The case for translation in foreign language instruction


This article was inspired by Steve Smith’s very informative and insightful post ‘What is the point of translation” ( in which he clearly outlines the pros and cons of adopting translation in the MFL classroom. I strongly recommend Steve’s brilliant article – a must-read for MFL teachers. The present post is meant as a way to add a research ‘edge’ to and expand on Steve’s very valid points.

The controversy over translation

Whether translation is a useful  learning tool or not is still very controversial amongst L2 educators (Brown, 2002). Why? Mainly because not much research has been carried out on the extent of its impact on L2 proficiency. Moreover, at least until recently, translation has been out of favour with large part of the teacher community because of the following reasons:

  • It is associated with the Grammar translation approach;
  • It is assumed that L1 use in the classroom hampers L2 acquisition;
  • Translation is seen by many as a mechanical transfer of meaning from one language to another – not a communicative activity;
  • Translation tasks are perceived as boring;
  • Translation is seen as independent of the other four skills;
  • Translation takes up lots of valuable time that could be devoted to more beneficial communicative activities;
  • Translation is believed to be appropriate only for training translators.

However, attitudes towards translation have been gradually shifting recently, especially in the last 10 -15 years. As Duff (1994) points out, translation is a real-life task that happens everywhere around the world in a wide range of contexts. In the MFL classroom, students translate for their classmates L2 items they do not understand on a daily basis. When visiting a foreign country, L2-knowers translate for non L2-knowers signs, notices, announcements, etc. When socializing with foreigners, interpreting is a common occurrence, too. And I would add to this that, when using the internet, our learners draw upon translation more than often in their interaction with social media or other knowledge sources – whether through dictionaries or other digital tools. Finally, Kern (1994) found that most teachers agree that mental translation into one’s L1 is inevitable when reading.

Moreover, research in Good Language Learner Strategies has found that more effective students often “refer back to their native language(s) judiciously [translate into L1] and make effective cross-lingual comparisons at different stages of 293 language learning” (Naiman et al, 1978:14). Increasingly, studies suggest a facilitative role of translation or L1 transfer in students’ language learning (e.g. Omura, 1996; Prince, 1996; Cohen & Brooks-Carson, 2001). In Horwitz’s (1988) study the majority of German (70%) and Spanish (75%) students believed that learning a foreign language is largely a matter of learning to translate from English into their L1. Prince (1996) noted that students often believe that learning through translation, with the new word being linked to its native-language equivalent, is more effective than learning vocabulary in context.

Hsieh (2000) reported that translation benefited his Taiwanese students’ L2 reading strategies, vocabulary acquisition, whilst enhancing their cultural background knowledge: 85% of his informants reported that translating helped them pay attention to the coherence and contextualization of English reading text; 65% thought that they became more aware of multiple meanings of an English word; and 62% felt that translation helped extend vocabulary knowledge and reading skills. On the whole, these students believed that the adoption of translation had a desirable effect on their English reading and vocabulary learning.

Several studies (Zhai, 2008; Cumming, 1989; Uzawa, 1996; Kobayashi & Rinnert,1992; Cohen & Brooks-Carson, 2001) have investigated the effect of composing in L1 and then translating into L2. Zhai (2008) concluded that the lower-level learners benefit most from the translated writing. Similarly, Cumming (1989) reported that inexpert French ESL writers use their first language to generate content, and expert writers, in contrast, use translation not just to generate content but to verify appropriate word choice

Dagiliene (2012) found that “ translation activities are a useful pedagogical tool. When introduced purposefully and imaginatively into language learning programme, translation becomes a suitable language practice method for many students. When integrated into daily classroom activities translation can help students develop and improve reading, speaking, writing skills, grammar and vocabulary. Translation in foreign language classes enhances better understanding of structures of the two languages and also strengthens students’ translation skills. It is an effective, valid tool in the foreign language learning and can be used in the university classroom to improve knowledge in English. Still, translation should not be overused and should be integrated into language teaching at the right time and with the right students”.

My case for translation

Before being a teacher I worked as an interpreter and translator (English to French /Italian and viceversa) for about three years. A lot of the written translations involved highly specialized vocabulary that is not normally learnt in school or in a naturalistic setting. It was very challenging, but I learnt loads and not just in terms of vocabulary and grammar; it definitely improved my accuracy, especially in terms of those ‘horrible’ little function words that every L2 learner struggles with: e.g. prepositions.

