A recent Facebook group post asked about whether or not teachers should do word-for-word translation.
Word-for-word is not necessarily the same as direct translation, though it can be. For example, in German we say mein Nahme ist Chris (“my name is Chris”). In this case, the two languages use the same word order.
Here are some more examples of what word-for-word translation looks like:
In Spanish, a grammatically good sentence is estudiar no me gusta, which literally means “to study not me pleases” but an English speaker would translate this as “I don’t like studying” or “I don’t like to study.”
In other languages, things get weirder: some languages don’t (always) use pronouns. When I acquired a bit of Mandarin years ago working for Taiwan-born Visco in the camera store, some of the sentences in Mandarin were something like “go store yesterday” which translates into English as “Yesterday I went to the store.” In other languages, like French, you can’t just say “no” or “not:” you have to wrap the verb with ne…pas. In some languages in some places you do not always need a verb. E.g in German, if somebody asks you Bist du gestern nach Berlin gegangen? (meaning “Did you go to Berlin?”), you can answer with Nein, gestern bin ich nicht nach Berlin (literally “No, yesterday am I not to Berlin”).
I think we should generally not use word-for-word translation. Why?
- WFW unnecessarily confuses the kids. The point of direct translation is to clarify meaning. You want to waste as little time as possible and having them think through weird word order is not doing much for meaning. Terry Waltz calls this “a quick meaning dump,” by which she means the point is to get from L2 to L1 in as simple and easy a way as possible.
2. WFW turns on the Monitor. In other words, when we do this, students start to focus on language as opposed to meaning. We know that the implicit (subconscious) system is where language is acquired and stored, so there is little point in getting them to focus on language. Both Krashen and VanPatten have argued (and shown) that conscious knowledge about language does not translate into acquisition of language. Monitor use is at best not very helpful so why bother?
3. WFW can cause problems for people whose L1 is not English. In my classes, we have lots of kids whose first languages are Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Tagalog etc etc. Some of them are fairly new to English (they speak with accents and their English output has errors). For example, a classic South Asian L2 English error I hear/read in my English classes all the time is “yesterday he had gone to the store” instead of “yesterday he went to the store.”
What these L2s need, more than anything, is not just grammatically good L3 but also gramamtically coherent English. We tend to forget that, say, the Ilocarno-speaking Filipino kid who is in our Spanish class is also learning English in our Spanish classes.
Powerhouse Spanish teacher Alina Filipescu writes
I tell students what “ME LLAMO” means word for word, “myself I call,” then I add that in other words it means “my name is.” Since I’ve switched to this instead of just telling students that ME LLAMO means “my name is” like a textbook says it, I’ve seen a lot less errors. I now rarely see students make the mistake “ME LLAMO ES John.” When students do volleyball translations, then I have them do translations that make sense and not word for word. I do it word for word as a class so that I can control where it goes. I also like that students can “feel” what the syntax of the sentence is in the language that I teach. Just like Blaine always says, if there is something better than I will try it and adopt it. This is not written in stone for me, it’s what I do right now because it made sense when I heard/saw somebody else do it.
Filipescu makes three good points here. First, students should know that you generally cannot translate most things WFW and have it make sense. We all know what happens when legacy-methods assignments demand output beyond kids’ abilities: Google transliterate!
She also says that she gets less *me llamo es (“myself I call is”) as a result. I don’t doubt it…but she raises the interesting question of why and under what conditions? Was this compared to when she used legacy methods? Or compared to when she started C.I. and just did general meaning translation? I too get a lot less me llamo es and other such errors, but I think it has more to do with C.I. allowing me to spend way more time meaningfully in the target language than anything else.
Third, Filipescu translates me as “myself” which is correct…here. However, elsewhere me means “me,” rather than “myself,” more or less like in English, eg me pegó means “she hit me.” Now if we obsess over WFW (not that Alina does so) we are going to focus the kids on two different meanings “anchored” to one word. Which I could see being confusing.
Filipescu’s post also raises the interesting question of under what conditions the kids write. I have found that the more time they have, the more they screw up, because when they have notes, dictionaries, etc, they start thinking, and thinking is what (linguistically speaking) gets you into grammatical trouble. One of the reasons C.I. uses little vocab and LOADS of repetition (via parallel characters, repeating scenes, embedded readings, etc) is to automatise (via processing, and not via “practise” talking) language use. The less time they have to write, the less they think, and the more you get to see what the students’ implicit (subconscious) systems have picked up.
Anyway, overall, I would say, point out the weirdness of word order (or whatever aspect of grammar is different) once, then stick to natural, meaningful L1 useage for translation. Mainly, this is to keep us in the TL as much as possible, and eliminate L1 distractions.