Translation activities. When? Why?

Translation activities. When? Why?

The communicative method is about using English from the very first lessons. However, some students try to resist as much as they can and carry on using their mother tongue or L1. In this respect, teenagers are one of the most notorious age groups.

A lot has been said about the reasons why teens are so reluctant, as well as techniques which can make them speak English. This article, though, will tell you how to use L1 and translation activities in class to everyone’s benefit. Mother tongue use has not gone dead with the grammar-translation method. It has been proven nowadays that L1 accelerates students’ English acquisition process.

Translation as a springboard 

Teenagers might sometimes struggle with writing or speaking tasks not because they have nothing to say, but because it’s too hard for them to do straightaway. Before starting a discussion, allow some time so that your students could discuss the topic in their mother tongue. After that, give 5 more minutes for them to write down key ideas in English or in both languages. This strategy works well with lower levels and helps higher-level students enrich their vocabulary and use more complicated grammar. Students are generally able to access more information in their mother tongue, which they can then translate.

Translation as a vocabulary tool

Translation activities are great when we want to show students that languages work differently. Cognates, false friends, idioms, collocations – this is a non-exhaustive list of potential vocabulary struggles teens can meet. 

Hand out cards with idioms or collocations printed on them. Accompany each card with an empty piece of paper. Ask students to look at their cards, think of the best translation and write it down on an empty piece of paper. There are two alternatives after that:

  1. The English and L1 cards from all the students are mixed in the middle of the table. The task is to find those cards which match.
  2. English cards are kept out. Students take turns, looking at L1 cards and trying to come up with the best English equivalent.

This activity is good for recycling vocabulary and for dealing with idioms, collocations and fixed expressions. False friends can be an option as well.

Translation as a holistic activity

Sometimes we need a translation activity just to show our students how language works as a whole. Noticing differences and similarities between English and L1 can be beneficial for teenagers because it got them thinking about structures and can significantly improve their accuracy.

One of my favourite activities was taken from the Lexical Lab website run by Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley. They say that it’s an idea taken from Philip Kerr’s ‘Translation and Own-language activities book’. It’s a so-called translation dictation. The teacher dictates some phrases to students in English. The students, though, don’t just write down what they hear. 

“They should listen, process the sentence for meaning and then try to write the sentence in their own language – matching the meaning as closely as possible. It’s important that students are clear that they shouldn’t just translate the sentences word for word; translation should be grammatically correct and sound natural in their own language. Once the teacher has dictated all the sentences, students try to reconstruct the original sentences in English based on their L1 sentences and knowledge of the L2 language point/s. They then work in pairs to compare and refine the translations. After this, students see the original sentences and can compare them to their versions.”

You will find more thoughts about this activity here.

Translation as a way to have fun

This activity relates a lot to the previous one as it teaches to notice structures and spot differences between the languages. What’s more, it can be hilariously funny. I usually practise it with teenagers who overuse Google Translate in their homework and writing tasks.

We take an English text and put it through Google Translate to get a Russian equivalent. Reading that is already lots of fun. Then we translate it back into English using the same tool and compare two English texts we have. Using Google Translate can help students catch grammatical errors by spotting these errors in the translations.

All in all, translation is quite a controversial issue. It might seem difficult, time-consuming and outdated. However, it still has its rights to be present in the classroom if used properly. 

Do you ever use translation? In what way?


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