I know a lot of teachers and trainers have already written about this. In the past, translation was a big part of language learning, but now it has become a secondary — if not frowned upon — activity in the language classroom. And I was one of those teachers who believe translation only gets students too attached to L1 to speak or write fluently.

But something that recently happened in my beginner classroom made me think differently about translation, so I have decided to share this experience and what it taught me on this blog.

Last month I was teaching a class of beginners, whom I have been teaching to for almost a year now. These are adults in their early 40s who were never exposed to English during their formal education and who never really studied any foreign language before. I was getting really frustrated as, after one year, they seemed to be still struggling to produce even the simplest sentences beyond “my name is” and “I’m from”.

Another aspect that I found very frustrating was how indissolubly attached they remained to L1. If I can understand that a beginner needs to refer back to L1 to make sense of English, I could not see why they would want to force everything we learned into their L2 frame of reference. And if it didn’t fit, they would keep asking: how can we translate this into Italian? Why does English use this if we don’t in Italian? And so on.

One day, having tried all the communicative methods learned during CELTA, I decided to change direction and give them some Italian sentences (with the past simple that we started studying a few lessons back) to translate into English as homework. In the past, I had given them writing tasks, something like ‘write about your daily routine’. But the results were often what I would consider a disaster: random sentences with Italian words in them, most of the times very difficult — if not impossible — to understand even for a teacher. So my hopes for the translation task were very low.

We tried to translate a couple of sentences in class, so that I could help them understand how English works differently than Italian. For instance, to make the past in Italian (especially in northern Italy) we use passato prossimo, which is formed by the auxiliary avere (to have) or essere (to be) + past participle. Beginner students tend to translate word-by-word from Italian and instead of saying/writing ‘I went home’ they would write ‘I am go home’. Thus we focused on this difference, pointing out how the Italian sono andato is only one word in English, went.

To my surprise, at home they did an excellent job at the translation task. And not only that. From that moment on, even when speaking, I haven’t heard a lot of ‘I am go’ any more.

All this made me reflect on the role of translation, or more in general, of comparing L1 to English. I am aware that this kind of exercise can lead learners to think about L1 before they produce or understand anything in English (which is something that happens very often and causes a lot of fluency and reading problems). However, after what happened with this group of learners, I am starting to believe that we might be able to help our students transition to a more natural use of L2 exactly by promoting translation/comparison.

In other words, we could help students — especially adult beginners — understand the differences between L1 and English by contrasting the two languages in translation. This could promote a “healthier relationship” between the two languages, and in the long run help our students move away from L1.

I hope what I wrote makes sense to you. It would be great to read your opinion and experience on this matter. Thanks for reading!