The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Translation or the mother tongue in an EFL class?

Question:

submitted by Ali Matour, Iran

What is your opinion about using translation or the mother tongue in an EFL class?

Dr Richards Responds:

There are really two questions here, one about the use of the mother tongue in the English lesson and one about translation. To respond to the first question, the mother tongue is an obvious reference point for learners in learning a new language. In my experience of learning languages (French, Indonesian, Chinese characters) in a one-to-one learning situation, I asked my tutors to use English to facilitate my learning. I also made use of translation activities (bilingual vocabulary cards) to facilitate my acquisition of vocabulary. Similarly in a classroom situation it makes sense for the teacher to use the mother tongue when introducing new vocabulary or presenting difficult concepts. The difficulty occurs when the class ends up being conducted largely in the mother tongue with very little use of English. So I would support intelligent use of the mother tongue to facilitate learning when necessary, while encouraging the maximum use of English that is possible.

In the case of translation, this activity (together with the use of the the mother tongue) has been discouraged since the grammar-translation method was replaced by the direct method (a target-language based method that does not allow translation) at the end of the 19th century. There has been little rational discussion of the use of the mother tongue and translation until relatively recently, at least in the English-speaking world. I have no experience using translation in teaching, however I assume it has a role to play in developing grammatical awareness – particularly at the sentence level. I do not see it as facilitating the development of fluent language use but as contributing to knowledge of target language grammar.

Two excellent recent books on this topic are:

  • Translation (Oxford Introduction to Language Study) Juliane House. Oxford University Press 2009.
  • Translation in Language Teaching Guy Cook. Oxford University Press 2010.

Both of the above are reviewed in the journal Applied Linguistics, Vol 33, 2, 2012.