The role of translation in english language teaching
THE ROLE OF TRANSLATION IN ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING (An Analysis)Magdalena BobekIntroductionScott Thornbury, well-known teacher educator and materials writer (Ferrer date not given:3),has argued that ‘[t]ranslation offers the psychological support that eases the first dauntingexperiences with an unfamiliar language, and maintains that by recognizing the validity andthe relevance of the learners’ mother tongue in learning a second language, a GT approachdoes not devalue the learners’ culture, background and experience to the extent that an‘English only’ approach might seem to’(Gray 2009:2). In the light of the module readingmaterial and my experience in English Language Teaching (ELT), I would like to discuss therelevance of this suggestion by first looking at reasons for neglecting translation as a methodin ELT, analysing the significant role of the learners mother tongue (L1) in second languagelearning (SLL), showing how translation can be incorporated in the ELT classroom, andfinally by having a look at some issues related to using and/or overusing it.The Neglect of Translation in ELTCooks assertion regarding the indispensible need for translation in todays multiculturalsocieties and globalized world, is well taken, as is the fact that it is also the cornerstone ofany hope for international peace and cooperation (2007:398). One would, therefore, expect itto have a leading role in ELT. It is surprising, however, that of all the methods used, grammartranslation seems to be the least admired and least practised by both experienced andinexperienced language practitioners. Atkinson informs us that in teacher training very littleattention is given to the use of the native language, because it is often assumed that it has norole to play (1987:241). In applied linguistics very little attention has been given to the roleof translation as either a means or an end of learning English (Cook 2007:396). Apart fromthe occasional mention made in its defence by some linguists, it has remained only marginalin mainstream applied linguistic and English language teaching theory (ibid). This gap inmethodological literature is one of the reasons why many teachers are uneasy about using or
permitting the use of the students native language in the classroom (Atkinson 1987:241).Translation has been considered retrograde and useless […] inevitably connected toauthoritarian teaching, dull lessons, form rather than function, writing rather than speech,accuracy rather than fluency, and laboured rather than automated production (Cook,2007:396-397). It has been associated with 19th century language learning whichconcentrated mainly on the study of the classics and on translating texts that were unrelatedthematically and made little pedagogic sense (Gray 2009:6-7). With the appearance ofmodern foreign languages in the school curriculums and the ever-growing importance of oralproficiency in the foreign language being taught, the use of L1 in SLL began to lose validity(ibid:12).Proponents of the English only philosophy, many of whom I have come across, are reluctantto using any materials whatsoever in their teaching other than those published by native-speaking authors, and deem translation as time-consuming, boring and irrelevant(Štulajterova 2008:no pagination). Atkinson points to a tendency in EFL to opt for methodsand techniques which are exotic and modern or which demonstrate specialized knowledgepossessed by the teacher which somehow justify their status as professionals to avoid theuncomfortable feeling of their supremacy in foreign language knowledge being questionedand jeopardized by their students (1987:242).Learners are nonetheless very dependent on their L1 especially at the beginning stage of SLL.In Widdowsons words, even though teachers try to keep the two languages separate, thelearners in their own minds keep the two in contact (2003:150). It is not only a natural andinevitable process for second language learners to be constantly referring to, and makingcomparisons with their L1, but it is also, in Thornburys words, a sound cognitive strategy(personal communication 2000 in Gray 2009:9). The question that comes to mind is whetherprohibiting learners from using their L1 in the ELT classroom has any sort of impact onacquiring their second or foreign language (L2) or on their future endeavours with SLL?The Importance of L1 in SLLIt cannot be denied that by hearing and using English, learners gradually begin to internalizeit. However, according to Phillipson, acquiring a second language in a monolingual settingimplies the rejection of the experiences of other languages, meaning the exclusion of the
