Revista Idiomática

Año 2, Número 3, enero-junio 2021


Successful implementation of translation in the L2 teaching and learning process


By María de Lourdes Martínez Ruiz and Krisztina Zimányi



This article seeks to clear up some of the confusion surrounding the use of translation in the teaching and learning of second and foreign languages (L2) and challenge the misconceptions regarding its detrimental effects on the learning process. First, it delineates three ways in which translation can manifest itself: 1) as an internal cognitive process in the learner’s mind, 2) as a type of bilingual verbal expression, mostly in the form of classroom discourse produced by the teacher, and, 3) as an ensemble of teaching methods that knowingly involves translation in the L2 classroom. It then goes on to argue how, in each of these cases, translation can be employed to benefit rather than impede the teaching and learning process by consciously assuming a socio-constructivist cognitivist approach where, rather than vilifying the instrument, the focus shifts to its suitable application.


Keywords: second language teaching and learning; mental translation; classroom discourse; pedagogical translation; code-switching




Este artículo pretende esclarecer la confusión referente al uso de la traducción en la enseñanza y aprendizaje de segundas lenguas y lenguas extranjeras (L2), además, cuestionar las convicciones equivocadas que consideran que la traducción perjudica el proceso de aprendizaje. Antes que nada, se distinguen tres maneras en que la traducción se utiliza en el aula: 1) la traducción interna, un proceso cognitivo que ocurre en la mente del estudiante; 2) la traducción como una forma de expresión verbal, en su mayoría, como un tipo de discurso áulico procedente del profesor; y, 3) la traducción como base de un acervo de métodos didácticos que conscientemente aplican la traducción en la clase de la L2. En segundo lugar, se demuestra cómo, en cada uno de estos casos, la traducción se puede explotar para beneficiar más que impedir el proceso de la enseñanza y aprendizaje por medio de asumir un enfoque socioconstructivista donde se enfoca en la aplicación adecuada en vez de la denigración de esta herramienta didáctica.


Palabras clave: enseñanza y aprendizaje de segundas lenguas; traducción mental; discurso áulico; traducción pedagógica; alternancia de códigos

foto: Ioana Cornea

1. Introduction


The idea of using translation in the second or foreign language1 classroom is often met by at least a certain degree of skepticism, or even rejection. This unease seems to stem from a two-fold aspiration. First, to maintain a healthy distance from historical teaching methods that are now considered didactically erroneous. And second, to provide learners with as much exposure to the foreign language as possible, which leads to an automatic exclusion of the mother tongue in the classroom. Despite the valid assumptions that lie beneath these well-intentioned arguments, over the last three decades, translation has been (re)gaining ground in second language teaching. This article aims to explore when translation may be valuable in the second language teaching and learning process and how it can be used constructively by teachers and learners both inside and outside the classroom environment. Some of the key aspects under study include the person who translates—either the teacher or the learner—how the translation occurs; that is, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the purpose of the translation activity.


2. Preliminary considerations


Attempts to restore translation into the L2 teaching and learning process have been numerous for at least the last thirty years. Alan Duff’s 1989 book, Translation, in the A resource Book for Teachers series is traditionally considered one of the earliest post-grammar-translation-method efforts to present translation-related activities that could be incorporated into the L2 classroom. Although Jones (1989), in his contemporary review, claims that this book falls short of applying proper translation exercises in the classroom and suggests that the “materials should perhaps be regarded as pre-translation activities rather than translation activities per se”, he also acknowledges that “this criticism, however, is secondary to the fact that they are excellent pre-translation/language-awareness activities” (p. 259). Since these humble beginnings, a growing number of publications have been dedicated to the cause. Some generically mention the potential use of translation in teaching an L2 (Ur & Thornbury, 2016; Widdowson, 2003), some explore the issue from a more theoretical perspective, most notably Guy Cook’s (2010) oft-quoted seminal book, Translation in language teaching. Others concentrate on empirical research (D’Amore, 2015; Gasca Jiménez, 2017; Petrocchi, 2014; Soto Almela, 2016), and certain authors, for example, María González Davies (Corcoll López & González-Davies, 2016; González-Davies, 2004, 2014, 2017; Wilson & Gonzalez Davies, 2016), have dedicated themselves to conceptualizing translation and bilingual language use in the L2 classroom over the years.

Considering the ample theoretical ruminations and empirical evidence regarding the benefits of using translation in teaching and learning an L2, it is all the more surprising that, when embarking on a research project on “translation in the L2 classroom”, there still seems to be quite a lot of misunderstanding, even among L2 teachers and teacher educators. Personal experience of this continued confusion among professionals has served as both the motivation and the justification for the present article, which, it is hoped, will separate the wheat from the chaff.

