In the first post on tackling the taboo that surrounds using any form of translation in the language classroom, I unpacked my own slow conversion, considered the roots of the English-only dogma, and explored why such positions were unsustainable. Today I’d like to move on to more practical matters and simply share seven activities that take all of this on board, and that you might want to try for yourselves. Some of these work best if you’re a bilingual teacher working with a monolingual group you share a first language with, others work well with multi-lingual groups as well.
1 If you come into class and students are chatting in L1, get them to write the conversation they’re having . . . first in their own first language, and then in English. Help them with any expressions they’re not sure of and if you can, round up by pooling on the board a range of new expressions / chunks that have emerged through the process of translation .
2 When students lapse in L1 during freer speaking activities, note this down and then during your round-up either give or elicit English versions.
3 Give translations of single words as a STARTING point, but then show ways in which these words are NOT the same! So say, for example, the sentence I’m responsible for hiring and firing comes up, you might want to say the L1 equivalent of responsible, but then say that in English, you are responsible FOR doing something, not the responsible of.
4 Allow students to translate things that they may have to translate in the world outside the classroom. Use L1 as a resource and as a bridge to L2. As Guy Cook notes in his wonderful book Translation in Language Teaching, there are countless activities here that lend themselves to communicative / task-based work in class: a company entering negotiations with foreign partners may receive documents and communications which first need translating by bilingual staff; evidence in a court case may need translating before a judgement can me made – or, as in this exercise from the first edition of OUTCOMES Intermediate, a menu may need to be translated before diners can decide what they want – and don’t want – to eat.
A Write a typical menu for a restaurant in your country. Write it in your own language.
B Work in pairs. Imagine you are in a restaurant that does not have an English menu. You are trying to decide what to eat.
Student A: you are visiting the country on holiday or on business. You do not speak the local language.
Student B: talk Student A through the menu.
Student A: reject at least two of the things on the menu. Explain why.
5 SOME single word translation may sometimes work, as in the exercise below from OUTCOMES Pre-Intermediate below. Note that this taks does require students to pay serious attention to the meaning of words like strong and high in the context in which they’re encountered:
A Translate the words in bold into your language.
B Work in pairs. Decide if each sentence in 1-8 shows:
a the economy is doing well.
b the economy is doing badly.
1 Inflation is quite low. Prices don’t change much.
2 There’s a lot of unemployment. Around 15% of the working population don’t have a job.
3 Our currency is very strong, so it’s cheap for us to travel abroad.
4 The cost of living is very high. A lot of people can’t afford basic things.
5 Unemployment has gone up a lot over the past year.
6 Our currency is really weak at the moment. It’s very expensive to import things from abroad.
7 The average salary is quite high. I think it’s about $30,000 a year.
In a similar way, you can craft or adapt other exercises so that while they may look like they involve single-word translation, they actually have added context that students need to pay attention to if they are to choose / process the correct meanings, as below:
C Use the extra information in 1-12 to guess the meanings of the words in bold. Translate the sentences into your language. h
1 Their shoes are really good quality. They really last. I’ve had these for three years and I wear them quite a lot.
2 If you’re going to buy a computer, go to World PC. They’re very reliable. If you have any problems, they’re always quick to solve them.
3 I usually go to Davy’s for food. They’ve got a really wide selection. You can get whatever you want there.
4 They’re open on Sundays. In fact, I think the only day they’re shut is Christmas Day!
5 I bought this nice thick coat for the winter. It’ll keep me warm in the cold weather.
6 They’re nice shoes. They look cool, but they’re not very practical. They’re a bit uncomfortable to walk in!
7 What lovely flowers! They’re so bright and colourful.
8 It’s OK, but it’s quite complicated. The instruction book is about a hundred pages long. It’s really thick!
9 I think their clothes are really good value. They’re very fashionable, but not very expensive.
10 I bought a smart pair of trousers and a couple of shirts for work. We can’t wear jeans or T-shirts.
11 I bought some jeans, but they don’t really suit me. They make me look fat!
12 I got a really neat laptop. It’s very light and it’s got all the latest software. It looks cool too.
Incidentally, in the book we included this exercise in, it followed hot on the heels of learners encountering REALLY BRIGHT STUDENTS and NEW FLATS that were NICE AND BRIGHT. It is, of course, quite possible that BRIGHT could require three different L1 equivalents for each of these contexts – a question many of you non-natives out there are much better able to help your learners deal with than I would be.
6 At lower levels, with some listenings tell students to take notes in L1 – and to then use these when then comparing ideas in L2.
7 As a self-study device, make students aware of things like the Word Reference blogs for bilingual learning communities and encourage them to use them.
So, there are a few ideas to be going on with.
Please do share your own ideas and acitivities in the comments section below.
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Dear Hugh and Andrew,
Thank you very much for these two extremely interesting and useful articles!
I’ve just recently had a really heated discussion with one of my colleagues about some occasional uses of L1 in my classroom. My experience of teaching academic English and English for Specific purpose courses to level A1 – B2 university science students shows that the use of L1 in a monolingual classroom is sometimes irreplaceable. It can be some kind of a linguistic workout for students to translate some target vocabulary, collocations or language structures to see how the word order differs in both languages making word for word translation impossible, or why it is not funny any longer if you translate a wordplay in English into L1 and vice versa, and all those cases you’ve mentioned when L1 turns out to be a really useful tool helping our learners to better understand
My undergraduate physics students particularly like this activity:
I divide them into groups of three/four. Each group gets their unique sentence in English on A4 paper size sheet. (e.g. Team 1: Einstein always appeared to have a clear view of the problems of physics and the determination to solve them. Team 2: It was formerly believed that if all material things disappeared out of the universe, time and space would be left. Team 3: It was not until the second half of the 20th century that the hypothesis was finally rejected. Etc.)
Students in each team take their time, say, 30 sec. up to one min., to read their sentences. They then fold the top of their piece of paper so that to hide the original sentence and write down its translation. They pass their translated sentences to other teams who translate them back into English. Then they pass the sentences to other teams to translate these new versions of English sentences into L1 and so on. Once all the teams have done their translations of all the sentences, I collect their worksheets, unfold them and read their sentences.
We usually have a big laugh because there are always some really funny mistakes they’ve made, which is good I think. These can be problems with word order, wrong words, or they may fail to retrieve the target language structure, etc. Students can clearly see their mistakes, discuss what exactly went wrong that led them to their faulty versions of the original sentences, and make necessary corrections all together without being stressed out.
This activity also helps me to see what problem areas I need to address next time we meet ))
Hi Karina –
Thanks for reading and for taking the time to respond.
Glad these posts struck a chord with you and reaffirmed the value of your own experience.
The realiy is, as ou say, whether you like it or not, L1 is always there in any classroom.
To pretend otherwise is just delusional.
Makes much more sense to harness it and teach students to use it as a resource in a consructive way.
I like your four-part translation activity very much, by the way. Lovely stuff.