Oct 1, 2015

The return of translation: opportunities and pitfalls

For most of the 20th century, there was a deep-rooted tradition in the ELT, which dates back to the Direct Method, that L1 in the classroom should be avoided at all costs. Although there were some alternative methods, such as Community Language learning (aka ‘counsel-learning’) and Dodson’s Bilingual Method, which made use of the learners’ L1 and used translation, most ELT methods of the last century were clearly ‘target-language’ only and some even went as far as to take a clearly anti-L1 stance in order to avoid interference.

In recent years, however, translation and the use of L1 in ELT have made a comeback. As I was recently adding final touches to a presentation on the topic of translation I got this email from a colleague:
NB. "Inspectors" are MOE supervisors who make periodic visits to schools, known in some countries as "superintendents"
Indeed, thanks to whom or what evidence? Let's look at some arguments for and against translation in ELT.

Translation 2.0

The revived interest in translation is evidenced by such recent titles as Guy Cook's Translation in Language Teaching (2010) and Philip Kerr's Translation and Own-language Activities (2014). Christina Rebuffet-Broadus and Jennie Wright's e-book Experimental Practice in ELT (2014) has a whole chapter of Translation alongside Dogme and CLIL. But it was already in 2001 when another Cook - Vivian Cook - wrote in his influential paper "Using the First Language in the Classroom":

It is time to open a door that has been firmly shut in language teaching for over a hundred years, namely the systematic use of the first language (L1) in the classroom.

He then goes on to list the reasons why L1 was avoided for so many years. These are:

  • L2 acquisition is (erroneously) compared and equated to L1 acquisition
  • An underlying belief that L1 and L2 should be kept separate (aka "coordinate bilingualism")
  • Students should be given enough exposure to L2.

The reasons for using L1 and, in particular, translation are just as convincing. They can be divided into the following categories:


Achieving proficiency in L2 does not mean that you can "switch off" your L1. In fact, research shows (Linck et al 2009) that both L1 and L2 appear to be active simultaneously during reading, listening and speaking.


A translation task (for example, when learners have to translate from L1 into English) is an example of a productive task. As such, productive tasks have been shown to be more effective for learning new lexical items than receptive tasks (for example, where learners have to match the words and meanings or select an appropriate word from a word bank) because they require greater cognitive depth. (Laufer & Hulstijn 2001). Moreover, L1 words are already mapped onto their respective meanings. Providing equivalents in L1 provides quick access to meaning for new L2 words. 

Affective / Humanistic 

Not only are L1 translation equivalents an efficient way of unlocking meaning of new L2 items, L1 provides affective support, especially for beginners. Using L1 translation gives value and importance to learners' L1 culture and experience (Thornbury 2010), and allows students to express their identity. On the contrary, a "target language only" approach might be seen to devalue learners' culture and background by giving English a superiority status.

For most contemporary language learners, translation should be a major aim and means of language learning, and a major measure of success.

         Guy Cook, 2011

Translation activities in the classroom

How can translation be used in an EFL classroom? Here are some activities I've tried:

Back translation

One of my favourite activities. Learners translate sentences or phrases from English into L1 and then, a week later, translate them back into English OR switch papers with translations with other students who translate their partners' translations back into English.

Try it with the following sentences:

How long are you planning on staying?
I should really get going.
The passenger was killed but the driver walked away without a scratch.
You’re better off without him
‘I can’t find it’ - ‘Don’t worry, it’ll turn up’
I stayed in all day and did nothing.
Let’s talk about it over coffee one day.
The guys stopped playing and exchanged glances as she passed.

I guarantee - depending on your students' L1, of course, - that "planning on staying" will become "planning to stay", "turn up" is bound to turn into "appear" and "glances" will be rendered as "looks". "You're better off without him" will probably be lost in translation altogether, while "I should really get going" will end up as "I have to go".

Give me the gist of it

The teacher reads out a text in L1 - short news items work well here. Students provide a summary in English. Very authentic, if you ask me! Imagine, your students have to explain a piece of local news to a foreign visitor.