Apart from the usual distrust of the grammar-translation method, some identify the expression with L1 use, so, confusing it with other types of bilingual language use by either the L2 teacher or the learners. The term also invites associations with L2 learners’ internal translation practices, for example, in the case of reading comprehension exercises. This tripartite classification had also been recognized and defined by de Arriba García (1996) as pedagogical translation, explicative (or explanatory) translation, and interior translation. Furthermore, it was mapped out by Pintado Gutierrez (2018) under the terms: pedagogical translation, code-switching, and interior translation. However, although all these activities may have a translation component, they do not consist exclusively in translation. Neither can they be categorized as either purely beneficial or completely detrimental to the teaching and learning process. In order to illustrate the benefits translation can bring to the language classroom, the sections below will follow a reverse order whereby, after a brief reflection on the internal cognitive processes that take place in the learners’ mind and the translation-based use of the L1 by the learner or the teacher, the opportunities provided specifically by pedagogical translation will take center stage.


3. Mental translation


Before moving on to a discussion of the different uses of translation in the L2 classroom, it is important to specify the operative definition of translation employed for the purposes of this article. In this regard, rather than a restrictive approach, a generic description may prove more effective. For example, Catford’s (1967) explanation of translation as “an operation performed on languages: a process of substituting a text in one language for a text in another” (p. 1) is applicable here. In addition, House’s (2018) description of it as “a procedure where original text […] is replaced by another text in a different language” (p. 9) seems equally useful. What makes these definitions particularly suitable is that they are in no way restrictive. They outline a bilingual activity without limiting it to written text, tying it to any formal requirements or depending too much on equivalence at any specific linguistic level. What it does entail, though, is an interlingual transfer of a meaningful unit of text.

Internal or mental translation, in turn, refers to the “process whereby a speech or text is translated in the mind, particularly when a student internally renders L2 speech or text into L1 in order to follow a lesson or to complete a task” (Pym, Malmkjaer & Gutierrez-Colon, 2013, p. 155). It is a naturally occurring phenomenon, also called internalized translation, and it is “among the spontaneous strategies the learner uses and, therefore, cannot be excluded from the pedagogical repertoire” (Hurtado Albir, 1988, p. 74., translation by the authors). Hurtado Albir adds that this naturally occurring practice does not contradict the communicative approach, and she highlights the role of the L2 teacher in discouraging the learners from word-for-word translation and contextualizing it by drawing attention to the particular situation to achieve successful communication.

The topic has garnered considerable empirical research interest from the late 1980s on in written and oral as well as receptive and productive skills. Generally, studies suggested that mental translation was found to be used in writing even when known to be undesirable (Kobayashi & Rinnert, 1992). It was apparently preferred by learners rather than teachers in general (Prince, 1996), and by learners of lower levels rather than advanced (Wen & Johnson, 1997). The latter tendency was observed during reading exercises by Kern (1994), too, who also noted that “Mental translation during L2 reading can facilitate the generation and conservation of meaning by allowing the reader to represent portions of L2 text that exceed cognitive limits in a familiar, memory efficient form.” (455). In other words, content retention is facilitated by storing the information in the L1.

Unsurprisingly, the research on mental translation in L2 teaching and learning follows broader trends of cognitive studies, which has resulted in the upsurge of more recent explorations during the last decade. This new wave has also brought about inquiries into the analysis of specific skills, for example, listening (Li, 2013; Vandergrift, Goh, Mareschal & Tafaghodtari, 2006; Vandergrift & Tafaghodtari, 2010), the geographical extension of the research to sites with traditionally less investigated contexts, such as Turkey (Artar, 2017) or Bahrein (Al-Musawi, 2014). Some even argue that mental translation is instrumental in the acquisition of the four traditional skills and, therefore, should be considered a fifth skill in its own right (Ayachia & Labed, 2018; Leonardi, 2011). However, one should probably still err on the side of caution, as empirical evidence has also been presented to support to view that the cognitive overload that relying on mental translation involves is detrimental when carrying out writing tasks in the L2 (Nawal, 2018).

The arguments in favor of mental translation usually cite the basic axiom that this process is simply natural and inevitable (Duff, 1989; Malakoff & Kakuta, 1991). Its explicit manifestation has been hailed as “natural translation” in interpreting studies, coined by Harris (1977) who defined it as the “The translating done in everyday circumstances by people who have had no special training for it.” (p. 155) observing that bilinguals were able to translate as much as their proficiency in both languages allowed them to. Harris and Sherwood (1978) conducted a longitudinal study with the aid of various researchers based on the hypothesis that young children translate from the moment they start to acquire a second language. Through the collection of individual case histories of young children, the authors found no evidence to suggest that natural translation hindered “successful acquisition of a second language or language development in general. Nor is there anything to suggest that it improves it” (p. 168). They concluded that it was an inherent feature of their communicative skills. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that learners who acquire L2 in a more structured environment would be cognitively different.

