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.