15 ways to stop students translating

The fashion for the use or not of L1 in the classroom and language learning more generally tends to come in waves, and the present trend is to write about how an English-only classroom is unrealistic, non-politically correct or an unfair advantage in the market place for native English speaking teachers. I absolutely accept all these points, and have written before on good uses of L1 and how to decide whether you are using too much and too little. The fact remains, though, that most use of L1 in the world’s classrooms right now is holding up people’s progress with learning English rather than being the kind of best practice that could help them, and cutting out L1 completely is a much simpler concept to understand and bring into practice than trying to achieve optimal use of L1. It is worth noting also that many of the leading advocates of sensible use of L1 are people who first became capable of teaching and learning languages without the use of L1 who then took the conscious choice to reintroduce it and are therefore in a perfect position to do so- unlike people who in the present climate might never be taught how to eliminate L1 if and when they want to. I would therefore argue that advice on how to minimize or eliminate L1 is more useful for most teachers and learners in the world as it is now than advice on how to use L1 more productively, and so will tackle that subject in two articles including the one below.

1. Use English-English dictionaries
If students need convincing of the need for this, try taking a translation of a personality word from a bilingual dictionary and seeing if it really matches the definition in a good English-English dictionary (obviously having chosen one in advance that doesn’t translate, such as something that is positive in English but negative in the closest word in L1). If they need convincing of it being possible to switch to an English-English dictionary, start with a dictionary that is lower than their present language level, e.g. an Elementary learner’s dictionary. Also try to avoid using it with topics that are difficult or impossible to explain without translation, such as things in the natural world like vegetables.

2. Write definitions and explanations in English
Students will find it difficult to write their own explanations of grammar and vocabulary in English, so start by putting short and easy to copy explanations up on the board for all new points and getting them to copy them into their notebooks as they are (without any L1). By using the techniques below, you should eventually be able to move onto them writing their own explanations in English without your help.

3. The Definitions Game
One way of moving students towards being able to write their own explanations in English without translating is playing games where they have to explain words without using it or any variations on it, e.g. saying “An animal with a very long nose and big ears that lives in Africa” so that their partner can guess they are explaining “elephant”. This ties in well with language points like relative clauses and infinitives of purpose. Playing this game should also help them prepare for communicating in real time without getting stuck on words they don’t know in English, and so hopefully lead onto them not even needing the words in L1 to pop into their heads first while speaking. A fun way of extending their lateral thinking skills even further is a variation on this game called Taboo, where they also have to avoid three words written on the card in their definitions, e.g. explaining “communication” without saying “talk”, “telephone” or “listen” (as well as the variations on “communication” like “communicate” and “communicator” that they also can’t say in The Definitions Game)

4. Synonyms
Another way of making L1 appear manageable and giving them the tools to link words together without needing L1 is to choose words that the students already know an approximate synonym of, e.g. choosing “enormous” and “huge” when doing extreme adjectives because they already know “big”.

5. Opposites
Giving the opposites of most things you present is a great way of teaching two things at the same time and of giving them something to attach each word to in their brains that is shorter and simpler than a definition. When they have learnt lots of opposites, there are then many games they can play with them such as Grammar Reversi or Opposites Tennis.

6. Visuals
Using drawings can avoid translation when presenting new language, give them something to copy down in their notebooks, and give them a survival tool they might need when words completely fail them in their travels etc. Teaching them to interpret and draw their own timelines can have similar uses for grammar. There is also the chance that they will be able to remember the English word or grammatical form from the image in their heads rather than through internal translation, or at least that practicing this will help them work towards being able to manage that. Pictionary can be a great way of practicing this.

7. Mime
Mime is another survival skill they will need sooner or later that can also help their brains form the connection “English word = action” rather than “English word = word in my language = action”. In a similar way to Pictionary and The Definitions Game/ Taboo, students can mime words, expressions or even whole sentences for their partners to guess.

8. Get them using words and concepts that don’t translate
As well as convincing them consciously that translation doesn’t always work, getting them to work with words like “parsnip”, “mantelpiece” or “fast bowler” that they have never come across even as a concept before and won’t find one word translations in their bilingual dictionaries can help their brains adapt to remembering those things as pictures, actions, definitions, synonyms, antonyms etc rather than as translations. This will hopefully mean they will then go onto use the same tactics with words and concepts they could have used translation with.

9. Learn language in “chunks”
Another way of helping them avoid the need for translation is to give them “chunks” of language that they can produce without needing to think about every word, e.g. learning “make breakfast” or “Buckingham Palace” instead of learning “breakfast” or “palace”. If they want to learn this whole phrase correctly, it makes little sense to learn the translations of each part. If we then force them to produce and understand such language in real time communication their brains should switch to concentrating on its connections to other English words rather than translations to L1 in order to increasing processing speed.

10. Sentence stems
More than the collocations given as examples above, the chunks of language students seem to be best at understanding and producing without bothering about the meaning of every word are sentence stems such as “I wonder if you could tell me…” and “Thanks for coming. Today we need to talk about…”

11. Fixed phrases
In a similar way of to Sentence Stems above, students tend to find “How do you do?” and “Have a good weekend” possible to use and remember without having to analyse and translate them. There is a chance that they are just translating the whole phrase in their heads, perhaps even wrongly, so one way of making the meaning clear and giving them a correct English connection in their heads is to teach all fixed phases as question-reply, e.g. “How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks”.

12. Think of language as functions
I think one reason students have less problem with translation when learning fixed phrases and sentence stems than when learning collocations (and certainly than when learning single words) is that a lot of the language fits in with a functional/ situational syllabus. If students know that using certain phrases results in them being given an imaginary cup of tea, they hardly need to bother with translation in their heads. If you also give them a way of writing it down to remember, such as question-reply as suggested above, they should never need translation of any sort to deal with requests, invitations etc.

13. Language in lots of context
Another way of looking at the success of fixed phrases and sentence stems when taught well is that they tend to be taught in a lot of context, e.g. with situations set by pictures in the textbook, or in the real interactions of the classroom. The same thing should work for other kinds of language by taking them out of dialogues and other texts, introducing them during communicative tasks etc.

14. Speed
If you force them to read, listen and speak quicker and quicker, this should force them to abandon the slow and inefficient method of translating every word.

15. Plan in English
If they have a plan written in English for what they are going to say in each paragraph of their essay or email, they should hopefully be able to fill in the gaps without any need for translation.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net October 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

One Comment

  • Abdullah says:

    Iam an Eng. teacher . while I was reading , I realized that I have committed some mistakes and I will try to change my wrong ways of teaching Eng.
    Thank you so much
    your gratefully

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