Friday, September 14, 2012

Attitudes to use of L1 and translation in second language teaching and learning

Can translation play a useful role in learning and teaching a second language? This was a topic of one of our METU SFL TDU webside reflections last year.  We had a fruitful discussion, so it is particularly relevant to come across some very recent research by Dr Michael Druce,  an MA TESOL student at the University of Westminster, who reports on the findings of his recent research in the 16 July 2012 (issue 7) of Liason at  The PDF below includes Druce's article only, separate from the entire issue.

In case you have trouble viewing the PDF above, read on for a copy of the text from Druce's article.

Many second language teaching theories have, over the last several decades, largely ignored the function of translation, as a reaction against the grammar-translation method and the prevalence of the 'communicative approach'. This has been particularly apparent in the academic and professional literature pertaining to applied linguistics. The reasons appear to have been principally (i) pedagogic (dull and demotivating), (ii) cognitive (prevents successful language acquisition and processing), (iii) practical (not relevant to the real world).
"More recently, several authors...have argued cogently for a re-evaluation of the use of the L1 and translation in language teaching"
 More recently, several authors, whilst reviewing the pros and cons, have argued cogently for a reevaluation of the use of the LI and translation in language teaching, particularly in the context of bilingualism and 'interculturality'. In view of the paucity of empirical data, a questionnaire survey based on five-point agree/disagree Likert scales was distributed online to language practitioners in the UK, Europe, and beyond, in order to probe many of the contentious issues. Additionally a number of personal interviews were conducted. Completed questionnaires were received from 126 respondents (50 UK, 76 outside the UK), having an average of 22 years' teaching experience (two thirds more than 20 years), and many occupying senior positions across a wide range of public/ private organisations and institutions.

The findings, whilst highlighting the wide diversity of individual opinions, nevertheless indicate, perhaps surprisingly, a considerable degree of overall support for judicious use of LI and translation in appropriate circumstances. In brief:
  • almost all (87%) of respondents claim to be aware of the debate 
  • fully 69% disagree that the Direct Method is the most appropriate technique, and 86% agree that carefully planned translation activities can play a useful role in the L2 communicative classroom 
  • the issue of re-introducing translation topics into language teaching textbooks produced evenly divided opinion 
  • even though 61% do try to minimise use of the LI as a matter of principle, 85% believe that learners mentally translate, and 83% agree to using an 'eclectic' approach to language teaching, preferably taught by bilingual teachers 
  • 73% agree that translation encourages LI/L2 code switching 
  • those expressing a view indicated a clear pro-translation majority for issues relating to collaborative learning, developing mental/verbal agility acquiring transferable skills, not wasting class time, helping discover expressive powers of the LI, helping build reflective language consciousness, providing insights into the structural specificity of language, precision and accuracy
  • the notion of translation as being too academic, boring, only suitable for literary/scientific texts or only for training professional translators was firmly rebutted, whilst opinions were divided regarding management/ organisational constraints, preventing learners from thinking in the L2, restricting free mode of expression, building learner self-confidence and personality type. 
Over half of respondents rejected the concept of translation as a'fifth skill', with only a tentative majority for its role in complementing the four skills, but a clear majority seeing it as amenable to oral discussion. Similarly, while broadly rejected on a semantic level, 82% approved of translation as a contrastive analysis tool. Free comments on many issues including that of 'cultural mediation', and personal interviews, provided a rich source of opinions and viewpoints, for subsequent reporting.The results firmly suggest the time is ripe to put use of LI and translation back onto the language teaching agenda.

Key References:

  1. Cook, G., (2010). Translation in Language Teaching:An Argument [or Reassessment. Oxford: University Press. 
  2. Leonardi, V, (2010). The Role of Pedagogical Translation in Second Language Acquisition. Bern: Peter Lang 
  3. Witte, A., Harden, T and Harden, A.R., (eds.), (2009). Translation in Second Language Learning and Teaching. Bern: Peter Lang 


  1. I would agree that translation is a skill that anyone who speaks a second language will engage with at any time. The sensation of 'translating', much documented in SLA literature, is a two-way thing, also referred to as 'multi-competence'.

    I like using translation in class, especially for raising awareness of clustering and collocations, but the accent should always be on getting to see the L2 as something independent from the L1 and not simply a translation of the L1. If this is managed successfully, I don't think we should be scared of using anything in the classroom that works for the students concerned.

    1. Raul - could you give an example of how you use translation to illustrate the differences between L2 and L1?