To Be a Better Teacher for Beginner Language Learners, Stop Translating

TL;DR Keep your activities monolingual. When designing activities and using the target language (L2), avoid using the student’s native language (L1). This will save you both time and effort later on.

Half of the language teaching materials I find on Quizizz teach via translation, and it frustrates me to no end.

In teaching through translation, you increase the burden of language learning both (1) on the student, who must now struggle through missed teaching opportunities, and (2) on the instructor, who is now responsible for correctly using two languages and re-teaching what could have been taught through stock phrases.

The Learner’s Burden

Translation in the classroom produces more translation later on.

If you’re a Spanish teacher and you accept your student saying “What does (…) mean?” all in English, or you say that phrase yourself, you’re missing a huge chance to teach

  1. the phrase “¿Qué significa (…)?”
  2. the example of “significa” for when you teach third-person singular conjugation,
  3. the example of “qué” to later teach “qué” vs “que,” and
  4. the pronunciation and fluency reenforcement that such stock phrases bring.

By allowing a student to say “What does (…) mean?” in English rather than Spanish, you make your job as a language teacher much more difficult later on.

At some point, the language classroom must become monolingual. But that transition becomes much more difficult when you permit or even actively use L1 in the language classroom. That becomes habit forming, and it’s a shock to the system when a teacher suddenly demands 100% L2 as levels and command over the language progress.

What’s more, imagine how upsetting it is for a student at the B1 level to realize they don’t have mastery over basic phrases in the target language. Learning basic phrases like “What does (…) mean?” is below their level, and so they don’t want to spend the time or effort it will take to re-master such basic skills.

Why set your students up for failure when putting in the initial work is as easy as including a few pictures and using body language?

The Instructor’s Burden

One example of why translation is so risky in the language classroom is that there’s a very real possibility that you don’t have a perfect command over either the student’s L1.

In these two questions from a Spanish class’s Quizizz activity, we are missing the chance to teach so much good and necessary Spanish vocabulary. What’s more, this is vocabulary that can be recycled again and again to teach students more advanced grammatical concepts.

Another issue with these phrases is that the English is far from perfect. The “h” in “how” and the “s” in “spanish” should be capitalized, and there should be a question mark at the end.

While a native speaker would know different, I know for a fact that this teacher’s students are mostly Brazilian. Now their students are learning imperfect English in addition to Spanish, which is certainly not ideal. It becomes even worse when that same imperfect English phrase is used repeatedly — as is the case here.

There’s also idea of “saving face” to consider. While humbling yourself in front of your students is rarely a bad thing to do, showing a lack of mastery over teaching or language is rarely ideal.

This next question presents another issue with teaching through translation. Both “lavar” and “limpiar” could be translations of “to clean.”

We could avoid this issue by including a picture of someone cleaning something and including a cloze deletion or gap fill sentence. A picture of a dirty kitchen could be followed by the phrase “Necesitamos (…) la cocina.” The student learns to mentally associate the word “limpiar” not only with the picture but also with the words “la cocina” and “necesitar.” This is called teaching lexis. Rather than teaching single words, we teach units of words in context.

By teaching through translation rather than pictures or lexis, you open yourself to a world of problems as a teacher. Even if you avoid the issue of having an imperfect command over the student’s language, and even if you write everything perfectly, you’re still missing chances chances to teach students useful phrases at a time when their needs for those phrases is greatest.

Commit a class to playing games learning the stock phrases students need to discover the language themselves. In doing so, you’ll save yourself the headache of a multi-lingual classroom and build student agency in their language learning journey.

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N.G. Rees

N.G. Rees

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Teacher trainer and ESL instructor based out of Morocco. Head of Training and Development, Resilient Communities NGO. hmu @rees_is_