Lost in translation
In January 2011 we had the chance to meet Professor Guy Cook at the International House DOS conference in London where he was giving a talk entitled Coming back in from the cold: Translation in language teaching. Professor Cook’s new book is also all about translation – an area which can cause some teachers much discomfort. We caught up with him to find out more.
iT's: Can I get you a coffee? Or do you prefer tea?
Guy Cook: Nothing for me just now thanks. Maybe afterwards.
iT's: We’re here today to talk about a new topic in language teaching that is, in fact very old, that of translation. Is this something that is coming back, has come back, should come back or never left at all?
G.C.: I don't think it's really come back quite yet but it's certainly about to arrive. There's a growing recognition that banning first language use and insisting on English only was a bad idea. Translation follows inevitably from this realisation. It is the most important, most useful and even sometimes most enjoyable and fulfilling ways of allowing students to relate their own language to English. But people are still nervous. Translation has been seen as almost immoral. People are scared they'll commit an unforgivable sin and go to pedagogic hell.
iT's: Your most recent book is Translation in Language Teaching (Oxford University Press, 2010). What prompted it? Have you always been interested in this area?
G.C.: Several reasons. I'll give you three.
Firstly my own experience of language learning. When I learn a language I like there to be a translation component, I like rules to be explained, and I like to be corrected for accuracy. These things create confidence. I know what I can and can't do. So if I were to start a new language now I would certainly opt for a lot of translation. That's not to say everyone should or does feel the same as me. But a lot of people do.
Another reason is that I am a natural dissident. I like to question orthodoxy. So all through my professional life in ELT, which is now nearly 40 years, I've felt angry at the dogmatic assumption by those in power - such as publishers, academics, language schools, ministries of education - that monolingual teaching is best. And I've felt offended by the way they have ridiculed or ignored something which in my experience was both enjoyable and useful. People criticise traditional old-fashioned conservative teaching methods. So do I. But it's monolingual language teaching which is old fashioned and out of date. It's been around for over a hundred years. Time for a change!
Third reason - I am married to an interpreter and translator, and talk to her a lot about her work - and that reinforces my appreciation of how interesting and important translation can be.
iT's: Other authors have referred to L1 and translation in the classroom as the ‘skeleton in the closet’. Why is this so?
G.C.: Or 'the elephant in the room' as Keith Morrow calls it. Either way - skeleton or elephant - it's always going to be there. There's no getting rid of it, even if we wanted to. Those fanatics who say teachers and students should never translate are just in denial. They suffer from "wilful blindness", as psychologists say. If you ban translation it just goes underground. Students will whisper translations to their neighbours, or look words up in a bilingual dictionary, or wait till the class is over and ask somebody outside. Even if you stop them translating out loud, they will still do it in their heads.
iT's: When did translation get such bad press?
G.C.: A very long time ago indeed - at the end of the nineteenth century. Two things happened in the same year - 1882! Most significantly, Maximillian Berlitz founded his language schools. He wanted to cash in on new opportunities in language teaching markets - to be able to teach mixed language classes and use native speaker teachers. His schools were very much along factory lines - they boasted that wherever you went the class would be on the same page on the same day. And they were completely anti-translation - teachers could be fired for it. In the same year, by coincidence, a group of academics who called themselves the 'Reform Movement' started a campaign against Grammar-Translation. But like so many things in language teaching, it was the commercial and practical incentives that were the real movers, not the academic theorising.
iT's: You have said that bilingualism and translation in the classroom are in fact quite authentic. Can you explain what you mean by that?
G.C.: That's easy. Somehow it has become accepted wisdom that translation is artificial, inauthentic, and uncommunicative. Just a moment's thought shows this to be untrue. Wherever there is language contact, translation happens spontaneously. It happens at the domestic level for example, in mixed marriages and immigrant families. It happens socially - translating a menu or a notice for visiting friends for example. It happens in schools when you have new arrivals or communication with parents. It happens in hospitals and courtrooms, in the media - think of subtitling - and in transport, on the back of aeroplane seats or in airport announcements. Not to mention, of course, the wider world of international diplomacy and trade where translation and interpreting are happening on a massive scale. And let's face it, someone who gets a job on the strength of being able to speak English, is very likely to be expected to mediate between people who speak English and people who don't. This mediation is a kind of translation in a broad sense. Translation is all around us - one of the most common and certainly one of the most important language activities of all. It's making language learners do everything in English which is often artificial and demotivating
iT's: So my high school German teacher, who used lots of translation, wasn’t as bad as I was made to think when I was trained as a communicative language teacher.
