Thursday, 30 January 2014

Bringing Translation Back

Recent years have seen a rise in translation within language learning in the online space. The likes of busuu and duolingo base their whole language learning process around the need or ability to translate words, phrases and texts to and from your native language. It seems clear that this has the main benefit of scalability (in the case of most online language courses) and monetisation (in the case of Duolingo). But maybe the ELT community should have brought translation in from the cold years ago. And maybe these online providers are leading the way, albeit unintentionally, to new approaches in ELT that don’t shy away from translation but actually embrace it as a useful tool in the language learning toolbox.

The excellent book, Translation in Language Teaching by Guy Cook states some of the reasons why Grammar Translation (with it's focus on written forms, grammar rules and academic value), and by extension translation itself, was shunned within certain sectors of the ELT community. One of these reasons is the Reform Movement: An idea within linguistics and ELT at the end of the 19th century that speaking should take precedence over written and academic study of a language. The idea that learning was a process of making connections and learning through exposure to language as it’s used. Another main factor was the Direct Method, populised by Berlitz around the same time: Firmly a money making venture, setting out to disrupt the stuffy ELT industry of the time, with a focus on what the adult learner needs, and when they need it, rather than on the academic rigour of language study.

And in need of a shake up the industry may well have been, but the shunning of the use of translation in language learning was absolute in many sectors of the industry. It was discredited in a way that it has not really been able to come back from, and the idea of letting learners speak L1 in class even today is at best grudgingly tolerated and at worst punished in a way that must do nothing whatsoever to lower the affective filter!

Today, as we move to a new period in language learning, maybe even a new shakeup of a stuffy industry, we are in a position to look at some of the advantages of translation, and try to rid it off it’s associations with the Grammar Translation method of old. There are many things in favour of the use of bilingualism in language learning and many examples of where it can be (and is, and always has been) used both in and out of the classroom to speed up and enhance a learner’s acquisition of a new language.

But maybe even more importantly, translation, and specifically code-switching (the act of switching from one language to another internally and externally) is playing a more prominent role in the everyday lives of an increasing number of people around the world. Due to globalisation, more people are having to live, work and socialise in various languages at the same time. The idea that we should artificially exclude this switching from the language acquisition process is becoming ever harder to defend.

So I think the online language learning giants could inadvertently be helping to change the attitude of the industry towards translation. And this opens up a whole load of new options for ELT. After all, translation is only what we all do in our heads anyway!


  1. Great post, Jo.

    I studied French and Spanish at university, and a significant amount of our time was given over to translation, mostly of literary texts and newspaper articles. I personally don't think you can beat it for giving a learner a real ear for how the language should sound. I wonder, however, if that's because of the huge amount of reading it exposes you to.

    1. Yes, I think that translation does, and always has, played a significant role in many language learning environment. It's mainly in the CELTA/DELTA sectors of ELT that it's been thought of as a poor substitute for more 'real world' language use, and shunned accordingly.

      I'd also agree that the exposure to large amounts of text would help get the ear for a language. And the need to engage with it so closely for the purposes of translation would aid acquisition of a huge range of features of a language, even those less common.

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