Professional Development

Developing learners’ grammatical awareness through translation

Philip Kerr

It’s Wednesday, which can only mean one thing… it’s #TDWednesday! Today, we’re giving away an extract and activity from Philip Kerr’s Translation and Own-language Activities. In his book, Philip puts forward the case that a contrastive analysis of grammar of the learners’ own language and English can be extremely useful in developing grammatical awareness. In the extract below, Philip considers the rationale for using translation and how current research supports its use. He then suggests an activity for grammar revision. Why not try this in class next time you want to revise some grammar?

Language focus

The previous chapter looked at classroom activities where use of the students’ own language contributed, in some way, to practice in using English. This chapter looks at activities where particular elements of English (such as vocabulary and grammar) are studied through a comparison with the learners’ language. The belief that contrasting particular features of a target language (in our case, English) and the learners’ own language can help the learner to acquire the former is one that has generated much debate.

Over fifty years ago, Robert Lado argued in his influential Linguistics across Cultures: Applied linguistics for language teachers that features of a foreign language that are similar to a student’s native language will be easy to learn, and those that are different will be harder. Therefore, he reasoned, a teacher who has contrasted the two languages ‘will know better what the real learning problems are and can better provide for teaching them’(Lado, 1957, p. 2). At the time, many, if not most, people agreed with him. One was the eminent linguist, Michael Halliday. While rejecting some traditional practices, such as the translation of isolated decontextualised sentences and the learning of word lists with translation equivalents, Halliday argued against those who were convinced that one should not pay attention to the learner’s mother tongue. ‘Given the right conditions,’ he wrote, ‘one can make positive use of the student’s mother tongue; and in such cases to neglect it may be to throw away one of the tools best adapted to the task in hand’ (Halliday, 2007, p. 161).

Not so, responded the next generation of linguists, and their arguments won the day. Most of the mistakes that language learners make are not caused by interference (or crossover) from their first language, they claimed, and ‘learners’ first languages are no longer believed to interfere with their attempts to learn second language grammar’ (Dulay et al., 1982, p. 5). Furthermore, it was argued, the use of translation in language learning actually caused mistakes through ‘negative transfer’ or ‘first language interference’. Lado and the school of Contrastive Analysis, with which he was closely connected, became deeply unfashionable.

Who was right? The arguments of one generation of researchers, however convincing they may sound, tend to be questioned by the next. By the time that the critical consensus of researchers has been accepted by many classroom teachers, the critical research consensus has often moved on. The last ten years have seen another swing of the pendulum and a positive review of Lado’s work by Claire Kramsch (2007), echoed by Michael Swan (2008), are indications of this swing.

Current perspectives

The current research consensus is reasonably clear. First of all, few researchers would now quarrel with the basic idea that the relationship between the learners’ own language and the target language is important and unavoidable. Learners, as Henry Widdowson has put it, ‘cannot be immunized against the influence of their own language, […] there is bound to be contact and […] language learning is indeed of its nature, in some degree, a compound bilingual experience’ (Widdowson, 2003, pp. 151–2).

For vocabulary acquisition, Paul Nation (1997), among others, has shown that the study of bilingual word lists is indeed valuable, especially for the initial learning of new words and phrases. More recent research with teenagers has shown that approaches to the teaching of vocabulary which employ elements of translation and contrastive analysis can be more effective than approaches which eschew them (Laufer & Girsai, 2008). For some areas of vocabulary, such as false friends, it has been suggested that translation is essentially the only way of dealing with them. For the study of grammar, it would seem that some grammatical features (those that are subject to interference from the learners’ own language) lend themselves particularly well to translation exercises. Since the particular areas of grammar which lend themselves to a contrastive approach vary from one learner’s own language to another’s, the activities suggested in this chapter are not specific to a particular feature of grammar: they can be used with virtually any feature. Scheffler (2012) reports research which supports contrastive analysis work (and translation) in grammar teaching. Scheffler concludes that the teachers who ignored the researchers, and carried on using translation in the classroom, were probably right all along.

If you enjoyed this extract, make sure you download this typical mistakes activity, also taken from Translation and Own-language Activities!

If you missed last week’s #TDWednesday article, you might want to read the carefully selected sample and activity from Penny Ur’s Grammar Practice Activities 2nd edition, which focuses on providing effective grammar practice for learners.


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