L2-to-L1 translation tasks, especially when carried out with the support of a bilingualised dictionary and pitched at the right level of challenge can do marvel in terms of linguistic proficiency enhancement; provided, that is, that they are carried out as part of a well-sequenced inter- and intra-lesson series of tasks which recycles the target vocabulary and structures systematically. The following are, in my view, the most important benefits of translation as an instructional tool:

  • Vocabulary consolidation and expansion – this is demonstrated by a number of studies and is pretty self-evident;
  • Noticing grammar and lexical collocations in context– by this I refer to Schmidt’s (1990) noticing hypothesis, whereby spotting the difference between the L1 and L2 usage of a given grammar structure sparks off the acquisition process of that structure ( i.e. the cross-lingual comparison that Naiman et al, 1978, mentioned above, alluded to). An example from a recent lesson: I wanted my students to notice verb-subject inversion in Spanish, but I wanted them to do so in context and without any input whatsoever from me. As I was working out a teaching strategy which would prompt that process I immediately thought of translation; it would have definitely forced them to ask me and/or themselves the question: where is the subject of this sentence? And indeed, when I did ask them to translate a text which included a few instances of verb-subject inversion the next day, it did spark off many questions along this line.
  • Rigor / Focus on accuracy – In the most common reading tasks staged in MFL classrooms, student can ‘get away’ with just ‘getting’ the main gist of the text or spot the required details through the use of para-textual or contextual cues. However, when asked to translate, they cannot operate impressionistically all of the time. They need to interpret the meaning of each and every word and make sense of each syntactic unit. This focuses the learner on grammar and syntax as well since, even when they use dictionaries, they will often have to analyze the grammar to infer meaning.
  • Resourcing’ strategies enhancement – in my Ph.D study I identified ‘resourcing’ as one of the most powerful language learning strategies in terms of vocabulary, spelling and grammar knowledge acquisition. Translation tasks whether from the L1 to the L2 or viceversa will require students to resort to dictionaries, more advanced target language knowers or online forums (e.g.
  • Ease of differentiation – It is easy to cater for different abilities through translation tasks. If the translation involves sentences, one can create subsets of sentences for each ability group in the class; when it involves longer texts (e.g an 80 words e-mail), one can design them in such a way that the language starts easy and becomes increasingly complex.
  • Control on input/output – It is one of the tenets of my approach to foreign language instruction that before involving students in unstructured / unplanned activities one should engage them in fairly extensive controlled practice (from easy to incrementally challenging). Translation is very valuable in the context of this approach as it is one of very few tasks that gives the teacher total control on student output. An example: your students are going to perform an oral task that you have carried out several times before in the past in the same topic areas. You will have practised the relevant lexical items already as discrete items and in the context of reading and listening texts. Now, prior to the task you may want to prepare them for the larger units of meaning they are going to attempt to convey in the oral interaction (i.e. sentences); knowing what kind of sentences they are likely to produce in the performance of the target task – based on past experience – you can ask the class to translate them on mini-boards, on a google-doc (displayed on the classroom screen/interactive whiteboard/Apple tv) or through a card game. That should facilitate the ensuing task.

Important caveats and guidelines for translation tasks implementation

The reader should note the following important caveats which, in my view, should be heeded in the adoption of translation as a learning tool:

  1. Translation tasks are best given as homework, unless they are used as relatively short and snappy starters, plenaries or pre-task warm-ups with more confident learners;
  2. Translation tasks must be logically integrated in the learning flow of a lesson or series of lessons. L2 to L1 translation, can occur at any point in an activities sequence; however, L1 to L2 translation tasks should only be staged after extensive practice in the vocabulary and grammar structures they include have been practised extensively. In the modules, for instance, L2 to L1 translation only occurs at end of a sequence of 10-15 vocabulary building/reading activities;
  3. Translation tasks are not for everyone; teachers need to be careful in adopting translation with less able or less motivated earners;
  4. Comprehensible input (from L2 to L1) and achievable output (from L1 to L2) should be the guiding principle in the selection or design of translation tasks. Vigotsky’s zones-of-proximal-development should be borne in mind in designing or selecting translations;
  5. Since translation is perceived by many students as a ‘boring’ task (Dagiliene, 2012), teachers need to ensure that translation tasks are as stimulating and imaginative as possible as well as relevant to what the students are learning, the objective of the lesson and the preceding sequence of activities;
  6. Translations should not be randomly selected using merely relevance to the topic as a guiding principle; they should recycle as much as possible the target vocabulary and grammar;
  7. In L2 to L1 translation, the target sentences / texts should contain as many contextual clues as possible in order to facilitate the inference of unfamiliar language items;
  8. Students should be given access to bilingualised dictionaries (e.g.;
  9. Unless one is dealing with very advanced students, L1 to L2 translation including challenging and connotative language or complex idioms ought to be avoided; language should preferably be denotative and straightforward to translate;
  10. In order to avoid cognitive overload, sentences including complex subordination should be avoided in L2-to-L1 translation with less advanced learners;
  11. It may be advisable to scaffold L1 to L2 translation for less advanced learners by cueing students to the problematic nature of specific language items. Colour coding, symbols or simply different fonts could be used to this effect. For example: in the sentence “I live in a big city” the adjective big may be written in bold as a reminder that there is something to be aware of in translating it into French (big in French precedes the noun, unlike the majority of French adjectives);
  12. Translation should not be overused as a classroom and even homework task, unless we are dealing with highly motivated and able learners.

In conclusion, translation can be very useful as a learning tool if one bears in mind the above caveats and guidelines. I believe the arguments I have put across in this article make a sufficiently strong case for adopting it in the MFL classroom or as homework fairly regularly – but judiciously, without overusing it. I particularly recommend the adoption of translation to teachers who, like myself, lay a lot of emphasis on unplanned oral interaction, as a way to balance the emphasis on communicative fluency with focus on form and accuracy.