On the contrary, advances in cognitive studies have provided scientific evidence that sustains such naturalness of translation in the bilingual mind. As far back as 1982, Grosjean was already claiming that bilingual people have two types of lexicon in which “the information acquired in one language is available in the other only through a translation process” (p. 245). More recently, Thierry and Wu (2007), in their study with 15 Chinese-English bilinguals, concluded that “native-language activation operates in everyday second-language use, in the absence of awareness on the part of the bilingual speaker” (p. 12534). This would seem to indicate that, simply put, the L1 belongs to the learner’s schemata both from a cognitive and a socio-constructivist perspective (Cook, 2010; McVee, Dunsmore & Gavalek, 2005), especially with regard to the receptive skills of reading (Carrell, 1984; Carrell & Eisterhold, 1983; Hudson, 1982) and listening (Long, 1989, 1990).

If this is indeed the case, one cannot but agree with Leonardi (2011), who suggests that, if teachers cannot prevent learners from using translation, they should encourage them to translate appropriately and, at the same time, reduce interference from the L1. According to her, translation can be used to strengthen both students’ communicative skills and their linguistic and cultural knowledge of a second language which presupposes a facilitative role on the teacher’s part. This includes raising metacognitive awareness among learners on how to convert mental (or internalized) translation, to leverage this naturally occurring phenomena and turn it to their own advantage. As learners may engage in communication in their free time, especially practicing their receptive skills through listening to their favorite music or reading up on their favorite artist, these recommendations could be considered in a variety of contexts that are not restricted to the classroom.


4. Translation as a form of bilingual language use in the L2 classroom


Having reviewed how learners’ internal translation may be fostered by the teacher, we now turn our attention to the second category of translation in the language teaching and learning context, referred to as explanatory or explicative translation by De Arriba Garcia (1996, c.f. Hurtado Albir, 1988) and code-switching by Pintado Gutierrez (2018). Both these terms are employed to denote oral classroom communication during which the teacher, and sometimes the learners, translate or interpret their own or others’ utterances. Unfortunately, neither term seems completely accurate and both may lead to the confusion mentioned in the preliminary considerations in this article. In order to clear up this possible confusion, consideration will be given first to code-switching and translanguaging, going on to put forward a fresh proposal regarding the label.


4.1 Code-switching and code-mixing


Code-switching was originally considered a sociolinguistic practice (Barker, 1947; Blom & Gumperz, 1972) and only more recently has it become more closely associated with educational settings, where it has gained so much attention that it has grown into a subfield of applied linguistics in its own right (Al-Qaysi, 2018; Lin, 2008). The term is essentially used “to describe the bilingual’s ability to select the language according to the interlocutor, the situational context, etc.” (Meisel, 1989, p. 13), and is thus considered a part of pragmatic competence (Meisel, 1994), in which the emphasis would be on the speaker’s agency in the selection (Holmes, 2013). It is worth noting that code-switching is not restricted to moving back and forth between languages, but also between distinct dialects or sociolects of the same language (Woolard, 2004), between sentences or even within the same sentence (Macswan, 2004, Poplack, 1980). The motivation behind such conscious switches has been recognized as a marker of contextual positions (Myers-Scotton, 1982, 1995, 1998), although such ideas have not gone unopposed (Auer, 1995; Shin, 2013). That said, the connection between code-switching and identity construction has been more widely acknowledged (Auer, 2003; Baker, 2001). In general, it is understood as “a social practice that is part and parcel of everyday social life” (Lin, 2013, cited in Wright, Boun and García 2015, p. 196).

In the educational field, like pedagogic translation, code-switching has come to be used as a teaching tool on a global scale (Adendorff, 1993; Canagarajah, 2001; Li, 2011; Lin 1996; Macaro, 2009; Tian & Macaro, 2012). Metila (2009) explains that codes-witching only becomes a pedagogical resource when “it makes challenging subject matter comprehensible to students. In this particular situation, codeswitching is lesson-driven and not language-motivated” (p. 46). For example, Üstünel and Seedhouse (2005) analyzed code-switching in teacher discourse from a pedagogical perspective in EFL classes, identifying the following reasons behind the teachers’ use of the technique: to help students to answer a question in the target language, to motivate learners to produce language in the L2 and to encourage learners to translate words from the L2 into their L1. This last aspect is perhaps the reason why some authors claim that it is difficult to distinguish translation from code-switching (Davies & Bentahila, 2008). Cahyani, De Courcy and Barnett (2016) arrived at similar conclusions, finding that teachers resorted to code-switching for four reasons: to make sure their explanations were clear and understandable to students, for classroom management reasons, to develop an interpersonal relationship with their students by reducing students’ anxiety, and to express personal information.


