Tuesday, May 20, 2014

(re)Discovering Translation in ELT

One of the very first things you learn on your CELTA course is that translation or using the students' mother tongue in any way is a big no-no. And although it's really hard on you as a teacher to teach, very often, beginners solely in English, it does prepare you for real life classroom situations.
I had the opportunity to experience that natural communication barrier twice, in Turkey and in Spain, and it certainly was difficult. At the same time however, the satisfaction I felt when the students understood what I was trying to say was immeasurable and clearly worth the effort.

Looking back, I am absolutely positive that making us all sweat eliciting the Present Perfect Continuous was the right thing to do. Let's not forget that some of us teach in multilingual environments where relying on translation may be impossible. Also, having the easiest way of conveying meaning crossed off the list makes you dig deep and discover ways of expressing yourself you've never thought you had in you.

On the other hand, do you remember your CELTA foreign language class?
Do you remember how you felt?

In my case it was a class of Japanese and I felt like a complete idiot. Not only because I had no idea what the teacher was saying. I had the feeling that everyone apart from me understood everything. Also my fellow trainees were able to memorize and repeat the phrases much faster than me. So I stood there mindlessly repeating stuff which later turned out to be 'I'm a student' and 'You're the teacher'. Who would have thought!

I also remember my Turkish class two years later. It was not even remotely connected to communicative approach and my level higher than elementary but I do recall feeling the constant need for clarification. Not knowing what a particular word or structure meant was sometimes driving me crazy.

As my knowledge of both Turkish and Spanish grew, I started using my students' L1 in some cases. To get rid of some classroom management issues, to speed things up etc. You can read about the reasoning behind using L1 in class in one of my previous posts here. Even though using translation was(is?) 'forbidden', it did come naturally and to tell you the truth, felt far from wrong.

As you can imagine, I was thrilled to listen to Philip Kerr's talk about using L1 during the IH Barcelona conference in February but Paul Seligson was the one who hit the nail on the head during the TESOL Spain colloquium in March.

The ideas Philip Kerr presented were based on his experience teaching English in Austria to, I assume, mostly German speakers. One of my favourites was 'the sandwich technique' he showed, used mainly for instruction giving. It consists of the teacher saying the instruction, or parts of it, in English, students' L1 and English again e.g. 'Could you open, abrir, open the window?' Once your students get the word/ phrase, you simply stop using L1 and continue in English. This technique worked really well with my beginner classes as it did give the students some help with understanding, boosted their confidence and created a much more relaxed atmosphere.

Some other great ideas were:
  • using a red and green card; red meaning that English is spoken only, green meaning that L1 is temporarily allowed
  • teacher's position in the classroom meaning 'English only' or 'L1 allowed' e.g. when the teacher is standing next to the window, the students may use L1
  • having a list of false friends on the wall but also a list of true friends i.e. words or expressions that are the same or very similar in English and L1
  • having examples of bad English (resulting from translation) on the wall
  • allowing students 2 min prep time in L1
  • appointing a Language Monitor (student or teacher) - someone who will silently note down all the examples of students using their L1 in class. Later students will have to translate them, with the help of the teacher, dictionaries, apps or as homework
  • Own Language Mirroring - if a student says or writes something incorrect in English, the teacher translates it back into L1 the way s/he understood which should make the student see the mistake more clearly.
Paul Seligson's talk, to take the matter further, was specifically aimed at teachers of English to Spanish speaking students. Instead of constantly telling the students to 'think in English' which he believed just does not happen, he presented a bunch of activities focusing on using Spanish as reference, building on already existing knowledge. Knowing that around 60% of English vocabulary is of French/ Latin origin and that in some cases grammar rules and structures are (almost) exactly the same in both languages, it does sound ridiculous not to take advantage of something that is presenting itself in plain sight, right?

Paul quite severely criticized the communicative approach, pointing out that, very often, we tend to pray for the weakest students to understand our instructions or explanations being satisfied with one bright individual (who he called 'wikipedia') supplying the answer on the spot. He claimed, calling students 'victims of the system',  that there are people for whom the communicative approach in its pure form simply doesn't work. Does that ring any bells?

One of the suggestions given during the talk was providing students with cognates first and consciously using them, especially at low levels during instruction giving and all other tasks. For example, it will be easier for the students to understand 'It's not necessary' rather than 'You don't have to' as the first expression bears a resemblance to Spanish.

Students should also be made aware of how certain suffixes translate into English and encouraged to seek patterns e.g. English plastic, traffic becomes plastico and trafico in Spanish. There are some useful examples here, here and here.

Here are some other ideas:
  • tell the students to think of: 1 day of the week , 4 numbers up to ten, 2 colours, 3 parts of the face, 5 common clothes etc. that are similar in both languages 
  • provide the students with a list of words e.g. months or animals(cognates) on the board and letting them think and decide if the stress in those words(pr the pronunciation) are the same or different in Spanish and English
  • make use of contrastive (as opposed to inductive and deductive) grammar e.g. by writing a sentence in Spanish on board and asking the students to translate it stressing at the same time the similarities or possible differences. In my case, it worked really well with articles. (If you prefer to stand by eliciting grammar rules, take a look at this fantastic article by Alex Case.)
  • lett students whisper in their mother tongue
  • encourage your students to write translation in their notebooks in pencil and then rubbing it off once they remember the word/expression
The best thing about all those ideas is that the teacher does not actually speak any Spanish in class. The students, similarly, mostly do only the 'thinking' in Spanish.

The worst thing, well, you have to know your students' L1 in order to help them make use of it while learning English.

Should we let translation sneak into our classrooms and perhaps into the CELTA syllabus or is it something a teacher should naturally discover?
Maybe we should continue looking at translation with disgust and stick to English only?

Last but not least, thank you Philip and Paul for some wonderful and inspiring ideas.
It was a pleasure learning from you!