childs most intense existential experience (1992:189), which, as Auerbach explains, mayimpede language acquisition precisely because it mirrors disempowering relations (1993:16).Like Garcés, I am convinced that the development of any foreign language teaching […]program involves dealing with real teachers, real students, real data, and coping with realcircumstances and that the more closely a second language teaching program is based on thespecific needs of the students, the more successful and effective the course will be(1998-99:31-32). We must not forget that the thinking, feeling, and artistic life of a person is verymuch rooted in their mother tongue (Piasecka 1986:97), and becomes the driving force inlearning to speak and use a new language. It is, therefore, wise to promote the fruitful co-existence of both languages (Garcés 1998-99:32), otherwise learners are denied the right todraw on their language resources and strengths(Auerbach 1993:22). Even if their literacy inL1 is minimal, it plays an essential role in SLL. Project research dealing with languageeducation of immigrants and refugees in monoligual ESL (English as a second language)adult classes in the US and Canada has shown that learners with little L1 literacy backgroundand schooling feel a strong sense of exclusion in their English classes, because of thedifficulty they have in making any progress in their L2, and end up dropping out of the course(ibid:18). The low self-esteem and intimidation that they experience in these monoligualclasses can further exclude them in the outside world as they cannot enrole into moreadvanced ESL courses, which in turn limit their employment possibilities (ibid). Amonolingual approach throws learners in at the deep end, leaving them with a sense ofinsecurity where they are left to fend for themselves or give up in despair (Thornburypersonal communication, 2000).The bilingual approach, on the other hand, allows for language and culture shock to bealleviated, validates the learners lived experiences and supports a gradual developmentalprocess in which use of the L1 drops off naturally as it becomes less necessary (Auerbach1993:19-20). In other words [l]earners do not have to relinquish their mother tonguepersonality when they enter the L2 classroom, but can use it to their advantage as a resourceallowing for learner centered curriculum development (Gray 2009:9), where L2 is presentedas an extension or alternative realization of what the learner already knows (Widdowson1979:111). Once learners have become aware of the inevitable link between their mothertongue and the target language, even the slowest among them gradually gain more confidencein L2 and start actively participating in L2 activities.
However, even though translation activities enable learners to explore the potential of bothlanguages (Štulajterova 2008:no pagination), there are criticisms against using translation orthe learners L1 in any form for that matter, in ELT classes. According to Gray [m]any of thearguments against translation are ones against nineteenth century accretions […] which are inno way intrinsic to a bilingual methodology (2009:9-10). Objections to using L1 in ELT can,however, be justified, as Popovic (date not given) explains, if the only and principle practicetechnique involved in using it in the class is merely the regular combination of grammarrules with translation into the target language. Only when properly integrated into thelearning process can translation provide the linguistic and pragmatic competence needed tomaster the language (Garvés 1998-99:34).Incorporating Translation into ELTIt is important to remember that in deciding whether or not to use translation depends on thelearners preferences, the teachers pedagogical objectives and the moment-by-momentexigencies of the teaching context and situation [he or] she is in (Popovic, no date given:nopagination). Translation does not have to be a boring activity carried out in isolation orlimited to the presentation of lexical items (ibid). Contrary to what some practitioners andlinguists might think, translation does have cognitive value. Gray (2009:10) points out that: [t]here is no reason why L2 speaking and listening activities cannot occur in a grammar translation class, no reason why students cannot be asked to induce grammatical rules from examples, and no reason why the texts which are chosen cannot be motivating for students.It can, for example, help raise awareness of the role of context and register as well aslinguistic awareness (Popovic, no date given:no pagination). In Popovics examples [seeAppendix 1] translation is used as a communicative strategy giving learners the opportunity tocompare and debate their translations of the same text with those of their peers as well aschoose and evaluate the best version (ibid). Group work can involve a high degree ofconsultation on the part of learners and facilitate their ability to notice significant L1/L2differences and similarities (Gray 2009:11). This activity can also be appropriated foryounger learners by choosing easier texts to translate and allowing the major part of theirgroup discussions to be carried out in L1.