4.2 Translanguaging


Translanguaging is confusingly similar to code-switching, especially because it is often associated with the speakers’ personal and group identity on the one hand (Canagarajah, 2011; Creese & Blackledge, 2015; García, 2009; Wei & Lyons, 2017), and with educational settings on the other (Makalela, 2015; Pacheco & Miller, 2015). These two aspects mutually reinforce each other’s theoretical underpinnings, since the pedagogical implementation of translanguaging starts from a repudiation of the premise that languages should be treated as separate entities (Cenoz, 2017). According to Lewis, Jones and Baker (2012b), the adaptation of translanguaging for bilingual educational purposes relies on the learners’ previous linguistic knowledge, which enables them to achieve comprehension and increase success in learning other languages. This seems in line with the application of schema theory mentioned above concerning mental translation, but here it is utilized as a sort of linguistic fund of knowledge (Martin-Beltrán, 2014; Pablo-Wrzosek, 2017; Wei, 2014).

In the same vein, García and Wei (2014) refer to translanguaging as a set of “languaging actions that enact a political process of social and subjectivity transformation which resists the asymmetries of power that language and other meaning-making codes, associated with one or another nationalist ideology, produce.” (p. 43). Similarly, Yilmaz (2019) explains that even in bilingual programs, educational policies have tended to separate the use of the mother tongue from the target language, thereby creating a hostile and damaging environment for minority language learners. Yilmaz believes that translanguaging can be used as a teaching method and to develop critical teaching. Added to this, the term has clearly acquired linguistic ideological connotations over the years and engaging in translanguaging has become a way to resist the imposition of a dominant language.

Proponents argue that, in contrast to code-switching, translanguaging has established an activist stance. The term itself was coined by Cen Williams, a Welsh educator, who promoted the use of two languages, Cymraeg (or Welsh) and English in bilingual education. The concept of trawsieithu was later translated to English and referred to a practice of using the two languages alternately for receptive and productive skills in a process (García & Lin, 2017; Lewis, Jones & Baker, 2012a) that “requires the use of a number of cognitive skills, both receptive and expressive, and results in a deeper understanding of the subject taught” (Beres, 2015, p. 107). As Wei and Ho (2018) explain,


Williams made it clear from the beginning that unlike code-switching, translanguaging is not simply a set of linguistic resources. It is a dynamic practice that involves different named languages and language varieties but more importantly, a process of knowledge construction that makes use of, but goes beyond, individual languages. It concerns effective communication, function rather than form, cognitive activity, and language production. (p. 35)


In this respect, translanguaging may be considered similar to translation, although the use of the two activities differs greatly with respect to their ideological convictions, or lack thereof, as following section shows.


4.3 Classroom discourse translation


Irrespective of whether we consider code-switching and translanguaging to be different phenomena or the same, one aspect they undoubtedly have in common is that they are not a translation activity. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, translation is transferring a unit of text from one language to another. In contrast, in code-switching or translanguaging, the information moving between the two (or more) languages is barely repeated, and the fragments, whether intra-sentential or not, are mostly complementary to each other. Therefore, it seems that conceptualizing any and all kinds of bilingual language use in the L2 teaching and learning process as translation would be a mistake. Such remark does not exclude translation from being counted among these bilingual manifestations, it merely indicates that further and careful consideration is required to dispel the confusion surrounding these concepts.

One term worthy of consideration is “classroom discourse translation”, a simple descriptive label that reflects how the teacher translates parts of previous utterances produced in the other language. Giving instructions in the L2 and repeating them in the L1 for the students to understand is a typical example of this activity, as well as summarizing or expanding on explanations already provided in the second language in the learners’ mother tongue. These practices frequently invite justifiable criticism, as it would be unwise to want the L2 teacher to become a glorified walking dictionary or a self-duplicating bilingual parrot. However, it is essential to note that translation as a form of bilingual language use in the L2 classroom does not necessarily have to be reduced to such simplistic and repetitive utterances. For this to happen, we need to distance ourselves from the unfortunate comparisons to code-switching or translanguaging and turn to models we can borrow from translation studies and conversation analysis.

It appears that combining a taxonomy of rendition types borrowed from the field of community interpreting (Wadensjö, 2014) and classifications of second language classroom discourse functions (Bowers, 1980, cited in Wallace, 1991; Forman, 2012) may be useful in this regard. This unlikely mixture allows for the analysis of teacher (and also student) talk by crossreferencing which rendition type is used for which particular discourse function. For example, close renditions, or almost complete self-translations, of the teacher’s own utterances are undesirable since they dull learners’ attention by simply letting them wait for the information to be shared in their mother tongue. In contrast, if teachers employ reduced renditions of their explanations, the learners receive some scaffolding yet also need to make a cognitive effort to understand the full message. In the case of zero renditions, the teacher leaves the original, ideally L2, utterance untranslated, which is particularly useful with instructions that the learners can first receive as formulae then gradually deconstruct as their linguistic and metalinguistic knowledge develops (author). From this perspective, classroom discourse translation is not objectionable in itself, but a tool that the L2 teacher can consciously exploit to foster the learners’ L2 acquisition process.

