Published 29th September 2016

Using translation in the TEFL classroom is a double-edged sword. Some teachers cannot use translation in the classroom because they themselves cannot speak the students’ first language and some teachers rely on the first language so much that it is spoken more than English in the classroom. Sometimes it can be useful to use translation, other times it can hinder learning. So, when it comes to using translation in the TEFL classroom, what’s the best option?

Don’t deny the L1

We must never forget the importance of our students’ first language. By creating English-only zones in the classroom we are effectively banning them from using their own language, which may cause resentment. Using only English can be stressful and exhausting, so give your students a break if you find they slip into their first language. In fact, by delegating English-only times, your students will know when they can only speak English and when they should focus on the language.

Use it appropriately

For lower levels it may be easier to use the first language when dealing with classroom management or admin issues, to avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication. It can also be used to make comparisons between the languages and so promote understanding. Of course, with higher levels it becomes less necessary to use the first language for explanation purposes so it shouldn’t be used for this reason unless absolutely necessary.

Don’t overuse it

It can be easy to get into the habit of using the first language regularly and this is what needs to be avoided. Your students need to learn to use English as a way of communication even when they are struggling so they shouldn’t be relying on their first language for clarification all the time. Translation can be a useful tool if used judiciously.

Of course, not everyone has the luxury of being able to use the students’ first language in the classroom. Sometimes the teacher cannot speak the first language and then it would be foolish to even try and utilise translation because you would have no idea of accuracy. Other times, the classes are made up of mixed nationalities so there is no one shared first language and using another language would alienate some students. But, if it is possible, using translation can be a good way for students to realise the similarities and differences between their language and English and so promote their learning.