Texts and other materials used for translation need not be limited only to the ones in thecoursebook. Using texts with which learners can identify, help to activate their schemata, suchas in the example cited by Auerbach (1993:19) [see Appendix 2], where beginner learnerswrite about their life experiences in their L1 or in a mixture of L1 and English. The texts,which are then translated into L2, not only help the learners overcome problems ofvocabulary, sentence structure and language confidence, but also serve as meaningfulmaterial to work with during the learning process, giving it a learner-centered dimension(Shamash 1990:72).By using a wide range of materials such as magazine and newspaper articles, instructionmanuals, in short, material from their everyday life (Gracés 1998-99:33-34), with a fullrange of styles and registers, learners gradually realize that it is not always possible to attainexact equivalence in language translation (Štulajterova 2008:no pagination), and thatmeaning can often be elicited from context instead of translating word for word, a commonproblem with young learners. Because they are not aware that the basic vocabulary of Englishis highly polysemous, they often lose the general meaning of the message being conveyed(Bobek in Hudelja 1998:425-426). When a polysemous word is encountered within a giventext, further insight regarding its additional meanings should be discussed, so that studentsunderstand it in its different contexts and learn to use it properly. The word light, for example,which according to Longman (1995:818), is the energy from the sun […] that allows you tosee things, has other meanings as well, such as a light beer (not strong); a light bag (notheavy) […] or give me a light (a match) (Bobek in Hudelja 1998:425). The same is true ofthe false friends phenomenon, mentioned by Gray (2009:11), which can make translation abitter experience for learners of certain L1 languages. Thornbury (2001 in Ferrer, no dategiven:4) assures us that it is not wise to wait for mistakes to occur, because they inevitablywill, but to take things head-on, that is train students to avoid them with the help oftranslation instead of considering it to be only an interference from L1.Learners are sometimes frustrated when expected to carry out a discussion or a role play inthe classroom because of the limited corpus of language they possess and teachersautomatically expect them to think in English (Atkinson 1987:245). By supplying them witha translation of what they cannot yet say in L2, or in Thornburys words by scaffold[ing]learners production of language (Ferrer, no date given:3), they are given the opportunity tonotice how their intended meaning is realised in the target language, which helps restructure
their interlanguage and develops their communicative competence (ibid:5). The activityinstructions in the books I use [see Appendix 3] are based primarily on this concept. L2instructions are accompanied by L1 translations making it easier for beginner learners tounderstand what is expected of them. The constant oral and written comparison between L1and L2 gradually leads to a better understanding of more complicated instructions later on intheir SLL when the L1 equivalent is no longer available.The same holds true when comparing and contrasting parallel L1 and L2 texts. Learnersgradually begin to notice particular differences in the grammatical structures between the twolanguages, such as the structure of the passive voice and conditional sentences or differencesin the pragmatic aspects of L2 (Garcés 1998-99:34). They can identify similar collocates andidiomatic phrases more easily, and become aware of the difference in literal and/or figurativemeaning (Titford 1983:54-55), thus increasing their feeling for communicativeappropriateness in L2 (Garcés 1998-99:34). Since meaning in English is conveyed not onlythrough choice of words, but also by intonation, shifting stress, and the use or not ofcontracted forms, all of which might be expressed differently in the learners L1 (Gray2009:11), the teacher can use intonation to indicate to the students that there is something stillnot acceptable about a particular sentence, which will trigger further reactions from thelearners (Titford 1983:54).Translation can simplify many a task in ELT. The most complicated grammatical structures ina foreign language can often be quickly overcome by a simple explanation or demonstrationof the rule, followed by a translation exercise (Atkinson 1987:244). Using L1 to check for thecomprehension of a listening or reading text (ibid:243) may be more effective and fasterbecause it involves the whole class thereby helping less capable students understand andfollow more easily. However, implementing the learners L1 in ELT is not always an easytask.Concerns and Possible Solutions Involving the Use of L1One of the major risks involved in using L1 in ELT is overusing it, which can lead learnersand teachers to forget about the semantic and pragmatic distinctions between the languagesand begin using inaccurate translations (ibid:246). Learners may resort to using L1 evenwhen they are quite capable of expressing their thoughts in L2 (ibid) or may rely too much on
