A translation hypocrite?

Would these learners have benefitted from a translation class? (Sandy Millin, creative commons sharing allowed)

It’s been a very stimulating afternoon. First I took part in #eltchat, which today had the topic “Can translation (and translation tools) facilitate language learning and how can it be used to best effect?” (the transcript is here). I then watched Guy Cook’s talk “Coming in from the cold: translation in language teaching” from this year’s International House DOS Conference (watch it here). With both of these offering fascinating explorations of translation, I couldn’t help but consider my own experiences as both a learner and a teacher, and what role translation has had in them.

As a learner

So far, I have studied five languages, achieving a greater or lesser degree of proficiency in each of them. I am a native-English-from-England speaker. I think it would be useful (for me at least) to think about how I learnt each language, and how much translation was used by myself and the teacher (bear with me on this, it’s long-winded!). Taking them in chronological order:


I first tried to teach myself French at the age of 8 or 9 from a book called “Essential French” which I had been given as a birthday present. My first memory of trying to produce any word in a foreign language is sitting on my parents’ bed reading numbers from the page and failing miserably – my attempt at 8 was ‘who-it’. The book is essentially a phrase book with pictures showing phrases being used in context. On every page there are lists of words with translations into English.

I was given my next French book at Christmas. It was called “First French”, although the closest I can now found being sold is “First French at Home“. This was a revelation for me, as together with the French and English, there were also ‘phonetic’ translations, so that I could try to pronounce the French possibly. I also saw my first French joke, which relies on translation to be funny. Unfortunately I can’t remember the first line, but the punchline relied on the fact that “Un deux trois quatre cinq” sounds similar to “Un deux trois cats sank” (if anyone can suggest the joke, please do!). I loved this joke, and I think it’s one of the reasons I was fascinated with the book – so it could be said that translation was one of the sparks that made me want to learn languages.

At the age of 11, I had the choice between two different secondary schools. One was a traditional girls’ school with a long history and the other was a mixed school which was technologically advanced and had only been opened 6 years previously. One of the main reasons I chose the latter was that on the Open Day we were told that all French and German lessons would be taught only in L2. Even at that age, this greatly appealed to me and you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that this was not, in fact, the case. However, the language teachers I had there were excellent (how lucky I was!) and my motivation was not unduly affected in the long term. As is the case in most state schools, I expect, our lessons were taught through L1, with all grammar presented in English. We were encouraged to speak L2, but only really did so to the teacher or when doing activities. All conversation which was not related to the lesson was done in English. Translation was not an explicit part of my secondary school study, but was used implicitly in comparing grammatical structures between L1 and L2, as well as learning vocabulary with translations.

In my first two years at university the method in grammar classes was similar, although there was more French. Being with a group of motivated learners helped, as we had all chosen to be there. We were slightly more likely to speak L2 in class, but it was still far from an L2-only environment. In both years we were expected to take French-English translation as part of our core language module. They differed slightly, as the first year was only French>English and the second was in both directions. This was the first time I had ever translated officially, and it was always thought-provoking. The texts we used were almost always newspaper articles. I noticed patterns which existed in one language, but not the other. I learnt many false friends, because I needed to avoid them in my exam. I also learnt a lot about French cultural mores and the idea that translation is not just about language, but also about culture.

During this 10-year period I did two one-week French exchanges, a school trip to Paris (don’t think I spoke any French except to waiters that week), three months working on a campsite for English holidaymakers in Brittany (I was the only French speaker, so was required to translate for guests in many situations including at a hospital, at the police station and at a garage) and two months working as a receptionist at a youth hostel (I think I translated almost every day in various combinations: English-French, Spanish-French and German-French). Experiencing the culture first hand really improved my acquisition, but the experience was never completely isolated from translation.

Back at university in my final year, we were expected to speak only French in the classroom. This was extremely difficult, as I had never had any pressure to do this from previous teachers. Now, I wish I had as I really believe that the extra practice would have improved my French. This time, there was no translation and everything was done purely in L2. Although my French was up to it, I lost a lot of the feeling of security I had had previously. I still chatted to friends in English, but this time it was whispered and immediately changed to French when the teacher was within earshot.

