A Further Thought on Language Teaching

August 5, 2013

The 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 comments on what might be important in the learning of languages.

I reread the June blog post on languages this morning, and found myself thinking heretical thoughts again.

The blogger you quoted said “I would argue that the prime reason for limiting translation is that it takes away valuable time from communication in the target language”. This made me think about what are the most important outcomes today from language learning by English speakers.

First of all, we know that good English is career-enhancing for non-English speakers. I recall reading research to the effect that whereas in English-speaking countries, only mathematics achievement has a clear correlation with adult earnings, after controlling for overall level of achievement, in non-English speaking countries the correlation exists with both mathematics and English. It is very clear to most young people in non-English speaking countries that learning English improves their prospects. As a result, the standard of spoken English among people in quite ordinary jobs – shop assistants, waiters etc – is typically well above the GCSE level that is the highest that all but a tiny proportion of the UK population aspires to.

As a result, spoken communication between people living in different European countries, and other countries, is often in English. (This sometimes also solves unpleasantnesses about which country has the higher status and can impose its language). Only when people live in a country (or do a lot of bilateral work with people in another country) does oral fluency in the language become really important. (I don’t count being able to order a meal, buy a ticket or ask for simple directions as ‘fluency’).

But the conversations that happen when one or both parties are using their second language have their limitations. They will typically use a more restricted and less idiomatic vocabulary, and thus will convey less about deep cultural differences. An English person wanting to get a real insight into German culture is more likely to get it from watching/listening to German TV/radio, or from reading German newspapers and blogs, than from superficial conversations with a German who is likely to insist on talking English to them. In the modern world, good reading/listening in other languages may actually be more valuable to the English speaker than good speaking/writing.

So perhaps it would make more sense to emphasise reading and listening to an intermediate level in language instruction for English-speaking children, with less emphasis on (especially) speaking and perhaps also writing. (According to one study, this intermediate level of achievement corresponds to a vocabulary of around 2000 words in the language – about twice as big a vocabulary as is needed for GCSE – see https://www.llas.ac.uk//resources/paper/2715 .) This would be a level from which they could develop their understanding from further reading and listening with dictionary support, and from which they could develop higher level oral fluency if and when the occasion arises.

What would be really interesting now would be research comparing the relative difficulty of extending different language skills in adult life, to see what would provide the strongest base for extending across into other skills when required.



  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. I have already responded to this post but for whatever reason it seemed to disappear into the ether and when I reposted it said I had already responded!
    Since then I have been reading more research as it’s the summer and I am avoiding ‘spring cleaning’. As a language teacher all I can say is that such questions as – should we use translation, or which skill should we focus on the most – are red herrings and not really on my personal radar. I am thinking much more about how the findings of research on working memory will affect the way I teach. I am reflecting on how much I already do to ensure knowledge of words and procedure (grammar) is placed in long term memory and how to improve that. I am also considering more practical issues as how I can increase the frequency of my marking without becoming overwhelmed. I am also reflecting on the way I was taught and how much I now understand the term ‘what goes around comes around’.

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