Hands up if your experience of learning English in school looked something like this: The teacher stood at the front of the class and you repeated the new English words after your teacher said them.
Those words could be pretty random, and you had no idea what they had to do with anything.
Exercises involved translating phrases or sentences that may not be all that useful. My mother claims the only French she remembers from high school is un stylo bleu. That’s it. The extent of her knowledge of the French language is the ability to point out a blue pen.
(You can put your hand down now!)
This is called The Grammar Translation Method.
For approximately 300 years, this method was pretty much all there was. Since then, researchers and language teachers have developed many methods, theories, and techniques to teach and learn language effectively.
Translation in the language classroom largely fell out of favour in academic discussions, but it never really went away. Some researchers argue it can’t, and shouldn’t. Many researchers are now coming back around to the idea that translation is a good tool to help you learn English.
These researchers argue that it was how translation was taught that made the old methods ineffective and uninspiring, and the fact that translation alone is not going to get you very far.
By taking what was good about grammar translation - the focus on the form of language, lots of vocabulary, and making use of your mother tongue - and combining it with actual communication, which was lacking in the original grammar translation method, you can boost your language learning ability.
The Japanese Experience
I am an assistant English teacher in Japan, where students must learn English in school.
Japanese schools are generally very test-focused. Exams can determine which high school you go to, as well as university. Even some elementary schools require exams before admitting students!
The English portion of these exams was traditionally based on the grammar translation method, testing only reading and writing ability, and maybe listening comprehension.
With no spoken component of these all-important exams, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to dedicate precious class time to practicing speaking in English.
Recently, the Japanese government has decided that all English classes in high school should be taught entirely in English, but there is often a huge disconnect between what the government says and what actually happens in the classroom.
So even though they are supposed to be using only English, many teachers do not feel confident in their English speaking abilities, and they use the methods they are most familiar with.
But wait! Don’t you WANT as much English as possible?!
Yes, and no.
If you can’t understand what is being said, it isn’t going to do you much good.
How Translation Can Help
Translation can help make such input comprehensible, and save a lot of time for other activities, like listening to podcasts or speaking with a conversation partner. So instead of spending class time going over explanations that students can’t really understand, or might easily misunderstand, a teacher could provide a direct translation of a word and just get on with the rest of the lesson.
If I were to teach you the Japanese word “ringo”, I could tell you it is a fruit that grows on trees and is usually red or green and is associated with a famous computer company. Or I could just tell you it means “apple”.
Which is easier? You already know what an apple is. Now you know what it is in Japanese, too!
And, according to Lambert (1990), bilingual people are able to better memorise words on word lists when the words are presented in both languages.
There is nothing wrong with looking up new English words in an English dictionary to understand what they mean, if that’s what you want to do, but for some people seeing the word in your first language and in English can help you remember it better than just using English.
They argue that
- It is something that learners do anyway
- It is necessary in many daily contexts
- Not only does it not harm acquisition of the additional language, It can develop deeper understanding of BOTH languages
It seems pretty natural for translation to be used at the early stages of learning a language, before you’ve developed enough vocabulary and grammar to express yourself fully in your second language.
But at intermediate and advanced levels, some translation also appears to be unavoidable.
Studies show that when students are meant to be writing directly in their second language, without translating from a draft in their first language, most students still think in their first language at least some of the time.
They think in their first language but write in English. They translate the thoughts in their heads to English words on the paper.
When you read in English, like you are doing right now, what happens inside your head? If your first language isn’t English, do you translate it into your first language? Or do you think in English? If you translate, how much do you do it? All the time? Some of the time?
It is quite natural to translate between the languages you use, especially when you are trying to explain something to someone who doesn’t use one of those languages.
A few years ago, some friends came to visit me in Japan. They couldn’t speak or read Japanese. At all. It was a new experience for me to be in a position to translate for somebody else. Usually, I find myself on the other side of the situation and I need someone to translate unfamiliar Japanese into English for me!
Translation Helps You Understand Your Mother Tongue
I also work at a prefectural board of education. I am not a professional translator, but occasionally I am asked to help my colleagues translate documents from Japanese to English, or they help me write emails entirely in Japanese.
I have probably learned more about English in the past 5 years than the two decades or so before I came to Japan. My colleagues ask me some absolutely brilliant questions that I never had to consider since I grew up speaking only English, such as, “When we do multiplication, why do we say one times three? Shouldn’t it be one time three?”. I knew enough to tell my colleague that “times” isn’t a verb, so we don’t need to worry about subject-verb agreement, but I didn’t know what word class “times” is. I’d never thought about it. In case you are now also wondering, it is a preposition.
