Why Translation Activities Are Still Crucial

I’m listening to a section of Latin 1 students translate out loud to their partner, going back and forth every sentence or so (Volleyball Translation). Sure, most of class time involves purposeful interaction comprised of meaningful input. As the language expert, I provide most of those messages, asking questions to engage students in thought, as well as genuinely learn something about everyone in the room. And of course, students spend a LOT of time reading.

However, students need an opportunity to interact with each other well beyond all that input to laugh, connect, or maybe commiserate about teenage things. For beginning language students, that’s going to be in English. Hence, the unlikely activity in comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT): translation…

To be honest, management (MGMT) is probably what makes or breaks CCLT in pre-collegiate schools (and maybe beyond). Most of this managing involves keeping learners listening and reading (i.e. receiving input) in a distraction-free environment. This usually means corralling the students who otherwise would talk throughout class in their native language (L1), and who probably do so in academic content areas the whole day, into a calmer state more conducive to receiving input. Thus, keeping kids quiet is the #1 priority.

However, students are rarely so disengaged that they feel comfortable actually being silent. Many want to share thoughts. Rejoinders certainly help students express themselves in the target language, keeping the input flowing, but sometimes that’s not enough. Since humans naturally gravitate towards expressing themselves through the path of least resistance, L1 is to be expected. Some teachers try to control that heavily. Others grade it. I’ve found that translation activities allow for that expression, yet still involves students processing some target language input. Not only that, but after the opportunity to interact, I’ve found them more receptive to remaining quiet afterwards. In that sense, a few minutes of partner translation is almost a brain break!

As always, a good caveat to translating is to have students translate what they already understand, rather than translate in order to understand. Group translation work shouldn’t be frustrating, or graded on accuracy. I would never expect accurate translations at this point, so what’s the point? Translation should just allow for a bit of L1 interaction while processing some input. So, translation is here to stay, albeit with the right tweak, using it more as an MGMT tool than building any skill.

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