The potential for cognitive development is something the three activities share between them. Li’s (2018) description of translanguaging can be applied equally to code-switching or classroom discourse translation. Each of them can be seen as “a practice and a process—a practice that involves dynamic and functionally integrated use of different languages and language varieties, but more importantly a process of knowledge construction that goes beyond language(s)” (p. 15). Once again, it appears that what distinguishes the beneficial use of translation from less productive techniques is the cognitive effort the learners make and the socio-constructivist awareness that the teacher contributes to the exercise.


5. Pedagogical translation


Considering what we have seen regarding natural translation and classroom discourse translation, it comes as no surprise that supporters of pedagogical translation also question prescriptive monolingual practices in L2 education and advocate for a reconsideration of using learners’ L1. The reasons for incorporating the learners’ native language can range from ensuring better comprehension to reaffirming the learners’ identities or providing them with a sense of belonging. In addition to these sociolinguistic aspects, complex cognitive skills are also at play in all three types of translation under consideration here, in which the constant interaction between two languages, by definition, makes translation part of a bilingual activity and, therefore, part of bilingual competence (García, 2009).

From this perspective, it is hard to understand how translation, or other complex forms of bilingual language use, could be construed as undesirable in the L2 teaching and learning context. Nevertheless, it is a useful exercise to include a reminder of this pedagogical approach’s objections. For a more detailed treatment on the subject, taxonomies established over the last two decades by Duff (1989), Malmkjaer (1998), Carreres (2006), Cook (2010), Vermes (2010) or Artar (2017) are extremely useful. The following list lays out the most salient and recurring issues.


a) Translation is a demotivating and boring activity. Duff (1989) observes that a common misconception about translation concerns students’ attitudes and emotions.

b) Translation focuses almost exclusively on form and it is not a communicative activity. This objection assumes that translation does not resemble everyday communication (Artar, 2017; Malmkjaer, 1998; Zabalbeascoa, 1990) and may result from the notion that translation is alien to the use of the four skills.

c) Translation relegates students to a passive role. According to Carreres (2006), translation is commonly believed to lack purpose and “has no application in the real world, since translators normally operate into and not out of their mother tongue” (p. 5).

d) Translation is useful only in the development of reading and writing skills. Duff (1989) argues that translation is generally regarded as “text-bound” (p. 5) and it has been ignored as a result of a greater preference for oral skills in the communicative approach. Moghaddam and Malekzadeh (2011) note that “writing has turned into a Cinderella skill in current EFL classes” (p. 1), leaving little room for written translation in the prevailing L2 methodological paradigms.

e) Translation increases the possibility of interference from the L1. Although this mostly concerns a possible failure of lexical transfer, interference may also occur at other linguistic organizational levels (Carreres, 2006).

f) Translation is time-consuming. Working on translation in the L2 class is a protracted activity that takes away from developing other skills (Malmkjaer, 1998).


Pedagogical translation aims to refute these arguments by using techniques that are not bound to any particular L2 teaching method or technique but, instead, offer a means of exploiting translation in order to develop complex multilingual competences. In trying to define the concept, Vermes (2010) quotes Klaudy (2003), who distinguishes between “pedagogical translation and real translation” (as cited in Vermes, 2010, p. 83). The former refers to an instrument for improving learners’ proficiency in a foreign language that can also be employed to increase their consciousness of the two languages involved, and to practice and even test their competence in the L2. In contrast, “real translation” focuses on generating a translated product from the translation process. Hurtado Albir made a similar distinction between pedagogical translation and professional translation (1988; 1999), based, in turn, on conceptualizations by Lavault (1985), whose “didactic translation” differs from translation proper, which he defines as a professional practice.

Other authors believe that pedagogical translation is not restricted to linguistic aspects, as they consider that this didactic practice can help develop different competences in learners. For example, Leonardi (2011) proposes a broader definition and describes the concept as “a complex activity which involves linguistic, cultural, communicative and cognitive factors. These factors are all closely intertwined with FL [foreign language] learning, thus making translation a necessary, unavoidable and naturally-occurring phenomenon when learning foreign languages” (p. 21). The question therefore arises of how to harness this phenomenon.

