Translation in ELT: an interview with Philip Kerr – Part 1

Sarah Mortimer

Philip Kerr’s Translation and Own-language Activities tackles a controversial subject in a practical way, providing effective ways of integrating carefully chosen activities into language classrooms. The book received the ‘Best Entry for Teachers’ award at the English-Speaking Union’s HRH The Duke of Edinburgh English Language Book Awards ceremony in London. Philip has kindly answered a few of our questions about his book and the use of translation and own-language activities in the classroom; we have shared some extracts from this interview below.

Philip, can you tell us a little about how you came to write Translation and Own-language Activities, and why you felt there was a need for a handbook on this topic?

I have never been entirely convinced by much of the received wisdom in English language teaching methodology. This includes the disapproval of techniques such as dictation or grammar explanations, or of learning things by heart, and the use of the students’ own language for a variety of purposes.

Around ten years ago, I started trying to put my ideas into order and I began writing and lecturing about what I called ‘boo’ words (dictation, translation, etc.) and ‘hooray’ words (authentic, communicative, etc.). Of all the disconnects between what most teachers actually do and what they are ‘supposed’ to do, it became clear that the issue of the students’ own language was one of the most important. Then, in 2010, Guy Cook published ‘Translation in the Language Classroom’. It was a fine book and offered very powerful arguments against the orthodoxy of English-only English language teaching, but it only offered limited practical suggestions.

What positive effects can translation and own-language activities have on learners and teachers in the classroom?

It’s perhaps easier to talk about the negative effects of an English-only policy, which, by the way, has no support in the research community. In many contexts, such as teaching younger learners or teaching low level students, an English-only approach is difficult, time-consuming and, effectively, impracticable. But for all learners, the potential advantages of judicious use of their own language include increased confidence, clarity and efficiency.

I have run workshops and given conference presentations on this topic in many places around the world. At the beginning of these events, I often ask the group for a show of hands: how many teachers in the room use the students’ own language in their classes? A few tentative hands are raised. At the end of the session, I ask the same question, and, typically, over 80% raise their hands. Many teachers have thanked me afterwards for alleviating their sense of guilt about using the language they share with their students.

When and why is translation important, and do you think it could ever be detrimental to the learning process?

I often fall into the trap of referring to own-language activities as ‘translation’, even though translation (or translating) is just one kind of own-language activity. I think that the biggest danger of using the learners’ own language is that both teachers and learners can come to rely on it.

We know from research that a lot of teacher talk in the classroom is typically in the shared language, and not in English. We also know that teachers significantly under-estimate the amount of time they spend talking in this language. The paradox at the heart of my book is that we need to increase the amount of English that is spoken in the class (both by teachers and by students), but that one important way of doing this is by making occasional use of the shared language.

Read the second part of our interview with Philip Kerr here.

Philip Kerr is the author of Translation and Own-language Activities, part of the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series (Series Editor: Scott Thornbury).


  • Iain MacKay

    Thank you very much for sharing these results, they are very interesting and should be salutory for those who prepare curriculum content.
    It would be good to be able to cite these results – unfortunately though the link to full results only shows an infographic – there is nothing for instance about sampling methodology (indeed even the exact sample size is not in the infographic), or the exact question wording – so I wouldn’t be able to respond to someone challenging the results. Is there a paper with some more authoritative report of the survey results?

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