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Is translation making a comeback?

The recently published subject document for GCSE modern languages includes, as did the KS3 programme of study, a reference to translation, this time specifically translation from English into the assessed language. The KS3 document could arguably be taken with a pinch of salt, since the national curriculum does not apply to academies, free schools and independents, and since there are no high stakes tests at KS3. However, the inclusion of translation in the GCSE document has greater significance as it means that we shall, in all likelihood, see translation into the target language as part of a high stakes assessment, namely GCSE.

Now, it remains to be seen what form, if any, this translation takes. It could be in the form of sentences or a short passage to translate (as in the O-level of the 1950s and 60s). It could be "translation-lite" whereby bullet points in English form the basis of a piece of composition. It could be some form of "retranslation" where students have to use a text in the target language to help them translate a related passage from English.

In all of these cases the aim would be test a student's ability to manipulate grammar and vocabulary accurately. The fact that accuracy is only likely to account for about 10% of marks might suggest that translation will play only a marginal role in final papers.

Why are we seeing this return to translation? Is it some form of political diktat from Michael Gove which assumes that translation is somehow rigorous and the only way to ensure children learn grammar thoroughly? Or, more likely, does it reflect a partial rehabilitation of translation in language teaching theory?

Let's step back a moment. With the virtual demise of the grammar-translation approach translation became discredited in language teaching and many teachers would see it as a point of principle to never use it, because to do so would be to compromise one's direct method or communicative credentials. In ELT translation became a pariah, whilst in foreign language teaching it held on in the classroom to some extent and continued to feature in A-level exams, as it does in the French baccalauréat.

Here are reasons usually mentioned for not using translation:
  • It is radically different from the four skills which define language competence; listening, speaking, reading and writing
  • It takes up valuable time which could be used for the four skills and comprehensible input in the target language
  • It discourages students from thinking in the foreign language
  • It is a bad test of language skills
  • It produces interference from the mother tongue
  • It tends to be text-bound, focusing only on reading and writing
  • It only focuses on form and accuracy
  • It is too hard and boring for many learners
  • It encourages lazy teaching, with teachers being able to practice without fluency
  • It is really only appropriate for training translators
Of these, I would argue that the prime reason for limiting translation is that it takes away valuable time from communication in the target language. In saying this, I am assuming that learning takes place primarily by natural acquisition processes.

On the other hand, some theoreticians argue that translation has a valuable role to play. Some reasons they put forward are as follows:
  • Translation helps expand a learner's vocabulary
  • It helps students understand how the language works
  • It consolidates structures which can then lead to greater comprehension and fluency
  • It takes advantage of students' knowledge of their own language; why not profit from this advantage which very young children do not enjoy?
  • It is the most efficient way to improve grammatical accuracy
  • Many students enjoy it
  • It helps students to monitor their accuracy
  • When done orally it provides opportunities for listening and speaking practice
Needless to say, attempts have been made to provide evidence for and against translation. Some of these can be found by doing an online search. There is, for example, evidence that when parallel groups of students are taught with or without translation into the target language, those who practice translation show improved accuracy. From what I can gather, in the ELT world (from which we have often taken ideas in MFL), translation has regained a degree of acceptance, but only a certain amount.

So what is the teacher at the MFL chalkface to make of these arguments?

As teachers, we bring different personal experiences and prejudices to our practice. I was taught to teach French using a form of controlled direct method espoused by London University from the 1950s. This meant avoiding the mother tongue as much as possible and working on the assumption that comprehension and fluency are developed, above all, by immersing learners in comprehensible language. However, like most teachers, I became aware that students also enjoy explanations and clarity, so I was happy to make judicious use of English and translation. I realised that many students enjoyed the puzzle-solving nature of translation and I was also happy to assume that translation would consolidate accuracy. I remain unconvinced that it does much for comprehension and fluency.

If I were advising a young teacher, I would stick to these principles and suggest that translation be used only occasionally and with a clear view on why it was being used.

To return to the GCSE document, what worries me is that, if we see translation into the target language used as part of the assessment, we will inexorably see a huge backwash effect on teaching and course books. As it stands, many MFL teachers do not use enough foreign language, and if you encourage them to practise for a translation section in the exam, they will use even less.

It appears that translation has been included to ensure that teachers do not neglect grammatical rigour. I support the quest for good grammar, but there are other more fruitful ways of developing grammatical skill which do not require translation. That may be for another post....


  1. I like your summary: "there are other more fruitful ways of developing grammatical skill which do not require translation." And, I'd like to add my biggest peeve to the others; translation is a high level skill that novice (and intermediate?) students simply cannot do. So why ask them to?

  2. Thank you for your comment. I'm not sure I would go as far as you in saying that novice and intermediate students cannot do translation. I would not give it them "cold", but I have found it useful to do in class as a guided oral exercise. But, as I say, I would only do this rarely, for variation as much as anything else. It does appeal to some pupils.

  3. Hi Steve - I enjoyed your summary, food for thought. I agree a lot of it is what kind of translation and how? I must say translation in different forms can come up often in language teaching if you include highlighting the skills used to approach a given text (gist, context, similarities to other language knowledge etc). IMHO there could be a possible link between pupils (even beginners) approaching texts written in the target language and learning how to decode them, using English to discuss this, and helping develop some of the code-switching abilities so useful to bilinguals

  4. Hi Steve - I enjoyed your summary, food for thought. I agree a lot of it is what kind of translation and how? I must say translation in different forms can come up often in language teaching if you include highlighting the skills used to approach a given text (gist, context, similarities to other language knowledge etc). IMHO there could be a possible link between pupils (even beginners) approaching texts written in the target language and learning how to decode them, using English to discuss this, and helping develop some of the code-switching abilities so useful to bilinguals

  5. Great to see a pretty balanced argument, though I'd say that for myself as a language learner, translation was always my favourite exercise and I learned a lot from it about grammar, vocabulary and general current usage (providing the text was current, of course!).

    Having spent some time living and working in France, I found that my translation skills were a huge help practically.

    Providing they are used correctly, I really think they serve a useful purpose.

  6. I like your post. You gives great and useful information about translation. Grammar is must for us but usually when we speak we don't care about it.

    Translation Company UK


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