In practical terms, the answer is quite simple: the teacher can use, adapt or design materials that contain a translation element for the students that takes any objections into account and try to find ways to avoid falling into the traps mentioned above. Recent publications, especially the compendia of exercises by González Davies (2004) and Kerr (2014), are generous contributions, not only in terms of the amount of material they share, but also because they provide easily digestible explanations of the theory underlying the partial or complete lesson plans. It is clear from the descriptions that there is no reason why translation should take up the entire class time. On the contrary, it can be used in shorter activities or even warm-up exercises, where the learners can engage in developing or integrating each of the four skills. Clear examples of such hybrid activities are the well-known telephone game or fold-over chains that activate speaking and listening or reading and writing skills, respectively. Moreover, given that they can be adapted to include bidirectional translation, the myth of only translating from the L2 into the mother tongue is also challenged.

Furthermore, in González Davies’s (2004) case, the conscious and explicitly stated move away from traditional transmissionist approaches towards transactional and transformational paradigms ensures that translation no longer assigns a passive role to the learners, making the process more stimulating and, thus, motivating them. She includes “concrete and brief exercises that help to practice specific points, be they linguistic, encyclopedic, transfer or professional” (p. 22), proposing “a chain of activities with the same global aim and a final product” (p. 23) and projects involving “multicompetence assignments that enable the students to engage in pedagogic and professional activities and tasks and work together towards an end product” (p. 28). This demonstrates that translation in L2 teaching and learning no longer has to be conceptualized in terms of the grammar translation method, but can, rather, be understood as a communicative approach (Hurtado Albir, 1988) or task- or project-based instruction (Danan, 2010), or even as content and language integrated learning (Fernández-Costales, 2017; González Davies & Scott-Tennent, 2009). As for the final objection and how translation can be channeled into a positive transfer, this will be discussed in the following section, and other pedagogical considerations.


6. Translation and pedagogy in L2 teaching and learning


Those authors who are generous enough to establish a classification of the arguments against using translation in L2 teaching and learning usually also provide a series of counterarguments to refute such claims (see Cook, 2010; Duff, 1989; Kerr, 2014; Leonardi, 2010). In most cases, these assertions are usually steeped in beliefs or ideological positions, or a combination of previously proposed models or theories. One example is Laviosa’s (2014) work, which is organized around three conceptual and theoretical approaches from the fields of translation and education. These encompass ecological approaches based on the work of Leo van Lier (2004) and Claire Kramsch (2002), the latter’s multilingual language pedagogy (Kramsch, 1998, 2006, 2009) and Maria Tymoczko’s holistic cultural translation concept (2003, 2007). While this article is less theoretically oriented, it seems fitting to end it by pondering the benefits of using translation in L2 teaching and learning from a more conceptual perspective. Therefore, the following sections approach the pedagogical implications of using translation in L2 teaching and learning by reviewing the broader categories of metalinguistic awareness, potential positive transfer from the L1 to the L2, motivation, and multicultural reality.


6.1 Translation can help develop metalinguistic awareness


A key reason to implement pedagogic translation is to foster the development of learners’ metalinguistic awareness, defined by Thomas (1992) as “an individual’s ability to focus attention on language as an object in and of itself, to reflect upon language, and to evaluate it” (p. 531). Malakoff and Hakuta (1991) point out the metacognitive nature of this ability and comment that “the skill is recognizing the nature and demands of the problem” (p. 148), thus allowing the learner to manipulate the structural features of a language (Nagy & Anderson, 1995). Although being bilingual does not seem to provide an automatic advantage over monolinguals in terms of metalinguistic awareness (Bialystok, 2002), it has been suggested (Khayatan & Reza, 2018; Machida, 2011; Malakoff & Hakuta, 1991) that pedagogical translation can serve as an aid to increasing and improving this ability.

For example, Oxford (1990) identified translation as one of the cognitive strategies employed by learners across the four skills. She asserts that, along with transfer and deductive and contrastive reasoning, translation serves as a means of enhancing learners’ learning experience and becoming directly involved in their learning process. In addition, Naiman, Fröhlich, Stern, and Todesco (1996) conducted a study designed to identify the strategies of thirty-four successful and unsuccessful L2 learners through a series of interviews. They observed that the learners in their study “refer back to their native language(s) judiciously (translate into L1) and make effective cross-lingual comparisons at different stages of language learning” and also “analyze the target language and make inferences about it; they guess by using clues” (p. 31). These findings clearly illustrate that one of the strategies used by successful language learners is to become aware of language as a system through the conscious use of translation.


6.2 Translation can foster positive transfer from the L1 to the L2


Another advantage of pedagogical translation is the contribution that the learners’ L1 can make to L2 acquisition through a process called transfer. In a critique of earlier studies, Ringbom (1992) noted that negative perceptions of transfer usually emerged from research that had focused exclusively on negative transfer in production, while positive transfer had received little attention. Two decades later, Ellis and Shintani (2014) highlighted the fact that “the influence of the L1 may be evident not just in overt errors but also in subtle ways such as the underuse and overuse of specific L2 features” (p. 235). Furthermore, they argued that transfer could also occur in the opposite direction, where the L2 influences the L1.

