Skip to main content

So what's the point of translation?

Translation is in GCSE for the first time. The last time pupils had to translate both ways was back in the days of O-level i.e. pre 1987. Its position is also reaffirmed at A-level from which it has never disappeared.

I would hypothesis that it is in at GCSE because someone at the DfE, or advising the DfE, estimated it was the only way to get teachers to apply a rigorous approach to grammar and vocabulary teaching. To many of us it seems like an old-fashioned and misguided way to achieve that end and one which will inevitably lead to poor classroom practice and an even greater neglect of target language use.

With that preamble out of the way, what is the value of translation?  It clearly has merits as a language learning activity. Let's take each form of translation in turn - L1 to L2 and L2 to L1. Please note that I am limiting myself to written translation of written passages or sentences.

L1 to L2 (translation into the target language)

We used to call this "prose translation".

Pros

1.  It probably helps fix grammatical accuracy and revise vocabulary.

2.  Some pupils enjoy it. It satisfies the puzzle-solver and accuracy fan.

3.  As a testing tool it can be made to be quite unpredictable and therefore hard to learn up for.

4.  As a testing tool it can be marked quite objectively.

5.  It reflects a reality that language learners often work from L1 to L2. Why not develop this skill?

6. It is challenging for students when set at the right level.

7. There may be an element of real life activity involved. Adults do sometimes need to translate, even if technology makes this less likely nowadays.

Cons

1.  It limits the amount of target language use in the classroom.

2.  It is an uncommunicative sort of activity - it's talking about the language rather than using it for communication.

3.  When used as a testing tool, because of the backwash effect, teachers may do too much of it in the classroom. Teachers love to teach to the test.

4.  It offers almost no new comprehensible input to further language acquisition.

5.  It may encourage interference from the first language, based as it is on a cognitive rather than natural approach to second language acquisition.

6. It may suit able learners, who are good at cognitive problem solving and pattern spotting, more than students of lower aptitude. Some may see this an unfair and argue that naturalistic methods do not have this bias.

7. Many students find it boring and would be more motivated by other tasks.


L2 to L1 (translating into English)


This was known as "unseen translation".

Pros

1.  Sentences and passages in the TL are a source of comprehensible input.

2.  Translation requires a fine attention to detail. Everything must be understood and rendered accurately.

3. Some pupils enjoy the challenge of doing it. It can be satisfying to find the solution.

4. There may be some real life use for it, despite changes in technology.

5. We often translate in our heads so why not help develop this skill?

Cons

1. Beyond a certain level it becomes a test of English usage as much as a test of comprehension.

2. Students are writing English when they could be writing in the traget language. This limits acquisition.

3. Detailed comprehension can be assessed in other ways which provide more language input e.g. TL multiple choice.

4. Teaching this skill in the classroom involves using English, not communicating in the TL.

5. It is a task which involves talking about the language not using it.

Perhaps you can come up with some other arguments.

My bottom line is this: translation can be a useful classroom activity and means of testing certain types of knowledge, but if you use it frequently you inevitably end up reducing the amount of comprehensible input students receive and the amount of communication they engage in. In addition (excuse the capitals, I'm not shouting) YOU CAN DEVELOP INTERNALISED GRAMMATICAL SKILL WITHOUT TRANSLATING.

So, if you can get the rigour you may want, you can do it by skilled questioning, meaningful controlled practice and some explicit explanation. If these means simultaneously play to the unconscious learning end of the learning-acquisition spectrum, why not use them rather than translation?

I repeat: the return to translation at GCSE is a retrograde step, will not raise any standards and will end up boring too many students if teachers end up teach to the test. It was abandoned in the 1980s because it was seen to switch off so many pupils. If I were still a Head of Department I would be urging my colleagues to severely limit its use in KS3 and to use it judiciously at KS4, mainly near the end of the course in Y11. Be rigorous and stress accuracy if you want, but remember that language learning is much more about proficiency, understanding and fluency.

For more on ways of using translation creatively see two of my other blogs;

20 ways of doing translation into the target language

20 ways of doing translation into English

Comments

  1. Interesting article. I agree with many of the points you make, although you don't explain why this might reduce target language use in the classroom. Perhaps I need to come and see you teach.

    " will end up boring too many students " why? Aren't too many students bored by mfl anyway? They might prefer this kind of task as the teacher can control the language, rather than students making up what they want to say/write and producing complete rubbish in the process.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for, leaving a comment. Some students might prefer that type of task. History teaches us that many did not. The alternative to translation is not, however, "making up what they want to say/write and producing rubbish". One alternative is controlled practice (e.g. oral drills, structured question-answer) in the target language which develops grammatical skill without resorting to English. For long term proficiency I would argue pupils need to hear a good deal of target language. Pretty much the more the better. Translation lessons will not help achieve this as much as alternatives.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I forgot to address your question about reduction of target language in the classroom. For prose translation the TL is used but the input is in English so pupils hear or read little or no "natural" language. For unseen clearly the input is in TL but discussion and writing is in English. In both cases the amount of TL is compromised.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts and those of Gianfranco Conti in response. Have suggested that the return of translation may not be all bad at wp.me/P6gB6X-1.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you for commenting. If it takes the reintroduction of translation to push more teachers into a more structured approach to grammar, then it may have a positive impact. It still feels retrograde to me though. I am not, as you can see, against translation at all costs, but including it in GCSE could result in some lazy teaching. that was one reason I wanted to suggest some variations on the theme.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…

Three AQA A-level courses compared

I've put together my three reviews of worthy A-level courses which you might be considering for next September. They are all very useful courses, but with significant differences. The traditional Hodder and OUP book-based courses differ in that the former comes in one chunky two year book, whilst OUP's comes in two parts, the first for AS or the first year of an A-level course. The Attitudes16 course by Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri is based on an online platform from which you would download worksheets and share a logon with studenst who would do the interactive parts (Textivate and video work). The two text books are supported by interactive material (Kerboodle) or an e-text book.

Attitudes16





An excellent resource which should be competing for your attention at the moment is the Attitudes16 course which writers Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri have been working on for some time. You can find it here at dolanguages.com, along with his excellent resources for film and li…

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’(http://pdcinmfl.com). The point i…