Translation: four reasons to use translation in language learning







We’ve all seen how bad translations can be when they’re done word-for-word. Signs posted around the world give us messages like ‘If you are stolen, call the police at once’ and ‘Please do not empty your dog here’. Menus are full of mistranslations offering delicacies such as fresh crap (in a seafood restaurant); Pope stuffs (papa rellena); grilled aborigines with parsley (aubergines); and delicious roasted husband (no idea).


Banning the mother tongue

Many language schools around the world forbid translation and the use of the native language altogether. They are taking their cue from the views of Maximilian Berlitz, founder of the Berlitz chain of language schools. A century ago, Berlitz wrote that translation wasted too much time and led to a ‘defective’ and incomplete knowledge of the second language.


Maximilian Berlitz

Maximilian Berlitz

There are other valid reasons for avoiding the mother tongue in language classrooms. Author and teacher trainer Steve Oakes points out that some teachers and students like to see the classroom as a kind of ‘English island’. This helps them to discipline themselves to use only English.


Others say translation encourages dependence on L1 (first language), which hinders a learner’s ability to construct an independent L2 (second language) system.


Another reason is more practical. In multilingual classrooms, which are the norm in countries like the UK, Australia and the US, the principled use of translation is usually impossible. The teacher most likely doesn’t know enough of the students’ native languages and therefore cannot facilitate translation into or out of those languages.


Il Risorgimento

Despite the above, translation is having a resurgence. A number of well-known writers/teacher trainers in the field have begun to speak out about its potential in the classroom. These include Guy Cook and Philip Kerr, whose prizewinning books, respectively Translation in Language Teaching (2010) and Translation and Own-language Activities (2014), are at the forefront of the resurgence.


Here are four good reasons to use translation in class.


Awareness raising: conceptual metaphors and other parallels

In the 1980s, George Lakoff popularized the term ‘conceptual metaphors’ to describe how different languages sometimes use the same imagery. Across several languages, time is money (we run out of both); ideas are buildings (we construct them); and love is a journey. In Spanish, No creo que esta relación vaya a ninguna parte means ‘I don’t think this relationship is going anywhere’. In French, Nous sommes à la croisée de chemins means ‘we’re at a crossroads’. In Italian, siamo bloccati means ‘we’re stuck’.

"We're at a crossroads."

“We’re at a crossroads.”







Translation allows us to see these and other parallel structures between L1 and L2. It also allows us to see differences between languages: false friends, differences in word order, syntactical differences, etc.



Translating simply saves time. Simon le Maistre, of Reallyenglish, says the company uses translation to make learning more efficient. It helps students get into activities as quickly as possible via translated instructions, and they learn from these activities via translated explanations for correct/incorrect answers. Although actual learning content – texts and questions/answer choices – are all in English, the type of support that translation provides is an expectation in the Japanese market.


Le Maistre adds that the company allows learners to choose which version of support they would like: English only or English and the student’s language.


In the classroom, where words in L1 and L2 have a simple one-to-one correlation, as in objects like cars, trees, and the sky, translation is by far the quickest way to establish meaning.


Real life activity and strategy

Another reason to use translation is that it’s a real life skill that we practise all the time. We decode notices and signs in foreign languages, help our monolingual friends and family with instructions, and translate menus. According to Alan Duff (1995), language competence is a two-way system; we need to communicate into and from the target language.








Translation is also a key strategy in language learning. Chamot and O’Malley (1985) write that using L1 as a basis for understanding L2 makes up over 30% of all strategy use. For Beginners, this percentage is higher. Should teachers then persist with the idea that their students are using only L2 in their minds, or should translation become an overt tool for teaching language?


A workout for the left side of the brain

Translation need not be tedious drudgery. Anyone growing up in Britain in the 1980s probably remembers struggling to stay awake while translating long literary texts from Latin or French. There are more useful and communicative ideas for language classrooms these days.

Translating from Latin ...

Translating from Latin …







For example, we can take very short texts – a couple of lines – in English and ask students to translate them into the mother tongue. They then work with other students who had a different text and try to translate the mother tongue sentences back into English. It’s a type of ‘Spot the Difference’ activity which is short and enjoyable.


