Translation in Teaching Language

Immersion’s a cool way to teach a language. You spend time in an environment where everyone speaks the language, and you just have to figure out what’s going on. Unfortunately, PIO is no immersion environment. Nor is my one-hour-a-week speaking class. For the former, the kids still talk to each other in Khmer during my class;1 for the latter, it’s just too little time.

So once you’re back to a multilingual environment and a more traditional teaching style, how much do you use the students’ first language?

Somehow in my mind I decided that if you couldn’t do real immersion, the next best thing is to avoid translation as much as possible. Better to explain things with pictures, and let the students figure out how to represent it in their mind. That way, when they hear the word in their mind, their first thought might be a picture, not another word.

I think most students who have studied a language for a while will agree that one of the milestones of fluency is when you can think in the language. A related point is when you can understand a sentence without translating it, or make a sentence without translating from your first language. I never got this far with Mandarin, but for a while I could do this with Japanese. (Not sure about now.) As for Khmer…I think I would be getting there if I weren’t leaving so soon.

Don’t believe me? Think about when you hear a word in English like “ferry”. Do you think of the word “ship”, or do you just think of a ferry itself? It’s that direct connection from word to concept that separates knowing a language from being fluent in a language.

(I can’t help but compare this to a paragraph in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality about belief.)

What people really believed didn’t seem to them like beliefs at all. People didn’t say ‘I strongly believe in the sky being blue!’ They just said, ‘the sky is blue’. Your true inner map of the world just felt to you like the way the world was

So I taught using pictures and sometimes explanation (in English), in the hopes of forming direct connections between the new words and the concepts. And for the students who had trouble understanding, well, their classmates could usually help them out…yes, in Khmer, but that’s a concession to those who aren’t learning as fast…

Okay, so at least part of this could have been rationalization for the fact that it’s more difficult (or even impossible) for me to do translation exercises, or even translate new vocabulary. I could ask the teachers, but the Grade 4 teacher’s English wasn’t so strong, and in Grade 6 I usually haven’t had a teacher with me at all. But then came the “before/after” incident, and I started to consider this all again.

I’ve come to think of translation as a useful way to check and fortify understanding, a way to prevent the “before/after” problem from coming up again. Even so, when it comes to new nouns, verbs, and adjectives, I usually still try to use pictures or demonstrations to introduce the words; if the students decide to translate themselves, that’s fine. Only later, once we’ve been using the words for a while, will I do a translation exercise that uses those words. As for grammar…well, since I want to make sure the students know what they’re saying, I’ve been asking my teacher to explain how the equivalent grammar pattern works in Khmer. But it’s a bit hard when things don’t translate properly; English’s present perfect tense (“I have done…”) doesn’t really have an equivalent in Khmer2, so I have no real choice but to try to explain how it’s like past tense, but different.3

I still think using translation is a bit of a crutch, and I think that translating everything might actually be one of the reasons for non-fluent grammar (such as an English speaker trying to put the adjective first in Khmer). Different languages are not the same, and telling students that there’s a one-to-one mapping between words or even phrase structures can sometimes lose a lot of subtleties. (Example: the Khmer equivalent of “to be” is only for relating two nouns; predicating an adjective doesn’t use a verb or auxiliary at all.)

On the other hand, not doing any translation creates Chinese Writing Rooms. And translation’s a very common thing to do anyway; not all language use is dynamic conversation. So I do do translation exercises, and put sentences to translate on my exams.

As for my Khmer lessons, well, the two of us regulars are still beginners, and we’re just now reaching the point where Ms. Kumneth can try explaining something in Khmer instead of just translating it to English. But each time she’s tried it, the two of us still end up finding an English translation as our answer anyway. So, we’re not there yet.

Conclusions? Sorry, I don’t have any. I’m still not sure whether I should be using more translation in my lessons, whether it should be limited to only vocabulary, or only grammar patterns, whether I’m really helping the students learn more intuitively or just making things more difficult. (Probably both, for that last one; the strong students get stronger and the weak students get relatively weaker. Hm. That’s not good.) I am sure that I was just rationalizing my inability to do translation exercises by saying I shouldn’t be doing them, but that doesn’t mean I was wrong. Has anyone else thought about this issue?

P.S. I tried to remember what my language teachers in university used; I think my Japanese teachers (mid- and upper-level) actually did speak in Japanese most of the time. (I remember being surprised hearing them speak English, how much less fluid and confident they were. All of my teachers were from Japan.) It was good for me, but I was a strong student, for the most part; were the weaker students left behind?


If you actually read this far (or just scrolled down), you get a prize: photos from PIO! In January they did a unit on cooking, so I promised I’d bring them sushi some day. That happened last Wednesday, during the break between the two parts of their English midterm. Check out the cooking and eating process on Facebook.

  1. Sometimes now they even talk to me in Khmer, because they find it very amusing that I can understand some Khmer. I usually try to respond in English, though, so they still practice. ↩︎

  2. Actually, as I understand it, the usual Khmer translation of English past tense, the auxiliary verb baan, is closer to present perfect; you don’t use baan if you have a specific time involved. But since simple past is always introduced before present perfect… ↩︎

  3. I’m leaving before they get to past perfect, but trying to explain that is going to be annoying. ↩︎

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