How to Get Your Students to Stop Translating and Start Thinking in English
“How do you say, ‘Que tengas un buen fin de semana’ in English?” How many times have your students asked you to translate something from or into their native language?
How often do you have students who translate things in their heads before answering you? By contrast, how often do you have students who provide a natural-sounding reply, spontaneously and automatically, without even blinking an eye? Chances are most of your students still translate in their heads – at least some of the time. Our goal as teachers is to guide students towards increasingly thinking in English and drop the crutch of translation. But we all know this is precisely one of the hardest things to achieve. So how do we do that? How can we effectively get our ESL students to think in English?
Why it’s so important for ESL students to stop translating and start thinking in English
Consider their main goal. They want to learn to speak English, not become translators. There’s no point in them speaking their native language in their heads while they’re trying to learn another.
It’s counterproductive. The constant comparison of one language to another hinders naturally flowing speech. Experienced interpreters are real pros at this, but your students are not.
Some things are simply too hard to translate. This creates a situation where the student is desperately trying to remember how to say the one word they have in their minds in English, while they should be trying to recall a recent lesson instead.
Now, that we’ve established the importance of getting students to think in English for the duration of the class, let’s see ways to help them achieve this ever-elusive state.
How to Get YOUR Students to Stop Translating and Start Thinking in English
Use an English-English Dictionary
If you teach ESL by only speaking English in class, then you often supply definitions or explanations of words in English. Ask students to use Eng-Eng dictionaries, and it will contribute to your efforts.
Mime Feelings and Actions
When you teach feelings like “sad”, “happy”, “scared”, etc…it’s a lot simpler to translate them. But it’s so much more fun to act them out – for you and your class! The same goes for actions like opening closing things, walking, running, etc.
Teach Language in Context
A student a writes a word on the board, points to it and asks what it means. Most of the time we have no idea where they got it, which leads us to ask questions about the context. After all, there are plenty of words that have different meanings in different contexts. This is precisely why language must be taught in context. For example, would you teach the Past Simple by presenting a list of verbs and their past forms? What if there are verbs they don’t understand? Your best course of action is to introduce the context first. Tell students what you do every day, and then tell them what you did yesterday. This eliminates any need for translation.
Introduce Set Phrases as Set Phrases
Has a student ever asked you to translate the meaning of “You’re welcome”? In most languages a literal translation is ridiculous, but providing a similar phrase in the students’ native language is not necessary, either. When students ask for translation simply say a set phrase is a set phrase. Make sure they understand it’s a reply to “Thank you”. They will probably figure out the equivalent in their language, but with some expressions an equivalent is hard to come by – think of proverbs or idiomatic expressions. The goal is for them to understand the meaning of the phrase and when it’s used.
Use Visual Aids
Like miming, visual aids such as flashcards, illustrations, posters and even video are great ways to avoid translation.
Use Opposites or Synonyms
Use words they already know in lead in questions: Are you happy to see your friend? You’re glad to see him. Check out these other great ways to teach vocabulary. No translation needed at all!
Teach Language in Groups
The need for translation will be eliminated if you teach words in groups that make sense, for example, “eat” and “drink” with a list of food items.
Pretend You Don’t Understand
If students try to say things in their own language, simply say you don’t understand. Try to lead them to say what they want to say in English. This is by far my favorite strategy. If a student speaks to me in Spanish, I love to say, “Yo no hablar español” with a thick English accent (besides being absolutely fluent in Spanish, I’m also a good actress). Because it’s funny, it predisposes students better than a reprimand!
There is still much debate as to whether an ESL class should be English only or include some elements of the native language.
I have personally had excellent results speaking only English in my classrooms. There have been very few occasions in which I had to explain something to a student in Spanish, but those were very special cases or students with some type of learning difficulty. When I teach Japanese students, I can’t use their native language at all. I can’t speak a single word in Japanese, but that doesn’t impact the lesson negatively, in fact, it is very helpful, as students are not tempted to use their native tongue.
What is your take on this topic? Do you teach in an English-only classroom, or do you also speak students native language? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!
