How do I use translation in my classroom?

People usually seem pretty agreeable with most of the things I suggest about language teaching, but there is one area where we language teachers tend to tread very lightly: translation.  For those of us who consider ourselves “enlightened,” translation has become a dirty word.  However, I would argue that some translation in the classroom is not only acceptable, but that it actually can be a great strategy to use daily. (Obviously for ESL teachers this luxury is not always available!)

**A collective gasp is heard throughout the twitterverse!**

So, how can I be such a heretic? Pedagogically unsound? Generally insane in the membrane? I’ll tell you.

First of all, this is not your grandfather’s grammar translation method we are talking about. I am not suggesting that you have your students translate as an exercise. Translation for translation’s sake is probably a bit of a waste of time. I am referring to the use of L1 as a means of clarifying meaning, quickly, and then returning just as quickly to the target language.

I am also an advocate of clarifying new vocabulary and structures by writing them on the board along with a loose translation (obviously not all structures match up exactly).  This actually allows me to STAY in the TL more because if a student is confused he can simply look at the board quickly and then get back to the flow of the lesson. I can also point at the structure if I feel it is bogging down the flow of things.

Here are some guidelines that I would recommend for using the L1 as a strategy (not a crutch) in the L2 classroom:

1. Don’t waste time playing charades with students. If they cannot get what you mean via gesture, prop, realia, or image, stop playing games. Tell them the meaning in L1 and move on.

2. Many times the age or personality of the student dictates how much confusion or ambiguity they are willing to tolerate. Stephen Krashen discussed the need for the feeling of transparency in comprehensible input at the TPRS Publishing Multicultural Conference last summer in Cancun, Mexico. It is very important for learners to have the illusion or feeling that the input which they are receiving is totally comprehensible. If the learner gets stuck wondering what a word means they may be missing subsequent critical aspects of the message.

3. Don’t translate more than you need to. The goal is to make your lessons as comprehensible as possible. Transparent input is the goal. However, translating things they already understand is kind of silly. Gradually work toward using what they already know to help the rest become comprehensible and the need to translate is lessened. In early novice levels, using cognates is one very good way of making sure lots of your input is comprehensible.

4. Pre-teach key vocabulary, keep vocabulary and visual and/or loose translation up where students can see it throughout the lesson. This will lessen the need for you to translate anything later on.

5. Limit new vocabulary and structures as much as possible. Introduce only a handful of new structures each day, and rely heavily on previously acquired structures and vocabulary, cognates, proper nouns, etc to help make the new structures more easily understood.

6. Consider a word wall. As students learn new structures you might want to keep a list of them up on the wall. Translation shouldn’t be needed on the word wall, because you will have already spent time helping students acquire them. This just reinforces the vocabulary in students’ minds and reminds you to recycle it!

7. Read. A lot. When reading with novices, I do recommend L1 translation of anything you think they won’t understand. But the key is read in the TL, then QUICKLY translate anything unfamiliar. Then you have 2 options:

1) Is it an important word that you really want them to acquire soon? Do some TL discussion, and use that word a bunch of times in your discussion.  Don’t make the discussion boring, repetitive and rote. Make it fun, personalized, and interesting. Don’t expect the student to say the new word, that is YOUR job right now.

2) Is it a low-frequency word that is not super important right now? Then just move on with the reading and forget about it.

8. Once your students have a fair amount of reading under their belts, you won’t need to stop and “clarify” with L1 very much at all, unless you are reading something more complex that is above their heads. And if that is the case maybe you need to back off and read something more appropriate for their skill level!

Whew! So, that pretty much sums up my feelings on the use of L1 in the L2 classroom. I know you won’t all agree with me, but that’s ok. As long as your students and my students all end up proficient in the language in the end, that is really all that matters, right? 🙂


  1. In the old output based way I used to teach, I really made translation a no-no. At the same time, I always recalled how I first learned Chinese when I was living in China. There was another English teacher who was a gifted language learner and could speak 4 languages. Although she was an American, she became my first real Chinese teacher. When we travelled during breaks, we would spend long hours on trains chatting with curious Chinese passengers. Judy would act as the interpreter so I would hear Chinese then English then Chinese. This would go on for hours. I learned lots of Chinese this way. Now that I am learning to teach with CI, my early learning experiences make total sense to me.

  2. Quick, informative translation is a plus especillay when you work with teenagers who are not very sure about their TL ability. Great post Kristy!

    1. Thanks Diego! I really respect your opinion so I am glad you liked the post! Translation, especially quick and just for clarification is such a great tool when all students have the same L1! We should not fear it or view it as a bad thing. 🙂

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