G.C.: We all remember some teachers as "good" and others as "bad". I doubt if the proportions change much. And I doubt if it has much to do with different methods and changing fashions. You can be a good teacher with almost any method, and certainly you can be a bad one. There's an element of reaction and counter reaction here. Each generation likes to think of itself as "cooler" than the one before - so they say that the teaching methods used on them were fusty and old fashioned. But this will happen to us as well. It's very arrogant of any generation to think they are superior to their predecessors. So even if your German teacher was boring, don't you think some direct-method teachers can be boring too?
iT's: What about schools or class environments where use of the students’ mother tongue by the teacher is ‘banned’? Is this misguided?
G.C.: It's more than misguided - it's absolutely crazy. It doesn't help students develop the new language as well as they might. It doesn't build upon the knowledge they already have. It doesn't respect their first-language identity. And it doesn't prepare them for the outside world.
iT's: Some students say that they want a teacher that speaks only English and always English to them in class. What would you say to that?
G.C.: We've lived through an era when it's been supposed that native speakers make the best teachers, whether or not they speak the students' language. Many such teachers are very good at what they do, and I certainly wouldn't want to turn the tables on them, making them second class citizens as non-native speaker teachers have been. Nevertheless, knowing and using the students' own language definitely has many advantages. It makes for a less stressful atmosphere, it makes relationships between teacher and students deeper and more genuine, it respects and uses what students know already (rather than infantilising them), it protects their first-language identity and allows them to develop a new bilingual identity, and above all it helps them understand how the new language works.
iT's: Obviously not allowing translation was easier in multilingual classrooms in places like England or America. Did that have something to do with the effects on the methodology worldwide?
G.C.: Yes because supposedly cutting-edge language teaching theories have been led by the English speaking countries and tended to focus on things which work with small mixed language classes in English speaking contexts - forgetting that the majority of English language learners in the world are in very different circumstances, learning English from their own compatriots, and sharing a language with their fellow students.
iT's: In one of your talks you mention that there were many other reasons that had nothing to do with language learning as to why translation was banned. What were some of these reasons?
G.C.: We are led to believe that new theories of language teaching and learning originate in academic research and pedagogic practice. In fact they are more often driven by commercial interests, power politics, and technology. It should make us suspicious that the direct method - teaching English through English - has survived so many changes of fashion in linguistics and language teaching. It suggests theory has little effect on what happens. Banning translation suited publishers because they could produce course books for worldwide distribution. It suited the interests of the English-speaking countries because it facilitated the export of experts and teachers, and meant everything could be done in English. The influence of technology is more complicated. New computerised publishing, and the diversity which is made possible through electronic communication, can make bilingual methods and resources much more easily available,
iT's: Are there any particular translation activities or strategies you would recommend to a teacher wishing to begin using this technique again?
G.C.: Too many to mention, and the answer will depend on the age, stage and purpose of the students. Certainly not only the old sentence-focused exercises for accuracy - though these have a place too. But there are lot of communicative and fluency based activities which deploy translation in enjoyable and motivating ways. Suppose, for example, that students are divided into groups, and some members of the group are given a text, or played a recording, which they then have to translate for the others, and that this translation is needed for the task completion. A translation element or stage of this kind could be incorporated into virtually any of the many different task types which have been developed in TBLT. This use of translation involves extensive interaction and negotiation, as the translators in the group will discuss problems together, and the recipients of the translation will ask questions, demand repetitions, and discuss their understanding—or lack of it—together. Teachers can use translation for vocabulary clarification, and to maintain student fluency - through the technique of 'sandwiching' - giving a rapid translation before or after a question. There are really lots of things to do. Too many to list here. Your readers need to read the last chapter of my book! Or books like Deller and Rinvolucri's Using the Mother Tongue (Delta Publishing, 2002), González Davies' Multiple Voices in the Translation Classroom: Activities, tasks and projects (John Benjamins, 2008) or the chapter on translation in Butzkamm and Caldwell's The Bilingual Reform (Narr, 2009).
iT's: Thank you for your time. Would you like that coffee now?
G.C.: Yes - strong and black with two sugars and a slice of cake please.