Traditionally, the translation
method was used to teach language as a subject, primarily involving the manipulation of
grammatical form (Howatt 1984). In recent times, EFL teachers have slowly been reviving
the use of translation to present vocabulary (Butera 1991; Heltai 1989) and concept checks
(Harmer 1991). Edge (1986) and Thomas (1984) have reported on using whole text translation
at advanced levels. Atkinsons (1987) assertion that "the gap in the
methodological literature is presumably partially responsible for the uneasiness which
many teachers feel about using or permitting the use of the students native
language" would seem to continue to hold true today. Because of the very obvious
dangers associated with excessive dependency on the mother tongue (Atkinson 1987), one
might argue that teachers would benefit from more methodological guidance which clearly
delimits the functions for which the mother tongue is appropriate.
Over and above concept checking and vocabulary explanations, it is entirely possible to
view translation itself as a relatively communicative activity in which language can be
practised at all levels within a meaningful context. Duff (1989:51) stresses that the
crucial point about using translation is to retain the context. He recommends the use of
mother-tongue exercises whose object is effectively to help students understand that what
works in their mother tongue may not work in English. Authors on the subject of
translation generally agree that consciousness-raising (the raising of learners
awareness of grammatical features without directly instilling the rulessee
Rutherford 1987) is more important than saving time.
Atkinsons Teaching Monolingual Classes (1993) includes an excellent chapter on
translation and gives a brief lesson plan on comparing student translations. His idea is
extended in this paper by the use of a framework to guide the very challenging step of
"comparing" different language versions and to help teachers who are unfamiliar
with their students mother tongue.
At the United Arab Emirates University, initial experiments at using a simple
translation plan proved frustrating because, in the Gulf, learner expectations are
traditionally oriented toward the teachers role as "judge." Clearly, this
is an impossible approach where the teacher has only a minimal knowledge of Arabic (as is
the case of the author). Moreover, the teachers hopes that students would be able to
view alternate versions as equally acceptable were not met. Because many first year
students at the UAE University General Requirements Unit have trouble thinking critically
(MacLean 1997) and are hesitant to follow their own conclusions, they often want the
"right" answer directly from the teacher. It soon became clear that for
back-translation to work at all in this teaching situation, students would benefit from
more guidance and a breakdown of the stages involved. The resulting lesson plan is
presented and explained below. The aim is to show that translation can be communicative,
intellectually challenging, and fun for the whole class.
||select two equivalent versions (A & B) of a challenging short
text (consecutive paragraphs, verses of poem etc.
||prepare 4-column charts for students plus OHT
||introduce the topic area without preteaching vocabulary
||discuss the topic
||to stimulate schema
|explanation of aims
||introduce translation activity, explaining that T is not to use L1 at all
but will assist with L2 rephrasing, and stressing that translations will not be graded in
||ask for clarification if required
||to remove St stress and eliminate pressure on T to use any L1
|translation into L1
||pair Sts, allowing strongest the option to work alone, and ensuring equal
numbers of A & B; set a time limit (10-15 min)
||translate into L1, using bi-/monolingual dictionaries if desired, and with
the weaker of the pair as scribe
||to practise reading for detail; to draw on Sts' expertise in L1 to
generate versions and build confidence
|translation into L2
||collect in originals and have Sts exchange A & B versions; discourage
consultation with original authors; stress that there is no one correct answer
||translate into L2 the text translated by other Ss, with total freedom to
||to encourage Sts to use what L2 they have to render a version to
During the first phase, the students draw on reading comprehension skills in order to
reach a translation and then write a guided paragraph in L2. In order for this now to
become a consciousness-raising activity, most students will need a structured task if the
subsequent comparison of the texts is not simply to become a matter of marking things
wrong. The following chart has been designed for this purpose. An overhead transparency
(OHT) of the chart enables a few examples to be elicited and the class as a whole can
advise the teacher where to place the items, according to the criteria of intelligibility
and grammar. Examples are included in Appendices II and IV.
Compare your translation with the
original. Find some examples of other ways you translated the words and expressions
and decide where to put them in the chart.
