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Why Michael Gove is wrong to advocate translation

One of the intriguing elements to emerge from Michael Gove's recent speech in parliament about his National Curriculum reforms is his desire to see a "new stress on learning proper grammatical structures and practising translation". The precise references to translation (both to and from the foreign language) are to be found on p.175 of the National Curriculum Framework Document.

I have blogged previously about the value of translation in language lessons and my view is essentially that it can have a small place within a much wider diet of target language work.

I do not know where Gove has got his affection for grammar and translation from. It is highly unlikely it would come from any advisers who know about second language language acquisition. Grammar-translation is a widely discredited approach to language learning. Unlike the communicative theory, direct methods, audio-lingualism it has no basis in language learning theory and is largely a hangover from the teaching of classical languages.

If classrooms were to return to a moderate diet of translation to and from the foreign language you would end up with students who are reasonable at knowing grammar rules, vocabulary and translation, but not much else. They would almost certainly be bored rigid and an Ofsted inspector observing a translation lesson would most likely fail it. It is an approach which appeals to a minority of (more able) students, but which, crucially, takes time away from more important aspects such as listening, reading and speaking. Time is already ludicrously short in the school curriculum as it is for progress to be made, so we cannot afford to devote it to translation. It worked for only a few in the past and the same will be so the future.

As for "learning proper grammatical structures", we cannot be sure what Gove means. If he meant the internalisation of grammatical rules by skill-building and comprehensible input, he might be on to something. I doubt very much that he does mean that. If he means recognising patterns and memorising rules, then this, although for some students an interesting enough challenge, does not lead to fluency.

My guess is that Gove views grammar and translation as something which is more "rigorous", heads down, rote learning based, which engages cognitive functions, as opposed to something more airy-fairy like acquisition through communication. If this were his view, he should consult some text books and applied linguists as soon as possible, as well as practising teachers.

Just consider what would happen if there were sections of translation to and from the foreign language in GCSE papers. Text books would start to feature it prominently and teachers would spend significant parts of Year 11 preparing students for it. This is known as the backwash effect of assessment.The consequence would be less time spent on activities which really develop acquisition.

It is likely that Michael Gove is more interested in English and history than languages, and that, in the end, this will all come out in the wash, common sense will prevail and any new programmes of study will reflect the mainstream of applied linguistic theory and not appeal to a discredited approach from the past. For this to happen teachers and other stakeholders should voice their concerns in the consultation process.

Comments

  1. I share your optimistic conclusion, but lament yet another occasion where a politician shoots from the hip and then skulks away into the shadows when the damage has been done. A deeply flawed man.

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  2. Elisabeth Wielander28 February 2013 at 12:04

    Nobody (not even Gove, I think) will advocate a return to the old grammar-translation method, but in my view, translation can play a valuable part in language education. Completely negating its place in the language classroom is throwing out the baby with the bathwater: If used carefully and purposefully as part of a multi-facetted tool box, translation can raise awareness of linguistic structures, foster creative language use and draw attention not only to the L2, but to the learners' L1 as well.

    German teacher / researcher Wolfgang Butzkamm has long been a proponent of a re-evaluation of translation for MFL teaching as part of what he calls 'enlightened monolingualism'. For those interested in his views on L1 use in MFL teaching and learning (including translation), find links to his writings here: http://www.fremdsprachendidaktik.rwth-aachen.de/Ww/program.html (much of it is in English).

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  3. Thanks for the comment Elizabeth. I agree with what you say and in my teaching career I made reasonably frequent use of translation. My gut feeling was that students enjoyed the puzzle-solving nature and the challenge, whilst it clarified grammatical issues and highlighted differences between L1 and L2.

    I remain concerned that translation is given particular emphasis in the new PoS and that teachers might fall back on it too much at the expense of target language use.

    I shall follow up your link.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I had a look at the first Butzkamm article from 2003. Very interesting. I wonder how many FL teachers actually use a monolingual approach? He challenges a lot of assumptions about language teaching.

    I have the impression that he is not arguing strongly for grammar-translation, but more like a healthy dose of L1 when needed to assist comprehension and acquisition.

    I like his comment that empirical research will never show which methods work best. Our theories of language acquisition are often hunches developed through experience!

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