translation instead of working out meaning from context (Ferrer, no date given:3). Garcésmakes the point that there is risk involved in extensively using any method, and advocates thesporadic use of L1 adapting it to the educational goals of the learners (1998-99:33).In the case of native-speaker English teachers who do not share their learners culture or L1,despite their requisite qualifications, cannot use L1 as a resource in the classroom (Auerbach1993:25), and must resort to other teaching methods at their disposal, such as thecommunicative approach. They can overcome the feeling of isolation, however, by jointlyteaching with non-native speaker colleagues, a very successful technique which has beenintroduced in many schools worldwide through projects like Comenius and Erasmus, leadingto a better understanding and interpretation of both languages and cultures.When teaching L2 in a multilingual class, which is often the case of ESL, the languageteacher is compelled to use the English only approach, as it is virtually impossible toincorporate the learners L1 due to the numerous language backgrounds the learners all comefrom (ibid:23). One way of addressing this problem is by having students explore theparticular functions and consequences of using L1 when several language groups are present,and giving them the option of deciding the extent to which L1 should be used in the classroom(ibid:24). It has been found that when called upon to regulate language use themselves,students consciously use the target language more […] and […] gain a greater sense ofcontrol over their own learning, which helps them think critically in addressing similarlanguage problems outside the classroom (ibid).ConclusionEven though still undervalued, translation undoubtedly plays a significant role in SLL. If weaccept the universal tendency, asserted by Thornbury (personal communication, 2000) thatlearning a new language proceeds by building from the known to the unknown, then theconstant interactions that learners experience between their L1 and L2 during the SLL processare not only justified, but also inevitable. As a cognitive strategy L1 is a resource which thelearner actively draws [on] in interlanguage development (Ellis 1994:343), thus providingthem with the psychological support needed in releaving the tension that an unfamiliarlanguage may bring.
APPENDIX:1.Translation activityAim: Raising awareness of the role of context and register.Step 1: Divide the text into three parts, A, B and C; form groups of three and give each adifferent section to translate.Step 2: The students who were given the same portion of the text form new groups of three inwhich they compare and discuss their translations. They also try to agree on a best version.Step 3: The students go back to their original groups, put the translated text together, discussit and make necessary changes.Post-translation activityAim: Raising linguistic awareness through translationStep 1: The students compare and discuss their versions and fill in a comparison chart.Good Not too bad Not good (After Atkinson 1993, and Eadie 1999)2.Here is one of many examples cited by Auerbach of how the use of L1 can bridge difficultiesin acquiring L2:Shamash (1990), for example, describes an approach to teaching ESL used at the InvergarryLearning Center near Vancouver which might be considered heretical by some: Students startby writing about their lives in their L1 or a mixture of their L1 and English; this text is thentranslated into English with the help of bilingual tutors or learners and, as such, provides anatural bridge for overcoming problems of vocabulary, sentence structure and languageconfidence (p.72). At a certain point in the learning process, according to Shamash, thelearner is willing to experiment and take risks with English. Thus, starting with the L1provides a sense of security and validates the learners lived experiences, allowing them toexpress themselves while at the same time providing meaningful written material to workwith (p.75). (Shamash 1990 in Auerbach 1993:19)
3.Here are a few examples of textbook and workbook instructions showing how L1 can be usedto scaffold L2 in written form. In examples 1 and 2 the instructions are gradually internalizedwith the help of L1. Then in example 3 the instructions are no longer accompanied by theSlovenian translation, as the learners at this stage are expected to understand and use similarinstructions on their own in L2.* beginner coursebook (Happy Street) – grade 4 – easily understood instructions Example 1: Say the rhyme. (accompanying Slovenain equivalent): Povej pesmico. (Maidment and Roberts 2002:21)* workbook – grade 7 – more demanding instructions based on grammar knowledge. Example 2: Underline the correct possessive pronouns or possessive adjectives (accompanying Slovenian equivalent): *Podchrtaj ustrezno obliko zaimkov. (Goodey, Bolton and Goodey 2005:67)* coursebook (Messages 3) – grade 8 – instructions without accompanying Slovenian equivalents. Example 3: Make sentences in the present perfect affirmative or negative, using these past participles. (Goodey, Goodey and Craven 2006:73)Note: *Podchrtaj – because of the difficulty in typing the special letters of the Slovenianalphabet, I have used ordinary letters to create the sound [tʃ].
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