||Not too bad
|presentation of comparison activity
||explain that the aim is NOT to look for mistakes but to compare; select
examples from texts A & B and enter onto 4-column chart OHT
||observe how differences are not necessarily not mistakes
||to encourage Sts to accept more than one level of correctness
|comparison of different versions
||distribute the original A & B texts so Sts can compare with what they
have written; circulate and, when asked, help Sts decide acceptability of versions through
discussion and explanation
||look at some of the differences in the original and translated versions
and decide which column to enter on chart (asking the T if unsure)
||to focus Sts' attention on items of lexis or structure and involve them in
evaluating degree of difference from original
||ask each St to select an interesting item and come up to OHP to fill in
master chart and explain reasons for the decision; it's better to keep stronger Sts until
later as it becomes harder to find examples
||1.) explain to the class something you noticed and say why it is
acceptable or not and then fill it in on the OHT
2.) listen to the presenter and ask questions or comment as needed
|to have Sts responsible for reporting their findings and so provide an
opportunity for presenting and listening practice plus whole class discussion
||copy the OHT for each St to keep
||highlight any of the items that you have had difficulty with in the past
||to provide a permanent record of achievement and reference
||shortly after this lesson hold a "problem clinic" on common
errors like those which appear in the NOT TOO BAD column
||collect examples of common errors made by the students you study with to
bring to a "problem clinic"
||to have Sts identify common L2 problems and seek alternatives.
2. Suitability of the Lesson
To all levels
With intermediate to advanced levels, the teacher may leave the entire comparison stage
in the hands of the students and only draw attention to points that have been overlooked
during the whole-class reporting. Additionally, with the adaptations mentioned below, this
lesson plan can be used with low-level classes. It might even be argued that it has
essential advantages for these classes because it introduces the all-important concept of
tolerance of more than one correct alternative. With elementary classes, the notion of
RIGHT vs. WRONG remains strong and students may not have been introduced to the idea that
more than one answer might be correct. Therefore, it may be more helpful to have the
students look ONLY at spelling, agreement, and obvious synonyms while the teacher
circulates and selects a few translated expressions to present to the class as GOOD, OK or
NOT GOOD before individuals are invited to come up and present their findings.
To all teachers
Translation can, of course, be used by teachers who speak the students L1. These
teachers may feel reluctant to use L1 for fear of escalating the use of L1 and therefore
reducing exposure to English. With this in mind, it is possible to set down rules such as
forbidding the students to ask the teacher to use anything but L2 in answering their
questions. Moreover, it is important for the class to understand that the teacher will not
be grading the translations so students can and indeed SHOULD be creative in getting
around problems without the teachers help.
One powerful advantage of the approach described is that it permits the teacher who has
absolutely no knowledge of the students L1 to utilize the technique because it is
the students who are entirely responsible for the translation and no "marking"
of the translation is required. Creative interpretation is the only recourse available.
Students who are aware of their teachers limited knowledge of their language are
eager to show (even in very broken English) what they have discovered about common
mis-translations as they come to realise that the teacher is as much a learner as anyone
in the class. Student presentations can teach us all a great deal about how errors are
perceived and how they are explained from the learners perspective.
For using L1 to improve L2
Teachers who are concerned about too much L1 in the monolingual classroom should state
up front that they will not translate anything for the students. Although students, up to
intermediate level, will probably discuss the task in their L1, they are likely to remain
focused on L2 reading, writing, and structure throughout. The L1 is used as a valuable
resource for remaining on task in the L2. And finally, the reporting stage provides an
ideal opportunity for an authentic speaking and listening task in the L2. Most students
are very interested in sharing their results. They wish to know whether their own triumphs
and mistakes are common to the class. It is quite normal for students to be too harsh on
themselves, so the high numbers of items in the "appropriate" and "not too
bad" columns generally prove to be a pleasant surprise.
3. But is It Communicative?
Is it Useful?
For those who might feel skeptical as to the levels of communicative language and
challenge involved in this type of translation activity, there follows a selection of
criteria against which this lesson might be rated.
Communicative and cognitive features of translation
According to Nunan (1989:132), a good communicative language lesson will
1. Derive input from authentic sources;
2. Involve learners in problem-solving activities in which they are required to
3. Incorporate tasks, which relate to learners real-life communicative needs;
4. Allow learners choices in what, how and when to learn;
5. Allow learners to rehearse, in class, real-world language tasks;
6. Require learners and teachers to adopt a range of roles, and use language in a
variety of settings in and out of the classroom;
7. Expose learners to the language as system;
8. Encourage learners to develop skills in learning how to learn;
9. Integrate the four macroskills;
10. Provide controlled practice in enabling microskills; and
11. Involve learners in creative language use.
Oxford (1990) explains that "challenging" language activities are those which
have "cognitive depth;" that is to say they draw on a variety of intellectual
processes. These are exemplified below, together with links to the lesson plan shown in
1. Thinking about both form and meaning (recoding meaning into L2 form);
2. Understanding (recoding content so meaning is consistent with the original text);
3. Reasoning and inferencing (interacting with the text; choosing the appropriate
vocabulary and form);