After questioning previous assumptions and principles through the lens of SLA, a renewed perspective about the role of transfer in second language learning has made it possible to understand that “differences between the L1 and the L2 do not automatically lead to learning difficulty […] and learners may experience difficulty in learning an L2 structure that is similar to their L1” (Ellis & Shintani, 2014, p. 236). Thus, it can be concluded that transfer does not necessarily provide negative results, since the knowledge of the L1 may help in the learning of an L2 (Ellis, 2015). The conditions under which transfer happens may depend on various factors: from the “developmental sequence of acquisition” (Corder, 1992, p. 20) to the students’ knowledge of their own language.

It is important to note that transfer does not happen only at the lower linguistic organizational levels, such as phonology, morphology, syntax, or syntax. It can also be observed in pragmatics or metacognition. Jim Cummins, a prominent supporter of the use of translation in L2 teaching and learning, considered BICS (Basin Interpersonal Communicative Skills), and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) in the L1 and L2. In doing so, he established the following interdependence hypothesis: “To the extent that instruction in Lx is effective in promoting proficiency in Lx, transfer of this proficiency to Ly will occur provided there is adequate exposure to Ly (either in school or environment) and adequate motivation to learn Ly.” (Cummins, 2001, p. 122). In other words, cognitively speaking, there are a series of aspects of proficiency that can be positively transferred between the L1 and the L2. In a later publication, he lists the following five possible types of transfer:


  • Transfer of conceptual elements (e.g., understanding the concept of photosynthesis);

  • Transfer of metacognitive and metalinguistic strategies (e.g., strategies of visualizing, use of graphic organizers, mnemonic devices, vocabulary acquisition strategies, etc.);
  • Transfer of pragmatic aspects of language use (willingness to take risks in communication through L2, ability to use paralinguistic features such as gestures to aid communication, etc.);
  • Transfer of specific linguistic elements (knowledge of the meaning of photo in photosynthesis);
  • Transfer of phonological awareness—the knowledge that words are composed of distinct sounds. (Cummins, 2008, p. 69).


He then makes an impassioned call for “teaching for transfer”, that is, leveraging learners’ cognitive skills and helping them to consciously transfer these skills to the L2, which, in some cases, may be through translation.

Inspired by Cummins’s ideas, González-Davis’s (2014) model of translation in other learning contexts (TOLC) gained significance since it “views translation as a means of understanding the morphosyntactic, lexico-semantic and/or pragmatic and cultural aspects of a language and perceives translation competence as a set of specific linguistic, encyclopaedic and transferential skills, along with specific intra- and interpersonal skills that may enhance language learning” (p. 15). The most important findings of her comparative study between two groups of students (in which translation was incorporated into the syllabus of one group but not that of the other) include the fact that consciously using translation does not lead to its injudicious application by learners. Furthermore, similarly to natural translation, explicit translation use has also been found to decrease over time. Perhaps most importantly, the use of translation strategies “(e.g. explicitation, domestication, foreignization), were used to improve communication in AL [L2] without using the L1” (González Davies, 2014, p. 25). This latter observation is significant, because it demonstrates that the transfer of linguistic strategies through translation is beneficial, once again proving that it is not necessarily at the lower levels of linguistic organization where translation can be useful, but in the activities and tasks where a cognitive effort is required.


6.3 Translation can help motivate language learning


This section addresses the subject of motivation, a key element to successful L2 acquisition. Ellis and Shintani (2014) define motivation as a construct that depends on a variety of factors, including:


  • The reasons a learner has for needing or wanting to learn an L2 (i.e. motivational orientation).
  • The effort a learner is prepared to make to learn the L2 and the impact that the learner’s immediate context has on this (i.e. behavioral motivation).
  • The effect that the learner’s evaluation of his/her progress has on subsequent learning behavior (i.e., attributional motivation). (p. 303).


Empirical studies have corroborated the notion that one of the many advantages of pedagogical translation and use of the L1 is an increase in students’ motivation. For example, Carreres (2006) observed a mistaken perception that translation tasks led to a lack of motivation among the learners who performed them and resulted in frustration. Additionally, she noticed that translation is thought to be useful only in detecting mistakes instead of promoting the language’s proper use. In response, the author conducted a study with undergraduate students in Modern Languages. She administered questionnaires through which she collected the participants’ perceptions about the use of translation exercises. The results showed that students considered translation tasks useful for learning another language. Even though Carreres recognized that students’ creativity was being reduced when translating into a foreign language, she concluded that “Translation, by its very nature, is an activity that invites discussion and in my experience students are only too happy to contribute to it, often defending their version with remarkable passion and persuasiveness” (p. 7). She also recommended reviewing material and tasks developed by scholars who advocate for the reinsertion of the educational side of translation into language teaching (see, for example, Duff, 1989; González-Davies, 2004; or Kerr, 2014).

