Translation in the classroom remains something of a taboo; partly, perhaps, because many training courses proscribe its use as a technique, and partly because not all teachers are familiar with the mother tongue (L1) of their learners, and therefore feel uncomfortable with its use in their classrooms.
However, many teachers, trainers and writers have been unhappy with its poor reputation. Judicious and principled use of L1 / translation has been making a steady comeback. Guy Cook and Philip Kerr, for instance, have in recent years published thought-provoking and informative books that explore the use and usefulness of translation / L1 in the classroom to great depth.
I thought I’d share an activity that utilises your learners’ L1. We demonstrated it on our recent APPL course and it seemed to be quite popular with those who attended; many tried it out and reported back on its success. The activity is known by various names – most commonly, Retranslation.
What is Retranslation? How does it work?
Retranslation has been around for a long time – I first heard of it early in my career and I’ve traced it further back to an ELTJ article from 1984, though it may be older still. It is an activity that encourages learners to closely consider differences and similarities between L1 and L2 by translating and then, after a time delay, retranslating a short text.
There are several variants, but here is the procedure I have used most often:
1) The teacher creates, selects or adapts a short text in English; it could be from 50 – 150 words, depending on the level of your learners.
2) The learners translate the text into their L1. In a monolingual classroom, this can be collaborative. I tend to give learners some time to look at the text and mentally translate it on their own, before working with a partner on an agreed translation.
3) The teacher takes their translations away and keeps them until the next lesson. It is important that there is a time lapse before the next stage, so that the learners don’t simply translate from memory (often the next day or better still two days later).
4) In the next lesson, the teacher hands back their initial translations, and asks the learners to retranslate the text back into English, working with the same partner as in step 2.
5) They then compare their retranslation with the original text. I suggest an initial global comparison task (e.g. is your retranslation quite similar to the original?) and then a more focused task (e.g. find five differences or underline the verbs – did you use the same tenses?). The focused task is key and will depend on whether you have embedded a language point in the original text; see below for more on this.
Why is it useful?
There’s some fairly complex theory behind its value for promoting language acquisition: I’ll aim to be brief.
Retranslation, like other text reconstruction activities (such as Dictogloss), takes learners to a point where they compare their own retranslation with the original text – in other words, they compare their own output (including errors made) with the original input made available to them. What stands out here for learners are the gaps they perceive between the two versions – where their own language falls short, the structures / items they did not know or were not able to freely use when retranslating the text. This increased awareness of and attention to new language is referred to as ’noticing’.
Noticing a linguistic item is generally held to be a necessary condition if that item is to be acquired (in contrast to a teacher simply presenting a structure and assuming the learners walk away able to use it – we as teachers generally know this is not true!).
To give an example – an intermediate learner of mine recently compared the following two sentences (excerpted from a whole retranslated text):
I’d been travelling for two days without rest and finally I was here.
Learner Retranslated Sentence:
I travelled since two days without rest and finally I was here.
When first translating the text (step 2 above), the learner had a chance to notice the form but there is a tendency at this stage to attend to meaning quite broadly without fully considering the effect of the choice of form on meaning – the sentence is past, therefore they translated it into the past simple. In step 4, this was then re-translated into the past simple in English. At step 5, when comparing their retranslated sentence with the original, however, the learner immediately zoomed in on their ‘lack’ and asked me about this intriguing new tense (perhaps intriguing is overstating it – but the learner was genuinely curious!). They had noticed the past perfect continuous; they were consciously thinking about it and how it differed from their own choice of past simple. The lesson then proceeded more conventionally – we clarified and practised the tense; the key difference from a normal presentation was that the learner had noticed and become curious about the form before explicit clarification and practice took place. As a result, theory suggests they were in a better position to acquire the item in the long term (no claims are made regarding instant acquisition).
In fact, I had deliberately embedded the past perfect continuous in the text, in the knowledge my learner did not know it and the assumption / hope they were ready to notice it. Whether or not a language point is deliberately embedded is, as with Dictogloss, up to the teacher. My suggestion is that if you want to expose a gap, and subsequently encourage noticing, aim for language that you feel is currently just beyond your learners’ level. This in my experience tends to lead to the most beneficial noticing.
Don’t feel, though, that a specific linguistic item has to be ‘shoehorned’ into the text – a well-selected text that pushes learners to go just beyond what they already know offers opportunities for learners to notice various aspects of language beyond syntax: collocations, style, discourse markers and so on. Our own agenda as teachers might not dovetail with what a learner is ready to notice: encourage your learners to underline and query any differences, and be prepared to do follow-up work in later lessons on areas they seem to have noticed.
The article referred to in the fourth paragraph above is from The English Language Teaching Journal by Julian Edge from December 1984 - “Acquisition Disappears After Adultery”: interaction in the translation class (it takes its name from a humorous retranslation made by students). A very readable source on the value of noticing and reconstruction tasks can also be found in the ELTJ - Reformulation and Reconstruction: tasks that promote “noticing” - by Scott Thornbury, from February 1996.