4 Generalising (extracting the gist);
5. Solving problems (circumlocuting and simplifying form);
6. Monitoring output (checking translated version);
7. Evaluating and comparing alternatives (completing the comparison chart); and
8. Deduction (noting patterns).
Communicative and cognitive features of this lesson plan
Referring to Nunan and Oxfords features, the author asserts that back-translation
1. Allow for any type of input, including authentic sources;
2. Involve learners in problem-solving as they negotiate the meaning of the original
text in order to find a suitable translation and as they attempt to encode each
others expressionsencouragement to simplify, paraphrase and guess is most
helpful at this stage;
3. Relate to such real-life communicative needs as translating in class for peers,
decoding signs and notices in the environment, translating notes and letters for friends
and relations, etc.;
4. NOT really allow learners choices in what, how, or when to learn, in that the text
is selected and presented by the teacher, who then instructs the students on precisely
what they have to do;
5. Allow learners to rehearse such real-world language tasks as asking for explanation
and exemplification, evaluating choice of form, presenting information in L2, organizing
6. Require learners to act as experts in L1 and take the responsibility for the final
product and the teacher to adopt the role of learner and observer, besides being an
7. Expose learners directly to the contrasting language systems of L1 and L2 as they
assess and explain to each other the appropriacy of their translated versions;
8. Encourage the learners to become more tolerant of their "mistakes," gain
the confidence to experiment, rely on their own intuitions more, consult their peers, and
reduce dependence on asking the teacher for translations;
9. Integrate reading and writing, speaking, and listening;
10. Provide guided practice in reading for gist and for detail, written accuracy,
recognizing and using discourse and reference markers, listening for specific information,
and oral presentation;
11. Involve learners in creative language use as they attempt to find negations,
simplifications, and circumlocutions to render a version; and
12. Utilize all and more of the intellectual processes discussed by Oxford.
A multiplicity of cognitive tasks is clearly involved in this lesson. Their primary
value is that they help the learner to develop cognitive strategies, which will
subsequently improve his or her ability to learn or remember new information. Thus,
translation might naturally be expected to promote vocabulary development and structural
pattern recognition (Heltai 1989), as well as improve reading comprehension and writing
skills (Hummel 1995). When combined with a total of 10 out of 11 features of Nunans
ideal communicative lesson, this plan starts to look like a powerful addition to any
language teachers repertoire.
There are potential pitfalls to be considered such as the time spent deliberating
translation into the mother tongue. A time limit is essential to help regulate this. It is
a lesson that depends on cooperation. Students who are not on task during the translation
will cause problems when those who are ready to back-translate into English find they have
too little material. Teacher monitoring and encouragement are crucial at this time. Very
weak students will depend strongly on others and so there is always the temptation for
them to simply give up and have partners do the work for them. Assigning such students the
role of secretary helps. Following the use of a translation activity, students might be
keen to use translation of what the teacher says to help each other. There is a real
danger of weak listeners coming to rely on this and losing motivation to listen to the
teacher at all. It should be made clear that translation has a place, but not in every
The authors experience with this technique has shown that students from a
lower-intermediate to an advanced level are generally capable of accomplishing the task
with minimal assistance. They enjoy it immensely. This activity is a valuable break from
more routine classroom activities; it is highly challenging with real meaning for the
learners (Danchev 1982, cited by Harbord 1992). After all, they frequently translate in
their heads or to each other whether one wants them to or not!
References and Further Reading
Atkinson, D. 1987. The mother tongue in the classroom, a neglected resource? ELT
Journal, 41, 4, pp. 24147.
. 1993. Teaching monolingual classes. NY: Longman.
Butera, A. 1991. Translation anyone? TESOL Newsletter, March, 2428, p. 8.
Danchev, A. 1982. Transfer and translation. Finnlance, 2, pp. 3961.
Duff, A. 1989. Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Edge, J. 1986. Acquisition disappears in adultery: Interaction in the translation
class. ELT Journal, 40, 2, pp. 12124.
Harbord, J. 1992. The use of the mother tongue in the classroom. ELT Journal 46, 4, pp.
Harmer, J. 1991. The practice of English language teaching. Harlow: Longman.
Heltai, P. 1989. Teaching vocabulary by oral translation. ELT Journal, 43, 4, pp.
Howatt, A. 1984. A history of English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University
Hummel, K. 1995. Translation and second language learning. Canadian Modern Language
Review, 51, 3, pp. 44455.
MacLean, J. 1997. Critical thinking in the English classroom. Workshop presentation at
TESOL Arabia Conference, Al Ain, UAE.
Nunan, D. 1989. Designing tasks for the communicative classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge
Oxford, R. 1990. Language learning strategies. New York: Newbury House.
Rose, M. 1985. Back-translating to recover from. Babel International Journal of
Translation, 31, 1, pp. 611.
Rutherford, W. 1987. Second language grammar: Learning and teaching. London: Longman.
Thomas, H. 1984. Developing the stylistic and lexical awareness of advanced learners.
ELT Journal, 38, 3, pp. 187191.