Translation In The TEFL Classroom?

I encourage my students to explain (and ideally “think”) in English while in class, but am I being unrealistic? Are people translating in their minds anyway, and if this is the case, am I just slowing things down by insisting on English?

While I do believe many learners continue to try to translate even at relatively high levels, I don’t think it’s a waste of time to focus on using only English. As I see them, some pros and cons of translation:


  • It saves time. It is often much much quicker to translate many (generally lower level) words than to explain or give examples and then concept check in English.
  • Many students translate anyway, so if you allow it, you don’t need to struggle against their instinct. As EFL teachers, we get used to the idea that using English only is a great thing, but I’d guess that most English speakers used translation when they studied a foreign language (but perhaps the argument against this is: look at how well most English speakers speak other languages…).


  • Plenty of words or terms are not simple translations or may have more than one in the students language.
  • As a teacher hired in part for being a native speaker, you are not expected to speak your students’ language and most probably won’t ever speak it at a level equivalent to the level of your students’ English. Accordingly, if you translate vocabulary words, you may not do it correctly; if your students do, you may not know if they are correct. Better to be well prepared in English.
  • Most students don’t spend much of their own time speaking English – your class is their chance to practice and it is often better for their communication skills in general that they become competent at speaking enough English to get their point across, even if it means they sometimes miss out on sharing the finer details.
  • Many of your students will have already been in classes where translation was used…and here they are still learning English. If it was such as successful method, they wouldn’t be in your class.