When teaching grammar, we can write an English model sentence as a series of boxed words. The students write the equivalent sentence in the mother tongue. They box the words and try to match the words in English to the words in the mother tongue. This helps students to see the differences in sentence structure between L1 and L2.


We can get students to translate menus and brochures or we can show short video clips in English and ask them to write subtitles in their language.


All of these are left-brain activities, asking students to analyse language and make detailed choices. This type of intense language practice, done in small doses, can be of enormous benefit to learners of all levels.



For language learners, translation is as natural as a flower in a field. To learn anything efficiently, we apply new information to what we already know. And the one thing all second language learners already know is their mother tongue.


















2 Comments on “Translation: four reasons to use translation in language learning”

  1. nickdaw says:

    You are correct to lay the blame on Berlitz, but he was reacting against the fashion of his time in which foreign languages were taught (through the medium of L1) simply as grammatical and lexical systems. He was trying to escape from reliance on L1 and translation. He was proposing a system of teaching and learning which could be applied worldwide. You mention that adult learners are frequently in mixed language classrooms, but this is for administrative convenience, not for educational benefit. In these circumstances, the teacher cannot be expected to know the L1 of every student. The Berlitz approach was echoed by John Haycraft and International House. Haycraft’s version of the Berlitz approach became the default teaching methodology promoted by the British Council, RSA and Cambridge teaching exams.
    Teachers who shared a common L1 and culture with their learners were expected to ignore their great advantage by teaching exclusively in the target language. This forced them to hide their shared understanding of their learners’ L1 and culture and expose their limitations as a non-native speaker teacher of the target language.
    The Berlitz + Haycraft default methodology is so unfair on the vast majority of EFL teachers worldwide. The Berlitz + Haycraft methodology was a commercial success, allowing native speaker English teachers like you and I to travel the world teaching our native language.
    The fundamental failure of Belrltz + Haycraft is the lack of consideration of the learning process. Every journey starts from home. For learners, home is their L1 therefore the journey towards the target foreign language should start from the learners’ L1.
    When I was working for Pearson, I was investigating comprehension. I approached a lexicographer and three editors who were not native speakers of English, at which stage in their learning of English did they start understanding English texts in English, that is to say without first creating a comprehension in L1 (without translating). They all said that understanding English in English started at Upper Intermediate level.
    We should not pretend that translation is not being used by our Beginner, Elementary, Pre-Intermediate and Intermediate learners. Their brains are busily translating translating all the time.
    Your article is welcome because it finally admits to this reality and suggests that we should guide and support this translation process and help learners to create better LI comprehensions of the English texts which they hear or read. Very short or sentence length translations are very useful in prompting discovery of the differences between L1 and English. During the same tasks, learners will also discover the similarities between L1 and English.
    Sometimes, English language teachers communicate the message that they hate the learners’ L1 and that English is “better” than L1. Learners interpret this message as being an instruction that they should reject their L1 in favour of English. We both know that this is not the intended message, but it may be the message interpreted by the learners. This leads to some learners being resistant to English Language Learning. L1 is “mother tongue”, Rejection of “mother tongue” is perceived as being rejection of mother, family, and culture. It is not surprising that many learners are resistant to this process.
    Children who can crawl, walk and climb are often frightened of learning to swim. The environment of the water is alien and frightening. When we introduce children to water and start teaching them to swim, we do not say “forget about walking and running and learn this new skill.” Our learners are very unlikely to acquire a competence in spoken and written English which is equivalent to their L1 fluency. A satisfactory result of English lessons is the learner who says “I can crawl, hop, walk, run, and jump in L1, but I can also swim in English”

    • JJ Wilson says:

      Nick, you make so many great points I barely know where to start in reply. Firstly, I apologize to Berlitz; I don’t mean to belittle his achievement. And while many ELT professionals owe a lot to the methods of John Haycraft and International House, I also believe we need to look critically at what those methods have meant for the profession as a whole. I think you make some great points near the end. The sociocultural value of the mother tongue cannot be underestimated and I agree that the idea of rejecting it is a serious mistake. Anyway, thank you for your well thought-out reply and sorry about the delay in getting back to you.

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