Thinking in English or Translating it Fast?

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.

Plaza Catalunya, Barcelona.

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.



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11 Responses to Thinking in English or Translating it Fast?

  1. phil3wade says:

    Nice post Willy,

    The L1 debate seems to be gaining steam again.

    Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject:

    If we encourage L1 use we will need teachers fluent in it. Only people who have studied the L1 to a high level ie Uni level, will be fluent enough. What that means is that EFL will be full of people with language studies and a CELTA on the side or people who just say “I can speak French/German so of course I can teach English”. I’ve met quite a few people like this. I always thought having people with different backgrounds made EFL interesting and those with teaching backgrounds bring a wealth of qualities.

    It also means the sole use of monolingual classes and L1/L2 resources. We will see the old ‘English for German speakers’ come back. In books instructions will be given in the L1, translations will be provided and the L2 will take a lower priority.

    Teachers will be assessed and hired just on their L1 proficiency which will be mean a lot more ‘local hiring’ of foreigners who have relocated already or local teachers who speak English. This means the end of ‘internationally roaming EFLers’ who work in different countries and so our job prospects will decrease. What I mean is that you will only be able to work wherever you speak the language and you will have to move and live there first.

    Yes, it goes without saying, that using the L1 in class is helpful, especially after 10/12 but a heck of a lot of kids become bi and trilingual before that and some don’t have equivalency of everything in every language.

    Using L1/L2 in classes would require some serious planning and study.Just knowing the L1 and doing a CELTA isn’t enough. You’d need a postgrad in foreign languages maybe to learn how and when to use which.

    I admit that as a native teacher I am fully for only using English in class but with lower levels L1 translation is useful. I also prefer multilingual classes and many of my students have stated a preference for them, some going so far as to complain to the DOS about being in monolingual classes.

    And lastly, aren’t monolingual classes in danger of being __glish like Frenglish or Chinglish?

    Anyhow, there are my early morning thoughts.


    • Bren Brennan Bren Brennan says:

      Interesting, Willy.

      I think that in a mono-lingual class not in an English speaking country there are justifiable reasons for L1 ‘sprinklings’ at the lowest levels. As you said, you can go through the whole rigmarole of mime, elicit, explanation, example only then for some S to shout out the L1 translation, accurately or not. A quick L1 translation for a new word at A1-A2 level, can definitely reduce the T-centredness of a lesson and allow for more practice (as you pointed out). It depends what your priorities are, I suppose.

      However, if there is an allowance/acceptance for L1 use then I think that guidelines have to be set out by the teacher. One word L1 confirmation of new L2 vocab is OK, but L1 commenting/chatting is not…maybe something like that.
      Perhaps the teacher (still at A1 / A2 level) might give task instructions or grammar comparison in L1. What use is classroom meta-language to the students for normal communication outside class?

      Franklin (1990) found that over 80% of teachers used the first language for explaining grammar…SLA research provides no reason why any of these activities is not a perfectly rational use of L1 in the classroom. If 21st Century teaching is to continue to accept the ban on the first language imposed by the late 19th C, it will have to look elsewhere for its rationale. As Swain & Lapkin (2000) put it: ‘To insist that no use be made of the L1 in carrying out tasks that are both linguistically and cognitively complex is to deny the use of an important cognitive tool.’

      (Vivian Cook: 2008, p 182)

      In Germany, I have been teaching real and false starters (with groups consiting almost entirely of pensioners) and it was impossible to stop the ‘shouting out L1 translation’ and to be honest it was helpful. I would never utilise that in a higher-level B2 class…and obviously not in a multi-lingual class when I teach at SGI London. Looking back at the quote and with the caveats I have mentioned, does an absolute ban on L1 use make you a better teacher with improved learner outcomes?

      I totally understand Phil’s point that allowing L1 use may open the floodgates to an eventual nightmare scenario. However, with my Starter classes, the occasional use of L1 was not provided by me being fluent in the Ss L1. My German is pretty shitty, but a knowledge of simple words like ‘Kopfschmerz/headache’ made lessons flow nicely where we could get into the real meat of practice conversations like ‘Visit to the chemist while on holiday’ roleplay and ‘illness’ themes…you know, the kind of stuff that pensioners like. 🙂

      I would also say, Phil that it would take quite a long time to go from where we are now to the situation that you described and by then we’ll both be out of the game/dead…so who cares!?!? 🙂

  2. phil3wade says:

    Yes, you’d think so but it seems we are going round in a circle.

    Last year I wrote some materials for a German school and was given various books to work with. The new ones were all in English but the older ones were full of German translations and explanations, in fact probably 1/3 was German. If we are now pushing the L1 then we will go back to these books. So, my question is….

    What was the point of making EFL books in English for so long then?
    Will publishers really want to make books for every single market?

    Another point I forgot was what about Asia?
    They rely on English/US/Australian natives going there to teach English and very few have a decent level in the L1. But their students study hard and really improve. For instance, I had a few Chinese students in France who had better English, Japanese and Chinese than the local French students.Why?Because they had classes by natives and locals only in English and even took pacts just to speak English.

  3. Hi Willy,

    I have to say that I agree that L1 certainly has a place in language learning, where appropriate. That appropriatness will be very wishy-washy and will change from one context to another.

    I gave up a while ago trying to get sts to ‘think in English’ for the basic reason that my Portuguese was good enough to get by in most situations, yet I rarely thought in Portuguese. I know I am translating, and often I have learned expressions by translating them into English and remembering them that way. My current favourite is ‘If it were a snake’ or ‘Se fosse uma cobra’.

