To Translate or Not to Translate? The Effects of Translation Tasks on Language Accuracy

Translation as a tool for teaching foreign languages is receiving increased attention and is again coming to be seen by some as a viable method to help learners learn a foreign language. Like similar, recently published work, this longitudinal study of Swedish learners of English seems to indicate that comparative analysis and translation can help to improve learners’ accuracy in a foreign language.

Text:

Källkvist, M. (2008). L1-L2 Translation versus No Translation: A Longitudinal Study of Focus-on-FormS within a Meaning-Focused Curriculum. In L. Ortega & H. Byrnes (Eds.). The Longitudinal Study of Advances L2 Capacities (pp.182-202). New York: Routledge.     LINK:http://www.tandfebooks.com/doi/book/10.4324/9780203871652 

[See also: Källkvist,M. (2004). The Effect of Translation Exercises versus Gap-Exercises on the Learning of Difficult L2 Structures: Preliminary Results of an Empirical Study.In K. Malmkjaer (Ed.). Translation in Undergraduate Degree Programmes (pp. 163-184). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.]

Study:

Källkvist (2004 & 2008) looked at L1 to L2 translation exercises versus exercises directly in the L2 with adult Swedish learners of English. The focus was on improvements in students’ usage of L2 grammatical structures.

  • Three groups:
    • 2x 15 first-year English Studies university students – explicit grammar instruction,
    • 1x control group of 14 secondary-school pupils – no explicit grammar instruction.
  • Two experimental groups given different tasks to practise grammar.
    • one group given translation tasks,
    • other group tasks only in English.
  • Pre-test and post-test had multiple choice tasks, a translation and a written retelling of a story.
  • Both experimental groups out-performed the control group in terms of improvement.
    • translation group better at the translation task and multiple choice,
    • English-only group better on the written retelling of a story.
  • But, results not statistically significant – attributed to small number of test items and small sample size.

Discussion:

Studies of this kind are generally based on the assumption that a group of monolingual learners who have advanced L2 proficiency will improve their English grammar through practising translation. Though the findings are not stastically significant, this study concludes that it may be useful to include translation tasks in language teaching which specifically look at the points in which the L2 and learners’ L1 differ, and by exploring certain aspects of L2 grammar through contrastive analysis and translation. Translation is thus advocated as one of many tools of language teaching, as it did not lead to improvement in all areas tested and it is still unclear whether it has an impact on accuracy in learners’ spontaneous production of language.

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Clare Maas
Lecturer in EFL and EAP at Trier University (Germany)
Clare holds post-graduate qualifications from the University of Wales and Trinity College London. Before moving into tertiary education, she taught English at German grammar schools, and English for Specific Purposes at several language academies in the UK and Germany. Her professional interests include EAP materials development and CPD for teachers. She also blogs at ClaresELTCompendium.wordpress.com.

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