Two-way translation in the multilingual classroom

I’m just back from Turkey, where I delivered a one-day workshop on teaching grammar through International House in Izmir. One issue that arose, as it often does with nonnatives, is whether or not translation should be allowed. My own belief has long been that it should not only be allowed, but actively encouraged – and that non-native teachers have both a great advantage in that they’re able to facilitate translation between L1 and L2 and also a great responsibility to train students to use translation better – to make the problems of single-word translation apparent to students, to show ways of using L1 as a bridge towards better L2 and so on.

Translation in the multilingual classroom, where learners can come from numerous different first languages, is a less discussed area and a potentially more problematic one. Given this, it was a real pleasure to watch a young teacher called Kara Robin talk about exactly this at last year’s Stafford House conference in Brighton. Kara’s been kind enough to write up one particularly interesting activity she often does with her classes, so over to her:

For the first year of my teaching career, I was working in a multilingual classroom in London and I battled to ensure that my students never wrote down translations of words in their notebook. Instead, I told them they should always write a definition and an example sentence in English. If they didn’t know a word, they should always use a monolingual dictionary to look it up rather than a bilingual one. This didn’t always work with students at Elementary level, but I still believed that it was preferable to anything involving their own language. However much effort I made, though, I found that students would still sneak the odd translated word into their notebook or whisper translations to another students of their own nationality. I accepted this with resignation, but it was certainly not something I encouraged.

When I moved to Spain, and started teaching monolingual classes, I found that making direct comparisons between Spanish and English was in fact very useful for my students, particularly when it came to fixed expressions and false friends, where a direct translation was not possible.

On moving back to the UK, and back into a multilingual classroom, I missed the use of and discussion of L1 in the classroom and so I became interested in how I could incorporate it into my teaching in situations where I don’t share a language with my students nor they with each other.


I found that there are plenty of activities that work very well and that sometimes NOT having a common language can in fact be beneficial.

One activity that I have found to be very effective is an idea taken from Philip Kerr’s Translation and Own-language activities book. It’s basically a translation dictation and it works well with delexicalised verbs such as make, take, go, do and so on, idiomatic language, and also some grammar points such as gerunds and infinitives. I would do this activity as a revision after students have spent some time studying the language point we’ve been are focusing on.

As in any dictation, the teacher dictates to the students sentences illustrating the language point/s. The twist is that students must not write down the sentence in English as they hear it. They should listen, process the sentence for meaning and then try to write the sentence in their own language – matching the meaning as closely as possible. It’s important that students are clear that they shouldn’t just translate the sentences word for word; translation should be grammatically correct and sound natural in their own language. Once the teacher has dictated all the sentences, students try to reconstruct the original sentences in English based on their L1 sentences and knowledge of the L2 language point/s. They then work in pairs to compare and refine the translations. This works really well in multilingual pairs as they can also at this point discuss differences between the sentences and how those differences relate to their L1. After this, students see the original sentences and can compare them to their versions.

This activity forces students to focus on and process the meaning of the sentences when they hear them rather than the individual sounds and words. By working together to re-translate the sentences back into English, students are really thinking about the structures in English and how the language works. They are forced to come up against differences between their own L1 and English – I would encourage them to discuss these as they do the activity with their partner. I’ve also found that this activity can bring up other language points that you weren’t expecting which can then also be looked at either individually or as a group at a later date.

Here’s an example from a Thai student.

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  • MuraNava

    hi thanks for this it reminded me to do some more translation activities in class


    • Hugh Dellar

      Thanks Mura.
      Good stuff.

    • Lexicallab

      Thanks for that Mura. Nice to see this spurred you into trying something similar. Nice twist you’ve added there.

  • Joe Martin

    it goes against what we are normally taught to do…….translation being anathema…..but I love it…..thank you karen

    • Lexicallab

      Hi Joe –
      Yeah, I feel it’s a bit of a problem with a lot of training that’s out there, the fact we’re not really taught to think about translation or even to to really be aware of the processes by which students add L2 to their existing linguistic knowledge, and constantly flit back and forth between L1 and L2, whether openly and verbally or else simply in their minds.

      Anyway, glad you find this one inspiring.

      It’s a great one to try, whether you’ve got mono- or multi-lingual classes, I think, and a good way of forcing students to come up against the way L1 conditions them to expect certain patterns or structures.

    • Andrew Walkley

      And in answer to your previous question about books there’s a great book about using instruction as an integral part of teaching methodology called The Bilingual Reform: A Paradigm Shift in Foreign Language Teaching. The link takes you to a short review. There’s also a good book by Guy Cook called Translation in Language Teaching, but I actually found this one better in terms of being clear on classroom techniques within a coherent approach.

  • Graciela Alchini

    Sounds good. I always believed comparing L1 and L2 can help students see what they should avoid doing when structures are different, and when they can imitate what they do in their own language , without worrying about making a mistake. It’s just a couple of minutes that can make the job much easier.

    • Lexicallab

      Totally agreed, Graciela. It doesn’t take long to do something like this; it can be nicely integrated into the flow of the class – bookend things, if you like, by coming at the start and the end of a lesson; it accepts and acknowledges the inevitably of L1 use / thoughts and by moving back from L1 to L2 catches, as you say, any tendencies to NOT remember the wholes, but rather to translate more literally back into L2. If teachers do a bit more of this kind of thing in class, it may help to reduce the amount students end up speaking a kind of ‘first language in English’!

  • Anthony Ash

    A great post and a great in-class activity. I am going to try it out in class. I was just wondering about one thing: I understand the rationale behind each stage of the activity with the exception of one part – the dictation. Why is it recommended to dictate the sentences over just simply giving the learners the sentences on a worksheet?

    • Lexicallab

      Hi Anthony –
      Glad you enjoyed the post.
      Be interested to hear how you get on with it.
      Please do report back once you’ve given it a go.

      With regard to the dictation, I don’t think there’s anything that necessitates it has to be done that way. It could equally also be done using the same sentences printed out.

      I guess the only added edge you get by doing the dictation first is that it involves the students slightly more, forces them to listen and recode / recode into L1 and then at the end, when they go back into English, makes it slightly more demanding as they’ll have not yet seen the English sentences they heard actually written down yet, so the level of challenge is upped a bit.

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