Why don’t we translate while we teach English?

… and all other things.” I saw the look in his eyes: panic. “Things? What is things?” Oops, I didn’t know this was a new word. Mentally slapping myself in the face for my own stupidity, I started explaining the word “thing”.

I pointed at different objects in the room while using the word “thing” and referred to myself and him as people not things. He looked at me as if he wasn’t completely sure. He was trying to translate but he got stuck. So I went on with more examples because that’s how I was taught to teach English: in English. Then he found a translation and checked with me if it was ok. I told him “yes, that’s it!”. He sighed and got relaxed again.

I allowed him to translate even though I was taught that it’s better not to translate while we teach English. Moreover I totally support this idea. It’ll probably be more meaningful to fully immerse oneself into the new language, hence easier to learn and to remember. Therefore ESL/EFL teachers shouldn’t rely on the first language in class.

But I translate all the time. Not as a teacher but as a student. Not from Dutch to English but from English to Spanish and vice versa. I am a beginner and force myself to speak and understand it. I simply cannot switch my other languages off while communicating in Spanish. Therefore I don’t feel like I’m in the right position to ask this from my students. Still I don’t do the translating for them.

For example, have a look at this sentence:

Native taal interference when learning and using English by foreign learners is a natural thing equally as translation is a natural taal activity in human communication.

I replaced a word with the word “taal” which is a Dutch word. Probably you’re still able to understand it because of the context, right? Because you know that English is a language, you can guess that “taal” means “tongue” therefore you’re perfectly able to understand this sentence.  You’ve just translated the unknown word into a language you master. You’re simply using what you know.

So why shouldn’t you use all this knowledge you already have? Why shouldn’t you relate your new vocabulary to your existing one and strengthen it by repeating, rehearsing and making it meaningful? As a student I find this rather fruitful. However I think it’s important that students translate themselves. To use their own brain connections and strengthen these paths so this new language can be stored in their own brain. It’s up to the teacher to provide the explanation and examples in English in order to create a natural environment. Think of this: when your student goes abroad, will there be anyone around to do the translating for him or her? Probably not.

So no, I don’t translate in the classroom but my students do and I “allow” it. Once they know the meaning of the new word, I encourage them to use it as often as possible in the class so they can get comfortable with it.  So that one day it can all be stored in that long-term memory of theirs where all the known words will be linked and memorized.

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