Made in Translation

I’ve been using quite a lot of translation recently. Maybe it’s because I’ve forgotten what was drummed into me when I did my CELTA course all those years ago, or maybe because when used discernibly, it can be a very useful learning technique.

Translation from the mother tongue into the target language has been much maligned. And I’m not surprised, to be honest. I well remember hours spent in my French lessons at school, agonizingly trying to translate stories about Marie Claire and Jean Pierre into English.

However, I think that maybe it was not so much the fact that translation was not useful as an aid to learning (for I left school able to tell passable and fascinating stories in French about Marie Claire and Jean Pierre) but the way In which the Grammar-Translation approach was packaged. For the exercises and activities were boring, and irrelevant in terms of real world skills and applications. Unless you wanted to be a translator, that is.

So, I would like to share with you a technique which incorporates translation, and which, in my opinion, is not as boring and maybe has something to do with what we might do in real life.

It’s very simple. You grab an appropriate text which is in the L1. It can either be written or audio. It depends on whether you want to develop reading or listening skills. After some pre-skills chit-chat, you give the students the text. It’s a good idea to pretend that you haven’t read or listened to the text as this adds to the authenticity of the exercise. Therefore, if it’s a listening text, you should either leave the room or cover your ears. Having done so, you ask the students if there are any words which the students don’t know how to say in English. At this stage you might be inundated with unknown words so discretion is required. Clarify the meaning and pronunciation of those words which students will need in the retelling of the text. Next, write up on the board something like, ‘the text is about…….’, or ‘she says that……’. Tell the students they are going to summarize the text in their own words. Ideally, you should then get the students in pairs to rehearse the summarizing of the text as this will give you the chance to monitor, iron out any major problems and build up the students’ confidence before the open class work. The final stage is when the learners deliver their summaries in open class. This is followed by feedback, of course.

In my experience, the exercise works pretty well for both the teacher and the students. It is easy and simple to prepare and set up. You just need to find the appropriate text. I find that most authentic texts in Portuguese can be used, depending on the level of the students. It is particularly useful when you can’t find the text in the L2. For example, if you have a group of football mad teenagers and you need to find a text about the last round of matches in the Campeonato Brasileiro. Pretty difficult to find an English version, I imagine.

It is also something that learners might actually do. Even if they are not having to translate or paraphrase a text from their language into English to a foreign friend, they almost certainly might have to paraphrase a text. The activity also allows the students to use all of the linguistic knowledge they have in order to complete the task, plus the new language which has been imputted. This in turn helps cater for the variety of different levels in the classroom, with the weaker students also having the chance to complete the task successfully, using all the available language at their disposal.

I used this activity at all levels, in both large classes and in one to one lessons. The feedback I have got has been largely positive, despite my initial reservations about using the L1 and translations in the classroom. I would be interested to know if anyone else out there in the Richmond community has used a similar activity and what their experiences were.

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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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