The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Translating New Words

Question:

Submitted by Amin

Is it appropriate for an English teacher to translate new words into the students’ mother tongue? If so, how much and how many words?

Dr. Richards responds:

Translating new words into the mother tongue is sometimes an obvious and useful strategy when students encounter unknown words in a text. However, before deciding to use translation the teacher should ask:
How important is this word in the text?
Is it a word that the students will need for active use or simply for recognition?
Is it a low frequency word that the students are unlikely to need and that they may not encounter often again?

If the teacher decides that the word is useful and important, he or she should also ask:
Can the meaning of the word be inferred from the context or because it is similar to a word in the students’ mother tongue?
Can the students make an intelligent guess about the meaning of the word?
Can they check the meaning of the word in their dictionary?

If after reviewing the options the teacher decides that translation is a quick and effective way of introducing a new and useful word, the students can write the translation of the word on the margin of the text or in their workbook.

If it is a low frequency and not very useful word, quickly provide the translation and move on.