good luck :)



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