Revising the draft

After listening to or reading the text in L1 students provide an English translation - this part can be done orally. Then English texts relating to the same topic are handed out, and students try to improve their translations, using input from the English text. A great activity which helps students notice the gap.

Alternative versions

Obviously, with any of the above activities you can also get students (in groups) to swap their translations, discuss and improve each others' versions.

Translation: potential pitfalls

It may seem that the author of this post is a great believer in and avid user of translation in the classroom. However, I am well aware of its pitfalls. Here are just some of them focusing mainly on vocabulary teaching.


Very often when I ask students to translate, the result is mechanical, wooden and word-for-word. After all, translation is a skill and not everyone's got a knack for it. A way around it is not to use the word "translation" at all. Try instead: "How would you say this in English / your language?" or something along those lines.

Translation can promote over-reliance on L1

It's all very well at beginner levels as a quick-and-dirty method to help learners map new L2 words onto their meaning via L1 (for example, "hospital"), but eventually learners will have to let go and learn to infer the meaning of unknown words from context or determine it from word parts (structural analysis). Translation becomes particularly problemetic at higher levels when the target vocabulary is of a more abstract nature and lexical items often do not have direct word-for-word correspondence. You may have read about the research and my own experiment showing how semantic fields of L1 and L2 words do not always overlap in one of my earlier posts (see here: A Matter Of Semantics: Same Concepts, Different Divisions)

L1 lexicalization

When using translation to clarify meaning or asking students to translate, a tacit assumption is that any word can be easily translated into a word in another language. In fact, not all English words may be lexicalised in L1, i.e. have L1 translation equivalents at all. For example, "shallow" does not have an equivalent in French, "insight" is very hard to translate into Spanish and Russian has no one word equivalent for "challenge". English is a highly nuanced, semantically dense language in which there are clusters of near-synonyms which may correspond to one word in students' L1 - take, for example, verbs of movement such as wander, stroll, stride, stagger etc. - see my article "Lexical Density in English" for more examples and the reasons why.

Concluding questions

Do you use translation in class? Do you think the advantages of using translation outweigh the disadvantages outlined above? Are there any other disadvantages? I would like to hear what you think (or do) in the comments below.


Cook, G. (2010). Translation in Language Teaching. Oxford: OUP

Cook, V. (2001). Using the First Language in the Classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review 57(3), 402-423

Laufer, B., & Hulstijn, J., (2001) Incidental vocabulary acquisition in a second language: the construct of task-induced involvement. Applied Linguistics, 22(1), 1-26

Linck, J. A., Kroll, J. F. & Sunderman, G. (2009). Losing access to the native language while immersed in L2. Psychological Science, 20, 1507-1515

Thornbury, S. (15 December 2010). G is for Grammar Translation. An A to Z of ELT. Retrieved from: https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/10/15/g-is-for-grammar-translation/


  1. hi Leo nice to see a new post from you :)

    i have used a variation on the back translation a dictated matching task if u will e.g. https://eflnotes.wordpress.com/2013/05/30/dictionnaire-cobra-a-striking-corpus-based-tool/

    students seemed to like it a lot

    i am aghast that the you did not mention there's a chapter on Corpora in Christina Rebuffet-Broadus and Jennie Wright's e-book Experimental Practice in ELT ;)


    1. Hi Mura,

      Thank you for your encouragement - I know I haven't been very prolific lately...

      I do know there's a chapter on Corpora as well as Lexical chunking in Experimental Practice - after all, I reviewed it for ETp :)

      Thank you for the comment - always good to have you here!
      Will check out your link

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I got so tired of not being able to talk to my international clients, and I was able to get the translations done in just a couple hours. This makes it so much easier to talk to my clients, and I do not have my bosses breathing down my neck every five seconds waiting for the translations to get done.

    Sean @ Excel Translations

  4. Finally an affirmative article and arguments for translation in language acquisition, thank you!

  5. This is not an easy job because you have more chances of grammar mistakes. To summarizing paraphrasing and retelling english grammar means a lot here.

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