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Should We Use Translation When Teaching and Learning Vocabulary?

Updated on December 17, 2017
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul is a retired American expat living in Thailand. Besides being an English teacher and translator, Paul likes languages and most sports.

Is There a Need For Translation?


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.

Learning Vocabulary

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 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 which 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 absolutely 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?

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© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


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    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 2 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thanks for commenting! Yes, knowing a second language will definitely improve your job career.

    • profile image

      sara 2 years ago

      Second language is an important aspect for any person to improve job career significantly.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      &prasadjain Thanks for commenting. I'm happy we have the same opinion on this matter.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      &mbyL Thank you for your great comment! I'm happy you found this hub useful.

    • prasadjain profile image

      Dr.S.P.PADMA PRASAD 4 years ago from Tumkur

      Using mother tongue equivalents while teaching English, is the worst way of teaching that language. Authors view that it should be used to the minimum, is correct. That is the opinion of Indian experts also.Experiments conducted by 'Central Institute of English and foreign Languages'(Hyderabad) also has proved that 'Bi-lingual method',where mother tongue is used at minimum to teach English,is good to teach English to non- native learners of English.

    • mbyL profile image

      Slaven Cvijetic 4 years ago from Switzerland, Zurich

      This is an excellent hub! I thought this before too, but I didn't know how bad learning vocabulary/language can be as it is normally taught in school. This will surely help me greatly with my Japanese learning!

      Thank you a lot!!

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      &lingvopedia Thanks for commenting! I think translation should only be used as a last resort when all other ways of explaining vocabulary have been exhausted.

    • lingvopedia profile image

      Rahul Malik 4 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Yes, We should use Translation when Teaching and Learning vocabulary?

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thanks for stopping by and your encouraging comments. I plan to write more about this topic in the future.

    • profile image

      Monica 5 years ago

      This is a really interesting post on a perennially fascinating question, Paul -- thanks! I'm an

      English teacher and I know how tempting it can be to use translation rather than explaining something, but it is often the easy way out and less beneficial for the students.


    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thank you for reading my hub and your comments. I'm happy my article interests you and I will be in touch with you soon. Paul

    • profile image

      Trinh 5 years ago

      Dear Sir,

      Your article interests me a lot but Would you mind informing the written date of this article ! In fact , I am writing a thesis proposal, I would like to mention your name in my thesis but I get some difficulty above

      I am very pleased to get your response via email

      Thanks in advance !

      Yours sincerely, Trinh

      P.s : My email is

      I am

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thanks for reading and the favorable comments. Using flashcards and games are excellent ways of making the learning of vocabulary enjoyable for kids. I also utilized your method of practicing conversation with no books when I was learning Mandarin.

    • LouisAlbert profile image

      LouisAlbert 5 years ago from Taipei

      This is a great article Paul. As a teacher and a student, I can see the benefits of not relying on translation so regularly.

      It pains me to see students cramming for big tests with their endless vocabulary lists with English paired next to Mandarin. It's even worse that few teachers teach their students to learn vocabulary in lexical chunks.

      Reading is a great way to study a new language, but not when stopping every thirty seconds to look up a word. Teachers should encourage their students to deduce the meaning and only look up the word if they're at a total loss. Constant translation saps the immense pleasure one should get from the joy of reading.

      For children, I like to study and teach with flashcards. Games that tie in realistic situations are another great way to teach new vocabulary. For adults, this can be trickier. Audio and video files are good sources to display the meaning of words without translation.

      I'm also a student of Mandarin Chinese and certainly know the dead end study method of trying to memorize the dictionary. When writing business emails and messages, I certainly forget what a character looks like from time to time and check on-line to jog my memory.

      When studying Mandarin, I prefer practicing conversation and keep the books at bay for the most part. That usually serves me well.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thanks for the favorable comment, Wesley. I hope to have more on this topic in the future.

    • Wesley Meacham profile image

      Wesley Meacham 5 years ago from Wuhan, China

      I like this article. When teaching new vocabulary I usually try first to explain with words that are synonymous. If that doesn't work I try to explain with descriptions that are very basic. Sometimes I'll draw pictures on the board or act things out or both. Often students will use the dictionaries in their phones or other devices. I don't like these because I don't really trust them and because I believe, as your article supports, that the words they already know in a language should be their first resource for learning new words in that language.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 6 years ago from The Caribbean

      I have heard foreign-language speaking people talk about thinking in their native language before they translate. Thanks for this sensible approach.