Claudia has been an ESL teacher for 20 years and has taught a wide variety of students from pre-schoolers to senior citizens, complete beginners to advanced students. This vast teaching experience has helped her write over 100 articles for BusyTeacher.org. When she is not teaching, she is also a freelance travel writer contributing reviews for V!VA Travel Guides' upcoming Uruguay edition, as well as travel articles and blog posts for a variety of online publications. She is currently living in Buenos Aires, Argentina with her spunky 7-year old daughter and crabby 10-year old cat, Ulysses. Google +.
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I totally agree with you! I'm all for spontaneity and natural-sounding speech, which I believe may be achieved by thinking in the target language. And I also agree that in some cases, and in some languages, we may have to translate a few words here and there, or use words in the mother tongue. I teach English in Argentina, and there are some local foods we just mention in the original Spanish - it would be awkward and nearly impossible to try to find a way to say them. For example, we have a food we eat a lot here called "milanesa" which is "breaded veal", but it is ridiculous to refer to it as breaded veal. Some things about the mother tongue need to be preserved for cultural reasons.
I am a non-native English teacher. Long before I taught ESL, I saw myself on my students' shoes-- struggling with my English too. Fortunately, I survived becoming to near-native (in speech at least...) because of high intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Partly, I agree with some of your points that thinking in English (instead of thinking in mother tongue) facilitates fluency, NOT necessarily accuracy (error-free). This idea isn't surprising just like Krashen logically explains in his Monitor Hypothesis (or Model). Personally, I believe that in oral mode, the thinker/speaker's L1 naturally interferes his speech production basically due to syntax constraints. That's why I can also sympathize with my Arab EFL elementary Foundation learners here in the Sultanate of Oman. I let them speak spontaneously without necessarily translating EVERYTHING they are thinking in Arabic to English. For doing so, only delays spontaneity and creates unnaturalness in their speech. That's why it is very important to lower the speaker's affective filter (Krashen's Affective Hypothesis). Encourage them to prompt their thinking process in English so that English thoughts will normally come out. I successfully learned in this manner, and it is my hope as well that my non-native speakers like their non-native English teacher learned in similar way.
However, in an event that English lacks equivalent lexicon in the non-native speaker's mother tongue, IT IS but by all means I recommend to use one's L1 for contextual and cultural negotiation of meaning. For instance, Arabic's "wadi" (normally shallow dry river bed) is awkward to call "river" or "dishdasha" (national Omani male dress) as to "shirt". In other words, the speaker's culture has to be taken into consideration. After all, today's English is NOT actually 100% natural English but borrowed or loan words due to global cultural contacts.
To tell the truth, I do not believe thinking in English can ever be achieved anywhere except for English-speaking environment. ).
I agree with you but only a part. As a university student back in 1984 ( I was in my 4th year) did I realize that I was thinking in English. And not only in class communicating with my fellow students and teachers, the latter spoke English better than some of native speakers do. It is then that I started writing poems in English. We had ten hours of English a week and I spent about three hours preparing for my classes. Now I teach students of Elementary - Advanced levels and I do rely on the students' mother tongue (Russian) to explain Grammar and to check their comprehension. For instance, when I explain to them the functions of the Present Perfect Continuous Tense, I always enact a short conversation in Russian tapping into the students' emotions. Another example. My Elementary level students start learning the Past Simple Tense and they make stories using the prompts I give them, they know how to use Irregular Verbs, the stories are short if interesting and logical. But when I ask them to translate one of the sentences they have used, some of them say them use the Present Tense form in Russian. If we only spoke English in class (and I know some language schools in Russia insist on "zero Russian"), there would be more cases of my students failing to grasp the meaning of some particular patterns. Moreover, both languages belong to the Indo-European language family and one can find the words that have the same roots - "severe" and "sever")) Why not use this similarity introducing new vocabulary and grammar? Vivid examples will help them to remember things better.