    And when it comes to counting or swearing I just have to do it in English.

    A lot of books aimed at kids that are published in Brazil now have a lot of Portuguese in them, but I guess that is because Brazil is a big enough market to suport this.

    I think what we need to do is to show students how and when to translate, so that they don’t just translate everything word for word.

    By the way, has got some great activities that involve translation.

  4. Hi Willy,
    An interesting and really thought-provoking post, and if you don’t think in English, I don’t think it really matters. You can probable use English better than many native speakers anyway. The idea of “thinking” in a language seems to me to be a bit misleading, as there is the old chicken or egg debate about whether thoughts ir wirds come first, in any case.

    When it comes to teaching I go along with the comments about appropriacy. I agree that it is countrrproductive to spend 15 mins contorting yourself to elicit a word when (and if) there is a reasonable equivalent in the L1. On the other hand I have just been marking C2 level written exams, where it is all too obvious that some language learners (and we are talking about language students, who presumably chose this degree course because they are interested in language) have no awareness of how English actually works on a lexical level and produce ehat amounts to Italian “in English words”. To avoid this we need balance. The middle way, using English for discussion and practice, and clarification when appropriate but not wasting hours when a quick translation would be enough.

    Translation is also invaluable when used as a contrastive analysis tool in the classroom, to consider differences between languages, and discussion in the L1 here would often be appropriate too, but what needs to be avoided is lessons that are conducted entirely in the L1 where teachers discuss the mechanics of grammar etc. but nobody gets to use the language they arr studying. This is not as rare as some may think, even in the 21st Century. So, the key is common sense, balance and helping learners to do what they need to do. Develop study strategies that will help them to develop a sense of ownership of the language.

    As for the “thinking in the L2” debate, I don’t know how relevant this is but I’ve recently found myself watching whole films in Italian when I’d intended to watch them in English, and the strange thing is that I didn’t even realise ehich language I was watching them in. Just a thought and the result of being able to choose languages on TVs nowadays, or maybe it’s just age 🙂

  5. Louise says:

    Thanks for an interesting post Willy. I think every learner brings their own framework to the experience and when you can tap into it, the degree of translation necessary for effective learning sorts itself out. Having said that I have recently aquired a new, older student who regularly translates everything. Despite my guidance or suggestions he sticks to his guns. I find it exhausting teaching him and it all seems like such hard work for him. I’m sure I would have abandoned any hope of learning another language if I’d used this method myself. Just like you I feel I am a better teacher to Italian students because I can see everything coming and I’m able to nip things in the bud. I regularly have whole lessons evolving around L1 pitfalls, presented ofcourse in English. There is no banning of L1 in my classroom. Most of my students only have a couple of hours a week to dedicate to English so I would be selling them short if I didn’t use the translation short cut for vocabulary.
    On a personal note, I don’t think I translate anymore in my everyday life – it just feels too cumbersome. For large chunks of my day,my inner speech is not in English. It sometimes feels like the two languages are stored in two seperate rooms with independent entrances.
    My childrens’ thought processes are an engma to me.Both bilingual they spend a lot of time mixing up between the languages as they reach for the nearest available word.– “Teddy has to go to the opticians today to get some new lentils.”(“ lenti” Italian for contact lenses)
    With reference to what Phil said about coursebooks, Ken Wilson talks quite a lot about how useful books with instructions and explanations in L1 are or would be. Ofcourse he points out the economic reasoning behind the all-English choice most publishers make – production costs greatly reduced etc. Maybe with i-coursebook development there would be more room for this type of material if anyone feels the need for it.

  6. Willy says:

    Thanks Bren, Phil, Stephen, Sharon and Louise for the amazing, thoughtful comments.

    One important thing I could have emphasized in the original post is that the argument for translation includes a strong concern to find pedagogical “activities” which raise teachers and students’ awareness of the implications of translation and translating.

    For example, instead of discouraging the use of Google Translate, what are ways in which we can bring it to the classroom and make it educational? I can think of a sequence of re-translating activities swapping between students’ L1 and English, comparing choice of meaning and inaccuracies by an e-translator.

    I think this is the message, not to return to a full state of grammar-translation, but to incorporate it to our methodology, because as research and our own experience suggest there’s nothing bad about it provided it’s done consciously of its implications.

    The point some of you raise about publishers and coursebooks, well… it’s pretty straightforward isn’t it? Where the market allows (like in Brazil), it will happen; but even in those places there are still a whole lot of ‘global’ coursebooks, with their native-English-speaking ideologies and all. Not only a matter of including L1 but also of including L1-contextualization, but it’s a whole other discussion, I divert.

  7. mura says:

    Hi Willy,

    I wanted to thank you for raising my awareness about recent trends in translation in language learning.

    It encouraged me to use a translation activity which really seemed to go down well with a group of multi-media students. I framed the activity as “help your teacher to learn French” and involved asking them to translate into English an episode from a very popular comedy TV/Web show here in France (Bref) which lasts on average one or two minutes per episode. I will write up the experience at my blog for those interested.



  8. Hi Willy,

    Thanks again for your post. It inspired me to write about my experiences of learning Portuguese through some translation. You can find it here;

    Next week, or whenever I get the chance, I will try to develop this into a criteria for using L1 in the classroom.


  9. Pingback: Waiting for Babel – some thoughts on using translation « Esl Notes

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