Since leaving university my French usage has been very limited. I taught a beginner’s French class to two English-speaking Czech colleagues last year which was almost entirely in French, although I had to use English occasionally when I didn’t have the language to explain a concept to them, or when my explanation would have been too difficult. We occasionally had discussions about how all three languages expressed the same concept, which was fascinating for all of us, as it showed the differing attitudes each language conveys. Unfortunately I can’t remember any specific examples. Apart from that, I have had the occasional conversation in French and been asked to translate emails / messages into English a few times.

Overall, translation has been an integral part of both my French studies and my real-life usage of the language. Of all of my languages, it is the one in which I feel I have the most solid grammatical foundation and although I don’t attribute this entirely to translation, I do think it has had a role in my confidence in the language. However, it has also had a few drawbacks, as in a classroom situation I never feel able to communicate entirely in French, even though I’m sure it should be possible, and I always fall back on English when things become too difficult.


(don’t worry – this won’t be quite as long!)

Much of my experience of learning German mirrors that of French. I started German at seconday school and continued on to university, in much the same manner as described above. The main difference between my experience of the two languages lies in my exposure to German in natural contexts and the modules I had to study at university.

Translation was not an integral part of my first year university studies. Instead we had grammar lessons and an ‘Oral and Essay’ strand in which we discussed topics in class and then wrote essays on them at home. Each class was one hour per week and was taught entirely in German, although again, we had whispered conversations in English when we thought the teacher couldn’t hear us.

In second year we all got a shock. 25% of our core module was based on interpreting. All of it was done into English, but it was still a very difficult skill to master. We had to interpret simultaneously (listening and speaking at the same time) and consecutively (taking notes while listening, then speaking in English based on what we had written). To help us, the texts we interpreted were based on topics we were studying in the grammar and oral/essay components of the module, so we had vocabulary from those lessons, but I still remember desperately trying to learn as much vocabulary as humanly possible. How did I do this? Largely with German-English lists of words. It was stressful at times, but I enjoyed the feeling of achievement I got when I could interpret something successfully “I know this word and I can do it!”

I enjoyed interpreting so much, I continued it into the fourth year where it was a module in it’s own right – although this may have had something to do with the fact that all of the other modules I could choose from were literature-based, and while I love reading, I hate ‘pulling books apart’. This time we were interpreting debates from the European Parliament. We had the transcripts of the discussions in both German and English, which we ‘prepared’ at home. Cue more long lists of vocabulary, this time learnt with the help of my technological discovery of the year, a dictaphone. I recorded lists of 20 or so words every few days and listened to them while walking to and from the university. Each entry was the German word, a sentence using it in context and an English translation of the word. To this day, I still see certain words and remember what I said in my own ear about them!

In second year I also did a translation module, with the same benefits as those described above for French.

In terms of real experiences of speaking the language, my exposure to German has been much more limited than that of French. I did a one-week exchange two years after my first one in French; I went on a trip to Berlin corresponding to my Paris trip (in fact it was the weekend before) :); I spent six weeks working at a factory where I listened to music in English all day, then watched German TV all evening as I had nothing else to do; I lived with a third-generation German-speaking family in Paraguay (we spoke a mixture of both German and Spanish as I quite often forgot the German words I needed); I’ve taken various day / overnight trips there while living in France and the Czech Republic.

Again, I’ve taught classes in German since I left university, but this time the learners did not speak English. I always felt uncomfortable, as if I didn’t really know how to express myself properly, and missed the fact that I couldn’t translate from English at times. I also never liked the textbooks / material I was working from, and as a new teacher didn’t really feel comfortable presenting the lessons differently. However, this probably says more about my confidence in German and my early teaching ability (hopefully that’s changed now!), than anything explicit about translation.

Overall, I’ve always felt that my German is on much shakier ground than my French. This is probably due to a lack of real exposure to the language, but the one area which always made me feel that I had achieved was interpreting. It never mattered if my cases were not completely accurate (my main German bugbear), as long as my speaking style was confident and the language I was producing was a good reflection of the original. Thankfully, I didn’t pursue it as a career though, as I’m sure this feeling wouldn’t have lasted!


