EXPLAIN or TRANSLATE: a perpetual dilemma for English-language teachers

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 »  Articles Overview  »  Language Specific  »  EXPLAIN or TRANSLATE: a perpetual dilemma for English-language teachers

EXPLAIN or TRANSLATE: a perpetual dilemma for English-language teachers

By Natasha Stojanovska-Ilievska | Published  01/15/2007 | Language Specific | Recommendation:
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Quicklink: http://mlt.proz.com/doc/1112
Natasha Stojanovska-Ilievska
Macedonia (FYROM)
English to Macedonian translator
View all articles by Natasha Stojanovska-Ilievska

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This article focuses on the perpetual dilemma faced by English language teachers in Macedonia: whether to explain the new words in English or supply the Macedonian translation equivalents. The following paragraphs analyze the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches, while the conclusion expresses my view based on the presented arguments.

The main argument for the ‘English explanation approach’ is that it promotes learner autonomy and learner independence. Generally, it is the stronger students who find this approach challenging. In real-life situations these students will not be discouraged when they hear an unfamiliar word, but they will resort to their own intelligence and knowledge of the world and come up with appropriate solutions. Another advantage of this approach is constant exposure to the target language, which is one of the major reasons why students attend English-language lessons.

On the other hand, I have understood from my teaching practice that some students may find this approach extremely frustrating. The reason for that is often their lack of comprehension of the synonymous expression or explanatory phrase. This is normally the case when the English explanation is not enhanced by visual clues or realia, and/or when we're dealing with abstract or advanced vocabulary. Furthermore, the ‘English explanation approach’ may prove to be more time-consuming than simply providing the Macedonian translation equivalent, and, as we all know, teachers are always pressed for time, trying to cover as much as possible of the grammar and vocabulary prescribed in the curriculum.

The translation approach also has its advantages and disadvantages. One of its advantages is that it is not time-consuming and thus leaves more time for the study of some other important language aspects. In addition, in the early stages of language learning, it may be even desirable to have some words translated, because this approach does not undermine learners’ confidence. This is essential in the language-learning process, as we want our students to grow into confident speakers and communicators in the target language. Using occasionally the students’ mother tongue in the classroom may have the additional benefit of establishing a rapport and bonding with the students.

The drawback of this approach is that students will tend to urge the teacher to supply translation equivalents even if the concept is not that difficult to explain or understand. Instead of racking their brains to figure out what the underlying meaning of the concept is, they will choose the easy way out. Another important aspect is that words are context-dependent, and learning translation equivalents in parrot-like fashion will not produce the desired results whenever new different meanings/nuances of the same word are activated in a particular context.

In conclusion, there are no right or wrong answers to the question put forward in the title of this article. Obviously, we are teachers of the stronger and weaker students alike, and should provide equal opportunities for all our students to shine in a non-threatening environment. In situations where the meanings of the new words can easily be derived or guessed from the context, the ‘explanation approach’ should be encouraged. However, in the case of abstract or more advanced vocabulary, teachers may resort to the translation approach, having exhausted some other means of explanation.

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Knowledgebase Contributions Related to this Article
  • I think it has to be a combination of both (Posted by LilianNekipelov on 10/12/2013)
    The meaning of words has to be explained and illustrated through examples, or even visual aids, and then words close in meaning in the student's language should be listed. Both elements are very important. If one of the approachers were to be chosen, it would be the explaining approach: after all parroting is not the ultimate goal of language teaching.

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