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How Much Translation Do You Use?

Most of us have heard it more than a couple of times “encourage your students not to rely on translation” or one of the other variants (“English only“). The idea is, in the long run it is better for them to try to think in English or at least be compelled to communicate in it while they are in their class with you, the native speaker. Sometimes that is part of the reason a school wants a native speaker – students will need to use English to communicate with you, and can’t fall back on their own language as they could with a local teacher when they know s/he will understand.

It’s good in the sense that if they are in a situation where they really do need to speak English – specifically because the other person does not speak their language – they will also have to rely only on English. Also the higher their level gets, the more it will happen that words may not have good direct translations. But if there is a good translation – should you just tell them so it’s quicker? In cases where they are really struggling and you know the word, it is not the worst thing in the world, but sometimes it happens in life that someone doesn’t understand completely, and you just move on. Class does not need to come to a grinding halt because no one knows the translation of a given word. I look at is as – in the long run, the skills they gain listening and figuring out a word in English are a lot more valuable than certainty about the translation of a handful of words.

If direct translation happens a lot in class, they will be more inclined to rely on translation and less able to see the value in talking around a word.

I have wondered if the de-emphasis on translation is connected to the fact that most native speaker English teachers do not – and for all practical purposes could not – speak the language of their students in most countries of the world. If they are turning to each other (or worse, their electronic translators) for translations, in a way, you have “lost them”. Could the real reason for the emphasis on English only be a classroom management – rather than an educational – concern? I think it could play a role – but I have also met students who literally seem paralyzed when they don’t know or can’t translate a word, and the benefit of explaining or figuring out in English is clear.

I have heard a few teachers recommend English practice activities, like flashcards, that involve translation for use at home. What do you think of these – is your English only policy only for class?