I started Spanish as a complete beginner at university. My lessons were almost exclusively in L2 only, and I really felt like I’d been thrown in at the deep end. The textbook we used (Claro que si) had English rubrics in the first few chapters, then changed to being exclusively in Spanish. I didn’t study translation or interpreting at any point. However, when discussing anything with my fellow students outside class, we always spoke English. We regularly compared grammar we had learnt in Spanish with that of other languages we spoke (to study as a beginner at university, you generally have to have proven ability in another language) and we often translated as a ‘fun’ activity, because we felt it had benefitted us in our other languages. We also learnt some words through translation: I will never forget that ’embarazado’ means pregnant and not embarrassed! (This refers to Guy Cook’s point about ‘faux amis’ in his talk).

Despite formally studying for three years at university, I actually attribute almost all of my Spanish learning to the year I spent in Paraguay (July 2006-June 2007, the third year of my degree), including two months of travelling (Jan / Feb). During my travels I sprained and fractured my ankle, which was the point at which my Spanish really took off, as every taxi driver I met asked me the same three questions: “What did you do to your leg?” “Why did you go to Paraguay and not Chile / Argentina?” (where I was travelling) “Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” (!) This repetition really improved my confidence when speaking Spanish and meant that when I returned to university my fluency was great, although my accuracy left a lot to be desired. While in Paraguay I went to a translation study group run by the owner of the langauge school I was working at. It often frustrated me, as he insisted on translating everything word for word. We did all of the translations orally and they never really made much sense, but I always felt too guilty to stop going to the class.

As with French and German, my exposure to Spanish since leaving university has been limited. I have done some informal translation between Spanish and English / German. I meet a Spanish woman once a week for a language exchange, often involving one or the other of us asking for translations of words which we can’t remember. I taught Spanish to an English-speaking Czech colleague for a year. Again, although I tried to use only L2 in the classroom, we often ended up discussing both the language and the culture in English, as well as comparing it to Greek, which she was teaching me.

I sometimes feel that a formal translation course would have benefitted my Spanish, as although I can speak fluently I feel my accuracy really needs to be improved. I often find myself thinking “How would I say that in Spanish?” when there are holes in my language, although I then try to get around it. This reflects Guy Cook’s point about “avoidance avoidance”. With only a few hours of lessons in Spanish each week and a large class to teach, I don’t think my university teachers ever noticed or had time to deal with these holes in my language, but as a teacher myself I am acutely conscious of them whenever I speak Spanish. Of course, a teacher who picks apart my grammar could also have them same effect – being a very confident person and unafraid to speak I don’t think this would stop me!


This is the first language I have learnt ‘in-country’. I’m now in my third year of living in the Czech Republic, and I’ve been informed my language is at approximately A2 level on the CEF framework (compared to C1 in French / German / Spanish). I tried to teach myself from a coursebook which is written largely in Czech, with the occasional list of words in both Czech and English, and only got through two chapters before giving up, mainly because I didn’t understand the instructions for any of the activities. I had lessons in my second year, when the foundations of my Czech were really laid. They were entirely in Czech, despite me occasionally attempting to get a translation from the teacher.

Apart from those few lessons, all of my Czech has come from necessity and exposure: I listen to Czech radio, I try to communicate in shops, I attempt to join in with conversations around me, I watch films with Czech subtitles.

The only really active way I have studied on my own has been to take articles in the free newspaper and translate them into English. Until writing this, I had never thought about that! I then get them checked informally by native Czech speakers at school. Again, I have noticed that through translation I have been forced to notice many structures in Czech and to think about their equivalents in English. This has been quite a useful skill when I then attempt to speak Czech – although I can say simple things, there are still huge holes in my language when I want to communicate anything more complicated than “I want to buy that, please.”


For just over a year I had one one-hour Greek lesson approximately every two weeks. As you might expect, my Greek hasn’t come on much, and I’ve forgotten most of it since the lessons stopped six months ago. However, I can read the alphabet and say a (very small) handful of basic sentences.

My lessons were in a mixture of Greek and English. I understood instructions, but could very rarely express myself or understand written instructions in Greek. I relied on my teacher to translate a lot of what was going on in the textbook, as the alphabet was (and still is) a huge barrier to understanding. I still try to read everything I see now though, and am excited every time there is a word I understand, almost always an English cognate.

Conclusions as a learner

Analysing my own learning, it turns out that most of it has been supplemented by translation. This does not, however, mean that when speaking the languages, especially the three stronger ones, I think in English. This only really happens when there is a ‘hole’, and if I’m speaking to a native speaker of the language, and especially one who I know does not speak English, I tend to have the motivation to get around this. So what has this meant for my teaching?

As a teacher

In my English classes I seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time saying “Speak English”, so much so that some of my students joke about it with me when we are outside class – at a school party it was the first thing my FCE class said when I sat down at their table! I encourage my students to speak English and try to discourage them as much as possible from speaking Czech. I do, however, allow quick translations of words if a learner is really struggling with a concept and have even been known to allow an explanation of a grammar point if one student in the class really doesn’t get it. I feel slightly more confident about this now than I did when I arrived in the Czech Republic, since I now have a level of Czech which enables me to at least roughly understand most of what is said in my class, but I still worry about things not being translated ‘correctly’.

This year, all of my classes are intermediate level or above, and most of them are advanced. In every class I have at least who relies on Czech for their English. In feedback which I recently did on an experimental (for me) lesson, one student wrote “Lesson reminded me, when writing review in English, that I have to start think in English, not just translate Czech sentences, even though it’s hard for me.” [sic.] This was from an advanced student who has been studying English for years.

In a 1-2-1 class, I have a student who always tries to understand an explanation in English, but has a tendency to give up quite quickly and go to his computer dictionary to check meanings. I always look over his shoulder and try to help him to choose the correct meaning for the English word he is trying to translate. This has become a regular feature of our lessons, and I have learnt a lot of Czech from him!

I have done one or two activities involving translation during the past couple of months, again because my own confidence in Czech has increased. In my Intermediate-level teen class, the students spoke almost no English during 45 minutes of a lesson. I became so frustrated that I wrote a few of the classroom phrases they were saying on the board and asked them to translate them, for example “What do you have?” “How do you spell…?” Through this exercise I discovered that they didn’t have the basic classroom language needed to interact with each other. In combination with introducing one or two of these phrases each week since that lesson, I have also begun to put on a 5-minute timer. Every time they manage to speak English for five minutes without a break I put a mark on the board. For each mark they can go home 30-seconds earlier. Since doing this, they have really started to try to speak English in class (generally they can leave a 90-minute lesson 5 minutes early) – in most lessons they speak at least 60 minutes of English. What is particularly telling though is that the Czech they do speak is almost always asking for a translation of a word or grammar point to confirm that they have understood.

With two advanced classes I did an exercise prompted by a text in the coursebook about literary translations. They had to bring in a book written in Czech and translate the first or last paragraph into English. All but one of the books they brought in were translations from another language into Czech. Their translations prompted a lot of discussion about comparisons between English and Czech, as well as the original language of the book (German / Japanese). We also looked at a couple of grammar issues which came up.

One very common Czech mistake is the substitution of ‘it’ for ‘that’ in short phrases such as “That’s all” and “That’s a shame”. Every time students make this mistake, I now tell them that the equivalent of “To je…” in Czech almost always translates as “That is…” and not “It is…” in English, even though “To” is normally translated as “It”. Since I noticed this a few months ago, my students have become much more aware of this.

Outside class, a lot of the writing my students do contains elements of Czenglish. Maybe if we did more translation with them, this might go down? They also occasionally ask me to check English versions of texts they have translated, for example, abstracts for their degrees which must be submitted in both Czech and English.


(at last – well done if you’ve made it this far!)

