Teaching students with whom I share the same L1 (Czech) has some advantages, the biggest of which is the fact that we can engage in L1>L2 and L2>L1 translation. Although translation may still connote the old Grammar Translation Method, I feel it is no longer a pedagogical crime in the CLT context, especially if the teacher focuses on learners’ ability to use the language rather than on their ability to analyze it. I personally try to make valuable use of translation to sort out some classroom teaching and learning issues.
Here’s an example of an activity I’ve recently been doing with my classes when practising various grammar points. On the left is a classic exercise from a workbook where students complete the gaps using the passive voice structure. Obviously, filling in such an exercise can be helpful but it’s not enough for them in order to fully grasp the passive voice and its use. So, after we check the answers, I ask them to work in pairs. Student A closes the book. Student B reads the first line in Czech. Student A listens and translates the line back into English. Student B checks Student A’s translation. The Czech>English translation should be as close to the original as possible. However, at the same time, I ask students to use ‘nice’ and natural Czech structures during the English>Czech translation stage. I always remind them of Google Translate and that I don’t want them to sound like it (even though I must admit it’s getting better and better). So not only do students practise some tricky grammatical structures but they also develop a sense of what a good translation entails, i.e. that sometimes it’s not possible to translate everything word by word and literally.
Sometimes I ask students to work with unknown (or newish) texts and translate simultaneously. One student reads an English text line by line, while the other student translates straight into Czech. This works best in groups of three. The third student can be the WRITER – he or she can record the Czech version on a piece of paper and then the group translates the whole thing back into English. This is a real challenge but quite fun too.
When I ask students which part is more difficult, the answers differ but I often hear that the English>Czech translation is a bit trickier. I think it’s because translation activities are not often included into (my) English lessons. I myself feel a deficit in this respect. It can take me ages to come up with an accurate L2>L1 translation of a word or a phrase. What’s worse, although I do have a vague idea of what the phrase means, I sometimes don’t know what the accurate translation is. Again, I think it’s the CLT approach to blame here; it’s pretty superficial and creates the illusion that it’s enough to use L2 fluently, which, to a certain degree, is true, but sometimes accuracy is equally important.