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A case for some grammar-translation

It's a curiosity that translation from English into French remains part of the GCE A2 level examination, but has not ever featured at GCSE. I am one of those teachers, like most I imagine, who practises the translation of sentences or passages in class. I have plenty of examples of such sentences on the frenchteacher.net site and I believe they are used a good deal. How useful is prose translation and what do students think of it?

I asked my AS group of 17 students what they thought of some work we did today, translating sentences into French to practise reflexive verbs in various tenses. Almost to a person, they were enthusiastic about it and told me why. They said:
  • It helps you perfect your grammar
  • It makes you think about the details of the written language
  • It builds up your vocabulary
  • It makes you analyse the language
I agree with them and would add, on reflection, that it also appeals to the puzzle-solving side of our brains. We had a discussion about the pros and cons of translating into the foreign language and they, like me, thought that it was a good idea in moderation. Too much of it, and you would get less experience of listening, conversation and general comprehension. I still am happy to accept that the real key to competence and fluency in the long run is masses of "comprehensible input", as Stephen Krashen called it.

Grammar-translation is, of course, that practice we inherited from the teaching of Latin and which dominated classrooms for decades up to the 1960s. It led to lazy, uncreative, often dull teaching. It had no basis in language learning theory, yet many teachers continue to practise it in moderation for the reasons listed above. It maintains its place in A-Level exams, largely out of tradition, no doubt, but also, I suspect, because exam boards and teachers feel it makes us give sufficient attention to the detailed practice of grammatical structures. A well-designed sentence can test a wide range of grammatical knowledge very reliably and efficiently. It may be argued, of course, that by translating in a word-for-word fashion we are encouraging a false view of language structure, but this is where balance comes into play. It has to be used judiciously when a structure needs particular practice, when the structure differs significantly from English (e.g. vouloir que + subjunctive; depuis + present tense) or in the lead up to exams when you know certain structures will be tested. Repeated, rigorous practice of common problems leads to competence and the ability to spot structural traps.

Would one do less prose translation if it were not in the exam? Possibly, but I would still make a case for it for the reasons already given. As a language teacher you need to balance theory with pragmatism, and practice seems to show that translation into the foreign language is useful, provides transferable knowledge and is enjoyed by students.

Comments

  1. Steven, I agree that translation has a place, and agree also with all the very perceptive comments of your AS students. I was taught languages in the old-fashioned grammar way. It would have been uncool, even in those days, to admit that I actually enjoyed getting my teeth into a translation, and learned so much from it. Much grammar teaching and so-called difficult tasks such as translation have been dropped because we don't want to frighten the students off, but translation is a fantastic way of getting to grips with the language, without the pressure of standing in front of someone trying to speak off the cuff.
    I teach primary French now, and I do point out to my pupils that word-for word translation is not possible. As this is evident even in simple things, such as the noun preceding the colour, I encourage them to translate simple sentences Eng- Fre and Fre- Eng and they love succeeding at it.
    I teach French Year 1 through to Y6 and LOVE it.

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  2. Thank you for the comment. Although I wrote this post quite a while ago, it continues to make sense to me. I have no doubt, however, that if prose had not been in the A-level exam, I would have done much less of it, because it does reduce the amount of target language input used in class and this, to me, remains the priority.

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