To tell the truth, I do not believe thinking in English can ever be achieved anywhere except for English-speaking environment. And I do not mean English classes 2 times a week - I've been learning English since I was 5 - and I only noticed I was thinking in a mixture of English and Spanish (almost no native Russian at all!) during my TESOL course in Spain, surrounded by Spanish speakers in the streets and by English natives in the classroom (and we spent much more time in there than regular ESL students do). In my personal opinion, you can help people think in your target language only during your class - and only using the natural laziness of our brain. As to me, my lazy brains stopped translating everything they absorbed into Russian after several days of my severe headache. So if you create a situation in which it is much EASIER for one's brain to think in English, you are much more likely to succeed.
Thanks so much to make me more encouraged to use only English in my classes when teaching. Sometimes, I feel so sad that I refuse translating to my pupils some vocabularies or structures when it is not easy to get it. I feel that I'm a sever teacher so, I sometimes translate to them few things in our mother language. Because sometimes, even with the visual aids, you can face some hard vocabularies or grammar points or a written task to explain clearly 'I base on the word clearly' to my pupils. But after I have read this article and some comments of some participants above, I decided to do my best to use only English in my classes or even outside them with my pupils. This is one of the reasons that make me look for flashcards in the Internet and by the chance I found your articles. I find them too useful as you present them in a clear easy way.Thank you very much.
Not to translate into native language is a great idea because you let the students' learning come more fluency and have them think and express what they want to say, even with effort and attempts to fail, I think students do all their effort to communicate and try to speak so the others can understand them with the help of mimes. Teachers must encourage their students to participate very much in class and out of class so they have the opportunity to practice the language more and more. I teach in a public school in my country, sometimes it is difficult for me to do this because students take the course for only two hours per week and they are not interested in learning well but my achieve is to have them love English so what they can learn in class I ask them to practice a lot in and out of class.
Even if students don't speak any English at all, sometimes you have no choice but to speak only English! I had Japanese students who didn't speak any English, and I don't speak Japanese at all, so all we could do was speak English! It's not as hard as you may think if you have the right tools like flashcards, illustrations or gestures.
I also had students who spoke Arabic, but I don't speak any Arabic at all, so it was impossible for me to translate - they knew this so they didn't even ask. I also had a German student who spoke to me in German, and all I said was, "Sorry, I don't speak German. I have no idea what you're saying". But all of these students continued taking lessons with me. They were not put off by the fact that I didn't speak their native language - they were interested in the way I taught English.
thank you for such great ideas but my problem is little bet different because I'm Egyptian English teacher and I teach Egyptians so they always ask for translation even after giving them the opposites or synonyms and making sure that they get the meaning.
hallo everybody. i have taught ESL which we now call FAL (First Additional Language) probably to illustrate its position in a hierarchical manner. most of my students speak IsiZulu as Home language. ye, i am a South African in KZN, Durban. the Zulu culture is embedded into IsiZulu, just as English culture is to English. I have always relied on translation to FAL whenever i taught grammar or any other content; however when i taught for fluency and accuracy in prnunciation i would just ignore translations. whenever a student got stuck, i would encourage the class to get involved by assisting. the context (of the sentence) assists in this regard. students however would always be at different levels. i guess exposure to English radio and real inteactive situations impact on the class as much as what they learn in class impacts on their confidence to interact in English. there is also the challengeof encirclemen; where FAL gets spoken only in class as everybody outside the class speaks IsiZulu.
the perspective shared my Claudia resonates well, however i am still grappling with teaching FAL - i am also a learner of English.
Thank you for great ideas . I use English with my students all the time but, they some time replay in their native language( Arabic ). At the end of the lesson they ask me to either translate or explain.
when i teach ESL to my students, I always use English, I explain something in English too, but all my students do not understand what I have explained. and I think my explanation is in vain. then I start to translate in Bahasa Indonesia to get they understand what I've explained. do i make mistake in teaching ESL? because when I explain in English, they still do not understand at all.
