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So whatever happened to translation?

Funny, isn't it, that you never, ever see translation exercises in GCSE modern language text books. You don't see much of it in A-level books either, even though translation to and from French features in A-level examinations. Why did the exam boards and publishers abandon it? What's wrong with it?

In the 1960s the grammar-translation method became discredited as the influence of behaviourism, audio-lingualism and later communicative theory, led us towards a less analytical methodology, and one based more on natural acquisition and inductive approaches to the internalisation of vocabulary and grammar rules. Whitmarsh was dead, long live target language, authenticity and communication.

This was, on the whole, "a good thing". GT was for many children, no doubt, a difficult and soul-destroying way of learning a language which you would rarely get to speak. Many teachers couldn't speak French very well, but could master and transmit the rules of grammar. Children did not hear enough French and failed to develop effective listening and oral skills.

But I would argue that we may have been wrong to get divorced from translation. We could have at least remained friends. Why?

Well, my experience with the children I have taught is that they rather enjoy translating (both "prose" - English to French, and "unseen" - French to English). They enjoy it because it is a mental challenge, it helps clarify grammar, it fixes vocabulary, it develops detailed comprehension and it's a change. It also focuses strongly on meaning whereas some forms of practice focus on form at the expense of meaning. How often do we practise something and the child says, but what does it mean?

When I began teaching I only did translation grudgingly because I had been trained in the oral, question-answer approach, because it still featured in O-level exams and you had to do it. It was still to be found in some text books too. These days, I do it less grudgingly, realising that, although, in the case of prose, it does not play on the natural acquisition dimension, it does perform the other functions I mentioned above. I would happily see sentences to translate into French in text books and passages to put into English.

Let's use all the weapons in our armoury and take advantage of all learning styles.


  1. One of the problems with using translation is if the teacher does not speak the L1 of the students, and vice-versa. Sticking to the L2 and contextualizing new vocab is the preferred way to go.

  2. In general I agree, especially as I take the view that most language learning really occurs via natural acquisition, but I don't think we need to be completely dogmatic about it!

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. I agree. After contextualizing the new vocab, a comprehension check from time to time with a translation is harmless. However, too many FL teachers use this technique far too often so that students expect a direct translation after every phrase uttered and they lose motivation to try to figure out what the teacher is saying on their own.

  4. I am not arguing for the "echoing" technique you are referring to. I agree that is bad practice on the whole. I am talking about setting pieces of text to translate to or from French, as discrete tasks.

  5. As a fan of translation, I find that setting translations as a discreet activity can be very rewarding for all concerned. My students like the intellectual challenge and we often spend time picking out grammatical elements and/or style points from texts we have translated. I would say that it has an important role to play also in vocabulary acquisition and more to the point, if students enjoy it and are learning independently, who are we to criticise it?


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