Translation and Teaching ESL

August 19th, 2014

Learning any second language can be made easier and more effective through the use of translation exercises and training.

English remains the most important and popular language for people to learn as a second language around the world, and there are as many theories on the best way to learn it – or any second language, for that matter – as there are schools teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) courses – which is to say, quite a lot.

Increasingly, I’m hearing that translation exercises are being used to teach ESL, and to be frank, this makes perfect sense to me. In fact, I’d say that teaching language translation skills to students trying to learn English or any other second language should probably become the standard instead of the exception, because translation skills lend themselves perfectly to language acquisition, and in fact have several distinct advantages over the traditional ESL techniques of rote memorisation, recitation, and immersion – even though immersion, especially, remains an incredibly effective technique in and of itself.

But translation as a regular exercise has plenty to offer the ESL student:

Security

I have often heard language students complain that the immersion process often works against them in the early going, because they feel unmoored, with no point of reference. While many teachers believe strongly in this ‘sink or swim’ concept, the fact is making students confused and anxious every time they walk into a classroom is counterproductive. Translation offers the original source material in the student’s own language – so while they are working on language acquisition they have the familiar to fall back on.

Creativity

The creative aspects of translation do a much better job of cementing vocabulary and grammar in people’s minds than rote memorisation does. People who memorise vocabulary do not remember as well as people who use the vocabulary naturally – and translation allows them to acquire vocabulary in a way similar to when they were children: By using language to express themselves. Yes, this results in some tortured sentences, but it also means people are using their brains to think in the target language, a very effective mental technique for learning.

Conversation

Translation exercises also teach students how to use their new language to communicate – not just to recite. Many ESL students emerge with a smattering of phrases they can link together for basic communication, which is minimally useful. Translation teaches people to actually form complex thoughts in the language – again, with the source text to help with the conceptual challenges. People who work in translation emerge with a more creative and flexible grasp of the language in question, and a greater ability to put together sentence on the fly and understand what is being said to them – or so my experience has been.

Everyone learns – and, indeed, teaches – differently. As long as you come out of an ESL class able to speak the English language, it doesn’t matter what techniques were used. But increasingly I think the ESL world is seeing the benefits of translation – and that is a good thing.

Image courtesy valleychurch.ca

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