Hi, I think the best time to start using only the target language in class is in the first lesson. The trick is to only teach concrete things that can be either illustrated os acted out. When they have that base, you can start teaching abstract things, that can be connected to the existing knowledge. About grammar : I don't teach grammar for teaching grammar. I use very simple context to use the grammar bit that is on their level. Grammar usage should come naturally, otherwise it slows down speech. For example I teach body parts then move onto possessive structures by acting out. Same way, with tenses, no form is taught before they understand the context. It works with all ages.
Thank you for your article. I am a Russian-speaking teacher of ESL and I only teach Russian students (16 +). In our online classroom we have access to a lot of visual aids which helps me to explain the meaning without translating words and phrases into Russian. But I would rather avoid miming as it is not accepted in our culture. We also use authentic coursebooks where the tasks and rules are given in English. I encourage the students to speak English and most activities I use exclude the use of their mother tongue. However, I rely on the latter in order to explain grammar and I also resort to comparing the structure of the two languages - word order, the use of prepositions, articles, some comlicated tense forms like the Present Perfect Continuous, etc. And the students' mother tongue can help them remember things better by way of focusing on the striking differences.What's more, it usually takes more time to explain things in a foreign language, so switching over to the students' mother tongue I have more time for other activities. I also share the teachers' opinion when they say that the age of the students should be taken into consideration. With the students who are in their 30s or even 40s their mother tongue should not be excluded altogether.
Thanks for this great article! I happen to use the same kind of methods. I mean I try to use English all the time - if possible. Sometimes - and it usually depends on the students' level - I'm OK to use my native tongue (Polish) to explain grammar. But then I nearly always make students give their own exemples - all in order to COMMUNICATE. Which, by the way, turns out to be a very popular reason of their studying English. Thanks!
ESL is taught and learned all over the world. Students are different depending on the country, culture, educational background, etc... In my experience (and that's 20 year's worth!), 90% of my students want to speak or communicate better in English. I have heard things like, "I hate grammar!"; "I want nothing to do with grammar"; "I just need to SPEAK, FAST!". Like I said, this has been MY experience. Moreover, the native language may facilitate or complicate things. It is true that the Past Continuous is the equivalent of the Pasado Imperfecto, but the Subjunctive Mood in English is nothing like the Subjuntivo in Spanish - I mean, saying that the Subjunctive is like the Subjuntivo does not help students that much, the structure is so different. The bottom line is you must consider your students' language goals first. If your students want to prioritize grammar and structure above speaking, then by all means use their native language by comparison. But if my students' goals involve improving fluency, I find that translation hinders the natural flow of thought. Just one more thing regarding, levels. I only speak English in class even if the student is a complete beginner (I may give him or her initial instructions regarding the use of the material and homework in Spanish). Most students (even complete beginners) adapt quickly and, moreover, are thrilled when they realize that they spent an hour of class only speaking English. It's very empowering!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Draam. As I mention in the article, the topic is still open to debate. My personal view is: different students, different needs. My students 90% of the time need to speak first and foremost (some even have a deadline, like a job interview in English, a trip or a conference they need to speak at) - hence the no translation rule in my class. Thanks again! It's great to hear the other side of the story, as well.
Sorry, but can't agree with not comparing the similarities or differences btw the mother tongue and the language that is being learned. On the contrary, it makes things so much easier esp. among adults and esp. when explaining grammar. They start analyzing the grammar in their mother tongue and use the similarities btw two languages. There's no point in painstakingly explaining past continuous in English when I can just say that Pasado Imperfecto is pretty much the same. The underlying concepts in this tense in these two languages is the same. However, to do that you must know the grammar of the mother tongue of the students, in this case Spanish. I started learning Spanish via English because at the basic level there are so many similarities and my mother tongue was of no use cause it is so much different. Ofc you have to take the leap at some point and leave translating behind, but you can't expect basic or pre-intermediate students to do this. And I have been recommending my Spanish students to buy grammar books that explain English in Spanish. All of them have been more than happy. They become smarter in their own language and they realise that learning English is not an impossible task. Besides, I don't want my students not only to speak, but to read, understand and write. To work with a language you need ALL of these 4 components and not just conversation. That's why many students prefer teachers focusing on grammar and the structure of the language to teachers focusing on conversation.