Translation in ELT: an interview with Philip Kerr – Part 2

Sarah Mortimer

In part 1 of our interview with Philip Kerr, we discussed why translation is important in the classroom. We continued on this theme in this second part, as well as English as a Lingua Franca and Philip’s interest in memory and memorisation.

In your own experience, are teachers and educational institutions happy to use translation exercises in the classroom?

In my experience, the overwhelming majority of teachers use the students’ own language from time to time, especially for explanations and feedback on particular language items. However, this is often accompanied by a sense of guilt or inadequacy, and there are many institutional contexts around the world where own-language use is completely banned. But it is clear that we are going through a period of transformation, and that received wisdom is being re-evaluated. Books such as mine or Guy Cook’s both reflect and contribute to this trend. The processes of educational change are slow, and it will take a long time before received wisdom on the use of the learners’ language changes dramatically.

What would you say to teachers and institutions who insist on using only the target language in classrooms?

I’d be very reluctant to say anything at all, without knowing a lot more about particular contexts. There may be very strong reasons for continuing to implement a policy of English-only. Typically, these are commercial reasons which reflect a widespread belief that the best way to learn another language is through some sort of immersion where only the target language can be used. There may be strong reasons, too, connected to learner expectations and, by extension, their attitude towards the learning process. It’s not for me to make judgements that are not informed by an understanding of these contexts. But I would, perhaps, recommend that everyone takes a look at the research and re-evaluates what they are doing … whether or not they actually change anything afterwards.

Do you think that the teaching of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) will have, or is having, an effect on the idea of a ‘Standard English’ for language learning?

A tricky question! I’m very aware of the importance and impact of English as a Lingua Franca within the research community and among teachers in some parts of the world. In other parts of the world, though, ELF is struggling to gain a foothold. I think that we can already see some impact in coursebooks, where a kind of ‘international English’ (as opposed to a particular British or American variety) is presented, and where there are recordings of speakers who are not native-speakers of English (for listening practice).

But long term effects are difficult to predict. One reason for this is, perhaps, related to the difficulties of defining precisely what ELF is (as opposed to what it is not, which is relatively easy to state).

Beyond translation, do you have any other particular areas of interest in language learning and teaching, and are you planning to write on any of those or talk at events in the coming year?

At the same time as I began to be seriously interested in the use of the learners’ own language, I also became very interested in the role of memory and memorisation in language learning. I’d have liked to write about this topic, but Nick Bilbrough beat me to it with his excellent Memory Activities for Language Learning. He did a much better job of it than I would have done, anyway!

Combining my interests in own-language use and in the role of memory has led me to an interest in the new generation of vocabulary learning apps (most of which use spaced repetition software and translation). This, in turn, led me to be interested more generally in the role of technology in language learning. I lecture on the topic frequently and I blog too.

Philip Kerr’s Translation and Own-language Activities has won the ‘Best Entry for Teachers’ in the 2014 English-Speaking Union’s HRH The Duke of Edinburgh English Language Book Awards. The book is part of the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series (Series Editor: Scott Thornbury).


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