The use of the L1 by involving translation has been seen as a motivational tool for quite some time. In 1993, Auerbach (1993) found that “its use reduces anxiety and enhances the affective environment for learning, takes into account sociocultural factors, facilitates incorporation of learners’ life experiences, and allows for learner centered curriculum development” (p. 8). More evidence about how motivation increases through translation can be seen in the results of a research carried out by Martine Danan (2010). Danan was interested in exploring the effects of implementing audiovisual translation from the L1 into the L2 in task-based language classes. The study included the delivery of dubbing projects developed by students enrolled in intensive language programs. Through post-activity questionnaires, the findings confirmed that this project was a strong motivator for students, who showed enthusiasm and willingness to perform the task. In addition, the results not only illustrated that the project encouraged initiative and creativity, but also made students feel empowered. In this respect, similar suggestions have been made regarding audiovisual translation in an L2 learning context using a series of adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline in an attempt to boost motivation among English as a foreign language learners (author). Laviosa (2014) also emphasizes the motivational benefits of pedagogical translation and argues that translation effectively increases students’ confidence as they become aware of their own efforts and abilities through self-evaluation. She adds that, since translation “is regarded as a closed-ended activity that produces a target text that can be evaluated vis-à-vis the source text” (p. 28), students are able to satisfy their need to be certain of their own progress without constantly relying on a teacher’s feedback or approval, though, of course, this implies progress in their autonomous learning process and acquisition of critical thinking skills.


6.4 Translation can help develop critical thinking skills


One final aspect that merits attention is the role of translation in L2 teaching and learning in relation to globalization. House (2016) explains that, as a result of constant “international mobility and transnational residency” (p. 111), this phenomenon has impacted not only society, politics, and economy, but also linguistics, in which English as a lingua franca (ELF) plays a fundamental role as a “type of intercultural communication” (p. 114). In House’s opinion, ELF is flexible enough to be adapted and to coexist, provided we take into account the local culture, the language(s) spoken locally, and the geography of a specific place. She argues that, as a result of this, “ELF speakers are not to be regarded as learners of English, but as multilingual individuals with linguistic-cultural ‘multicompetence’” (p. 114), to the development of which translation can obviously contribute. Similarly, Laviosa (2014) asserts that translating is “an essential skill in today’s multicultural societies and globalized world,” (p. 28) where exploiting the use of the mother tongue is be helpful in the globalization process, the implementation of technologies and cross-cultural understanding. If we apply this assessment to the use of translation in teaching and learning a L2, it is safe to assume that it can help develop higher cognition and critical thinking, perhaps the ultimate aim of teaching at any level.


7. Conclusion


This article represents an attempt to assess and remedy some of the misconceptions regarding the use and potential advantages of translation in the L2 teaching and learning process. First, the article defines three types of translation activities which depend on who translates and how. In mental translation, the learner naturally and spontaneously engages in an internalized cognitive process without necessary verbal manifestation. The second one is classroom discourse translation, where mostly the teacher, but sometimes the learners, overtly translate previous utterances that are not essentially content-related but, rather, instructional. The last one refers to pedagogical translation, where learners complete exercises that are purposefully adapted or designed with a translation component. All three types have in common that opponents of using translation in the L2 teaching and learning process claim that they result in mental laziness that prevents successful language learning. However, as has been observed throughout this article, all three types can be employed meaningfully.

The key to this is actually quite simple, and not, in fact, particularly novel: Learners need to actively participate and make a cognitive effort, while the teacher needs to facilitate this by raising the learners’ metalinguistic awareness of their own learning processes. In the case of mental translation, this could happen through explicit requests by the teacher for the learners to externalize their thought processes. Regarding classroom discourse translation, this could be achieved through a teacher’s judicious use of certain types of renditions, such as Wadensjö’s (2014) reduced or summarized rendition, while performing specific classroom discourse functions like instructions, explanations, or sociating. Finally, the challenge that pedagogical translation poses is no different from any other approach to L2 teaching and learning: positioning the pedagogy in a socio-constructivist cognitivist paradigm means that the material needs to be created in such a way that translation occurs as a cognitively complex communicative activity, as in real life, rather than the simplistic exercise it has been made out to be. The growing body of empirically-based literature is a testament to this possibility. However, further practice-based research will always be welcome to consolidate the stance taken in this contribution.

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1 For expediency purposes, the terms foreign language and second language will be used interchangeably and will be abbreviated as L2. However, it should also be noted that the concepts may refer to an L3, L4, etc. or any language learned subsequent to the mother tongue.

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