Should We Use Translation When Teaching and Learning Vocabulary?
Is There a Need For Translation?
Translation into the student's native or first language is unnecessary in many cases when teaching English vocabulary to speakers of other languages. For many years traditional linguists have advocated translating all new vocabulary into the student's native language before he or she is ready to read or speak an unfamiliar passage. I will show in this article that a complete reliance on translation is often not needed and detrimental to the student when learning English.
The Traditional Method of Teaching Vocabulary
If you pick up conversational or reading textbooks for EFL and ESL students in such countries as China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand, you will find conversations and readings followed by long lists of English words translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai. When the student begins a lesson, his teacher will first have the student say the new words once, and then pay attention to the meaning of the words in his native language. Following this, the student will go through the conversation or reading article while his teacher points out in the student's native language the meaning of the passage as well as grammatical patterns that the student must know.
This type of teaching method has been around a very long time, and it is called the grammar-translation method. Derived from the traditional method of teaching Greek and Latin in the West, this method aims to have students completely understand the grammatical rules and vocabulary of any foreign language. The method has been so popular around the world because you don't need native speakers to teach foreign languages. It is also easy for the teacher to use. You only really need the student's native teacher who has a knowledge of the grammar of the foreign language being taught. The teacher is not using the foreign language for communication because all explanations about the foreign language are in the student's native language.
How People Learn Vocabulary
When teaching vocabulary, the grammar-translation method fails because it goes against the natural way one learns his or her native or first language. When learning your first language, concrete vocabulary is acquired from mental images of what you see and experience from your other senses. For example, a toddler will see, hear, and feel the water, and then hear the word "water" spoken by his mother or father.
When the child gets a little older, other abstract vocabulary is learned from associations. For example, the young child will acquire the meaning of "bad" by associations with actions such as not eating his food, hitting playmates, and not taking a nap which are not rewarded. Citing another example, the concept of "freedom" will be acquired by seeing animals both in and out of cages and by viewing people who are and aren't wearing handcuffs.
When I began learning Chinese Mandarin, I was fortunate to have a native speaker who taught me using a direct method which is very similar to how you learn your first or native language. Mr. Chen expended great effort in explaining new vocabulary with pictures and actions which created mental images of the Chinese character being taught. All of his lesson sheets were more than 98 percent in Chinese characters. If he could not explain a new concrete or abstract character or word using a picture to create a mental image or association, he explained it with simpler synonym characters which were all student-friendly. I learned how to think in Chinese, and it was extremely helpful to me in acquiring fluency in the language.
Disadvantages of Use of Translation When Teaching Vocabulary
The use of translation when teaching vocabulary has the following disadvantages:
1. It Goes Against The Natural Process of Acquiring Language:
As a child, one learns his native language by first acquiring listening and then speaking skills. Later, the child develops the reading and then writing skills in school. In acquiring listening and speaking skills, the toddler is getting mental images for words from concrete experiences and associations. By giving translations of words, we are not giving the student mental images of words that the student can internalize and later easily use in speech. We are also going against the natural process of acquiring language.
2. Interference From The Student's Native Language:
Interference from the student's native language usually results in mistakes in pronunciation, sentence word order, and other correct grammatical construction. The phonemes and phonetics of all languages are different from English. For example, the word for "gas" in Thai is similar to English; however, in Thai pronunciation, the ending "s" sound is not pronounced. Word order in sentences also presents problems to the second language learner. In Thai, adjectives are placed after nouns instead of preceding nouns as in English. Too many times students will write sentences such as "I like playing game computer."
3. Translation Can't Capture The Exact Meaning:
Language is part of a culture. Unless you learn a language and its vocabulary as it is experienced by native speakers, you will never be able to acquire the exact meaning of a word. On too many occasions, a translation will fail in explaining the meaning of vocabulary, because the translator doesn't have a mental image or the correct images and associations for a word.
4. Translation Slows Down Learning And Doesn't Foster Thinking in a Second Language:
When reading a newspaper or book, one doesn't look up every word that is unclear or unknown. If a person did this, there would not be that much reading. Reading would be a chore, very boring, and not very enjoyable. This, however, is exactly what we are doing when we require second language learners to learn and look up all the words they don't know. Instead, we should be teaching students strategies for learning new words through associations with past experiences. Doing this will go a long way in helping students to start thinking in a second language.
When Should We Use Translation?
I am not advocating that translation should be abandoned when teaching vocabulary. It should be extremely limited and only used as a last resort when the teacher can't explain words with images or associations, and when the teacher is certain the translation is correct. Acquisition of vocabulary is extremely important when learning a language, and it must be learned by the natural process that one uses in learning his native language.
Using Translation When Teaching Vocabulary
What is the major disadvantage of using translation when teaching vocabulary?
Hubs Related to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary
- Native Language Interference in Learning a Second Language
Native language interference in learning a second language is a major problem for ESL students and learners of other foreign languages. This hub examines types of native language interference.
- How to Teach Vocabulary To ESL and EFL Students
Teaching vocabulary to ESL and EFL students can be a challenging task. Should it be done by pre-teaching vocabulary? This hub suggests an inductive approach as the best way to teach vocabulary.
- Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs for ESL Students
The wise ESL and EFL teacher should spend extra time making sure that his or her students understand common words used as homonyms, homophones, and homographs. This can only be done through practice.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn