I’ve heard many students say “I want to think in English” – haven’t you?
In my first years of teaching I remember saying something like that to students too. Something like,”stop translating, you have to think in English.” Until some years later someone told me: that doesn’t exist, Willy. You don’t think in a second language when you acquire it at an older age, you just develop a super fast ability to translate it, and that happens so seamlessly that you have a false idea of thinking in a foreign language.
Although I thought my colleague’s theory was let’s say… rather unsubstantiated, I think about the whole argument every now and again, especially when I hear someone say “think in English.”
In May, 2011, I cited the following on Reservoir Dogme (facebook):
“… late acquisition of languages beyond the first are laid down on the psychological foundation organized through the meanings internalized in one’s first language; that is, we may speak more than one language but we have only one inner speech. What this means then is that our thinking processes are fundamentally carried out through the support (i.e. mediation) provided by our first language” (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006: 110)
There were some very interesting comments there, including the puzzle of why making a head-count in L1 (first language) is easier, dreaming in L2 (second language), and keeping the plasticity of our brain to accommodate new languages.
I haven’t gotten back to these ideas until very recently, actually last Friday, when I started to revisit the matter again while attending IH Barcelona ELT Conference. The second plenary speaker, Philip Kerr, whose assertiveness quite amused me, talked to us about the return of translation. Phillip had the great idea of writing a blog-handout for this talk, which is good in its own right, i.e. even if you haven’t seen the talk you will understand everything in the blog (this can also be bad, because maybe if I had already read the blog, the talk would’ve been redundant, anyway…). I enjoyed the talk very much and here are three key ideas I took away from it, as I interpreted them and connected them to my own experience (of course).
Oppression – My first five years as an English learner were carried out almost exclusively in classrooms. Most of my classrooms displayed a sign on the door which said: Only English is spoken beyond this door, and this was strictly followed by teachers. A question that Philip raised is that this way of doing ELT can be quite oppressive when we consider that whereas humanistic approaches are given a lot of credit because of their learner-centeredness and care for learner’s identity; an English-only policy smothers one of the most fundamental elements of identity, namely one’s mother tongue.
I don’t think I was oppressed in this sense, at least I was not aware of it and now I don’t see I would be better off if I could have spoken my L1 beyond those doors. However, some of my colleagues must have been, I reckon. Also, in my experience as a learner, little did it matter whether I was developing a L2 identity, but now there’s more awareness of these things I imagine, so it is interesting to make a parallel between both things (identity and use of L1).
Translation will happen anyway – If you ever taught a monolingual group of the same L1 as yours, you’ll know how infuriating it is when you spend 5 minutes eliciting, giving examples, drawing, mimicking, and all that to try and convey meaning, and the student says ahhh… bagunça (translating the word ‘mess’ into Portuguese). Wouldn’t it be easier if the teacher translated the word in half a second and dedicated the time available for students to practice?
Imagine a CELTA/TrinityCert teaching practice in which the vocabulary to be pre-taught was translated in advance to students’ L1’s so that the trainee wouldn’t spend 15 minutes building up some unrealistic situational presentation and orderly elicitation of target language; and instead spent this time offering more opportunities for students to practice the new bits of language. Isn’t there somehow an overrated value of language presentation (situational, discovery, flashcard-ish, CCQ, etc), when it seems students learn more by using the language in a meaningful and purposeful way regardless of how they were taught it? So, according to the argument, if translation will happen anyway, why not translate and then get down to what matters? Practice.
Translation was banned because native-speakers couldn’t be bothered to learn the language of their students (in a monolingual context). Not exactly because of research in the field said it was better not to translate. In fact, in his presentation Philip said there’s more evidence for than against translation in the language classroom. In the handout-blog he writes “researchers are now suggesting that, when used appropriately, translation can actually ‘counteract learners’ tendencies to transfer structures from their mother tongue’ (H. Zojer in Witte et al, p.38).”
What I know from my own practice is that I’m a more efficient teacher when I speak or have a clue about my students languages, even in cases when I only know a handful of words but I can relate to many aspects of the culture in which the language is spoken. For example, I’m a better teacher of Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian speakers, than of Japanese speakers.
All in all, the arguments against the use of L1 in English as Second Language courses are rooted in native-speaker discourses. Nowadays, as we know, these discourses are becoming weaker and weaker; so it seems like a matter of time until the role of L1 in English courses are rehabilitated.
The challenge in my view is also how to make it work in practice. How to make translating a conscious choice from the part of the teacher which will then lead to better student learning; and not, as it has happened in my homeland for example, to use translation just because it’s too burdensome to teach in any other way.
I now realize I sort of lost track of my initial train of thought and it is therefore hard to write a conclusion. Is it because, as a non-native speaker, I was not thinking in English? 😉
Comments are welcome.