6 Reasons Why You Should Translate in Your Classroom

For those of you who have seen (and can relate to) Gloria's hilarious English slip-ups in the hit show Modern Family, you know that translation can be tricky. You have to worry about grammar, vocabulary, idioms, the whole nine yards. Learning a second language is a daunting task for anyone, especially young kids who are trying their best to be just like everyone else. 

As a native English speaker and Spanish speaker, I know that the process of learning a language requires time, diligence, practice, and patience. But, with the proper techniques, it doesn't have to be painful for your ELLs. 

Translation vs. No Translation 

Traditionally accepted teaching practices from the 20th century argued against translation for four reasons:

1) language acquisition is slowed if a student thinks in her native language (L1) and tries to speak in her second language (L2),

2) translation creates a linguistic gap between the teacher and the learner,

3) translating in class makes the assumption that translations can be “perfect,”

4) and it de-emphasizes the new language because L1 is spoken too frequently.

These ideas used to dominate, and in part still do, English teaching programs, but translation in the classroom is now gaining momentum for many reasons.

Why Translation Should be Incorporated into Classrooms

First of all, it preserves and celebrates a student’s L1. Unfortunately, it was and is widely believed that one can only learn a new language by abandoning L1, implying that the native language is a hinderance to student growth. This kind of thinking isn’t unique to educators but has trickled down to popular culture, too. Some parents ban speaking the family’s native tongue in the home to acquire a new language faster. However, learning a second language ultimately enables a person to strengthen her communication skills in both languages.

Second, preserving one’s native language, and continuing to learn more, also preserves culture.

In an interview, Guy Cook, author of Translation in Language Teaching, commented:

“We live in a world where English is more dominant, but on the other hand, we need to be more careful about people maintaining their own linguistic and cultural identities.”

In order to do this, teachers should not just create opportunities to translate in the classroom, but they should also apply certain lessons differently for speakers of different languages. Even though the added prep takes more time and effort, educators can be sure that they will engage students by making lessons more linguistically and culturally relevant.

Third, learning a second language benefits all people personally and professionally; however, many students learning English feel that they are at a disadvantage compared to the rest of their classmates. They do not realize or they are not reminded of the benefit of speaking a second (or third) language. Translation helps student realize that language is an opportunity, and the more they know the more opportunities they’ll have.

Fourth, students can compare and contrast their native language to the one they are learning, which helps them connect their knowledge to new words. That way, students do not feel like they are starting from zero, but simply expressing their knowledge, and more importantly, their thoughts and ideas, in a new way. They also have the chance to systemize the acquired language (e.g., this is a verb, this is a noun, sentences are made like this, etc.), making L2 seem more understandable.

Fifth, students like translation activities. While doing a questionnaire among his own students, Angeles Carreres  discovered that many students perceived translation activities as entertaining and “useful for language learning." He observed that students were quick to participate in discussions about word meanings, leading him to incorporate more translation activities into his classroom.

And last but not least, knowing how to translate is a skill in and of itself, especially today.

Translating in the classroom, despite its former reputation, has been proven to help a student master a language more quickly, and at the same time cultivate a positive attitude about learning new languages. Translation helps students comprehend L2, enables greater mental capacity (quickens memorization of new vocabulary, idioms, grammar, etc), facilitates self-expression in L2, increases self-esteem, and develops important translation skills for now and later. 

This way, they will not only know that they are smart in their L1, but (unlike Gloria) they'll know that other people know it, too.