  • Translation has been an integral part of my own language learning, and yet it is a very isolated part of my teaching.
  • I only introduced translation into my own classes once I felt confident that my level of Czech was high enough to understand what the students were saying.
  • My own and my students’ real life uses of foreign languages often involve translation.
  • My students have benefitted from the translation activities we have done in class.

So, bearing that in mind, does that make me a translation hypocrite? Should I be more relaxed about the use of L1 in my classroom and not pounce on Czech every time I hear it? After the discussions today and my own reflections in that post, I’m inclined to answer “Yes” to both questions.

10 thoughts on “A translation hypocrite?

  1. I also had the same reflections after the translation discussions @ #ELTChat and I really appreciate your honesty in looking at your own personal experiences. I think we are taught so rigidly that only the language that learners are trying to learn should be spoken in the classroom, but as you said in your French experience when it became a kind of taboo you whispered. It still happened! I think translation is just another tool that can be employed when learning language and one that I know that I use still frequently in Turkish.


  2. Really interesting and I agree with most of your conclusions. I can add one interesting experience this week in a company pre int class . Three really good students who hardly ever speak Czech in the lesson. They were having a problem with a question relating to a cat swimming across the river -why not in the river. They found it difficult to understand the difference between ‘where is the cat swimming’ and ‘ where is the cat swimming to ‘ etc.
    So I spent one minute eliciting the Czech words ‘kde, kam and odkud’ (Czech has different words for ‘where’ ‘to where’ and from where and it was like a cloud had lifted.

    However in discussing translation in the classroom there is an ‘elephant in the room.’ If the TEFL teaching establishment accepts there is a theoretical justification or even need for translation in the classroom, it risks undermining its whole business model. In other words large parts of the business rely on cheap native speakers who have had four weeks training to form a large part of their teaching staff. This is justified by proclaiming the benefits of immersive teaching. With a need for translation there usability is much reduced.


  3. Great read, Sandy. Language adventures r ze best!

    All of my academic studies of French and Italian involved a bit of translation and I see the value in it, though since I’ve learned more quickly from more lexical/immersive approaches, that’s what I’ve stuck with.

    As far as being a hypocrite, I don’t think you are. You’re choosing among your experiences and offering different ones to your students, depending on their levels and learning styles. Probably better to have a flexible view of this than to be an extremist (though I’ve been known to try to scare L1 out of the classroom as well and have modestly defended that opinion in the blogosphere).

    Thanks for sharing this for the challenge!



    1. Hi Brad,
      Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure I’d choose the same title if I wrote the article again now, but it seemed appropriate at the time. Eclecticism is my approach, since I know that it works for me. I know what you mean about immersive approaches, though I think a bit of translation at the beginning is always unavoidable.
      Looking forward to seeing other responses to your challenge.


  4. I’m so sorry for yet another comment, Sandy, but I couldn’t help but be amused by your comments about language classes at Durham – it doesn’t sound like the syllabus or teaching changed at all in the six years between us! I also had such a love/hate relationship with the German Interpreting module, but somehow ended up doing really well in it – the point where I was told on many occasions to apply for that MA at Bath in Translation and Interpreting. I didn’t enjoy the thought of solitary translation enough to do that, but the Interpreting module certainly cemented my love of Quizlet, which I’ve seen and read you’re a fan of too.
    It was only just under three years ago that I graduated but it already seems like forever ago… I do miss the bubble though – a whole life dedicated to language learning was a pretty great place to be! I did German and Spanish post A-Level, and ab-initio Italian in my second year, but I lived with 4 ab-initio Spaniards in my second year (Hawthorne Terrace in the Viaduct for some nostalgia for you!) and therefore am well acquainted with Claro que si!
    Glad to hear your Thai lessons are going well 🙂


    1. Never apologise for comments – it’s at least half of the joy of blogging, especially on posts you’ve forgotten you’d written 🙂
      I don’t think university teaching seems to change much at all, and it was particuarly frustrating in my fourth year when I was doing my CELTA in parallel and could see how much more effective the classes could have been.
      Looking forward to seeing how you feel when you’re officially on the other side!


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