Likewise, my outsider perspective of Japanese language and culture leads me to ask them questions they must think carefully about, such as the nuances between different words that just translate into “plan” in English. In English, we say we have a business plan and a plan for the weekend, but in Japanese there is a word that has a more important, long-term plan meaning and a different word that means the sort of plans you make for a weekend. My colleague had to look up both words in a Japanese dictionary to be able to explain the difference to me.
Recently, we ran into a problem trying to translate a word that means “value”, in English. Can you guess the problem?
Value can mean different things. It can be a verb, or a noun. It can mean how expensive something is, or how important it is to someone.
Another problem was that it has those meanings in Japanese, too.
So my colleagues and I took another look at the context of the original Japanese, and determined that the original word, while it can have the money meaning of value, it had more of a sense of the principle or belief meaning.
We both learned to appreciate the value of translating in learning a new language. (Ha!)
Should You Translate From Your First Language Into English, Or The Other Way Around?
According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), professional translators are supposed to only translate into their mother tongue.
That’s because you already know what sounds natural in your first language. You know it best.
But for practicing English, I recommend that you try translating in both directions, from and into English.
As I mentioned earlier, translating is something that a lot of people do everyday anyway. When my friends visited me, I had to translate Japanese into English for them. When I want to write an email to my colleagues in Japanese, I translate my English thoughts into Japanese.
Since in real life you will probably find yourself translating between your first language and English, and the other way around, you should practice that way too.
How Can I Use Translation to Learn English?
Most of the research on using translation in language learning that I have found is about using it in a classroom environment, which is quite different from building your own English course.
But this doesn’t mean that independent English learners should forget about translation.
Here are some ways that you can use translation to improve your English. Maybe you have already been doing some of these things.
Recently, Ramsay wrote about using songs to learn English.
Another way to use songs to improve your English is to re-write them into your first language.
Really pay attention to the word choice the original songwriter used. Does your language have a phrase with a similar meaning? How do you convey these feelings in your own language?
By making connections to your own language, you can understand the English vocabulary and structure better.
Retell A Story
If you have a language partner, try telling them about something you read or saw in your first language, but use English.
Or try it the other way around. Tell a friend who maybe doesn’t speak English at all about the cool English podcast you just listened to.
You can also re-write a news article. Pay close attention to the structure of the sentences and nuances of the words. Notice how each language is different. Notice where they’re similar. Make a note of interesting idioms that don’t exactly translate, and think of a way to convey the same idea in the language you translate into.
Google Translate and other machine-translating services like DeepL can be really useful tools. You shouldn’t depend too much on machine translation, since sometimes it can give you very, very weird results, but it can be a good way to quickly check your understanding when you don’t have a language partner on hand.
One of the ways I study Japanese is by reading the news in simple Japanese. Sometimes I know that I know what all the words mean individually, but I am not sure how they fit together. Sure, I can get the gist of an article this way, but I can easily make a mistake about the relationship between words and maybe even get the wrong idea entirely because I missed a small but important detail. Google Translate gives me a rough confirmation that I understood what I read.
You can also help fix some of those really wacky translations when you know Google has it wrong. It can be a nice ego boost when you can pick out those mistakes!!
And while we’re on the topic of Google, here is a great podcast about how Google works.
Start a Book Club
The first time I tried to read a book entirely in Japanese, I did it as part of a book club on an online kanji learning community.
We read よつばと！(Yotsuba &! in English), a manga (Japanese comic).
The more advanced learners put together a word list, in English, and would help answer questions about the weekly readings. Having a word list for translations from the Japanese to English made it much smoother than having to look up every unknown word in a dictionary. When I came across a word I didn’t know, I could slot in the English translation, and make a note to study this new Japanese word later. If I knew the words but couldn’t make sense of how they fit, I could write out my best attempt at a translation and someone could correct the grammar.
It was also really encouraging to read along with a group of people.
Do You Need to Use Translation to Learn English?
You don’t need to, but I hope that I have shown you that translation doesn’t have to be boring or useless, and can actually help you learn English and USE it.
For many years, researchers recommended not using translation at all, because of the faults of the grammar translation method. In some ways, they were right. It can be very boring and demotivating when you spend all your time copying vocabulary and grammar and not actually using English to talk with people.
But now researchers are starting to recognise that the problem with grammar translation wasn’t that translation itself was bad, but that translation by itself was not very effective.
I will be honest. If all you did to study English were those activities I mentioned, you would probably not get very far. But I want to encourage you to try adding some of these activities into your study routine.
It might even be fun!
Lambert, W.E. (1990) Persistent issues in bilingualism. In Harley, B., Allen, P., Cummins, J., Swain, M. (eds.) The Development of Second Language Proficiency. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 201-18.
About the author
Chelanna graduated in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts and a minor in Japanese Language and Culture. She then obtained a TESOL certificate before becoming an assistant English teacher in Kyoto, where she lives with her husband, goldfish, and ever-growing collection of stationery and yarn.