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Translation in Language Teaching by Guy Cook, OUP


The 2010 Ben Warren International House Trust Prize Winner


reviewed by Dave Tucker, IH Santa Clara

Professor Cook states his case in bold style in his new book: Translation in Language Teaching. I quote: ‘I shall argue that for most contemporary language learners, translation should be a major aim and means of language learning, and a major measure of success.’

Guy Cook is known for his unwillingness to pull punches, to get straight to the grass roots of what successful language learning involves, and both challenge previously held tenets and pique language teachers to move a little into left field. Long may he.

An anecdote of the author’s experience of learning Arabic kicks off the book with a short study of the phrase In-shâ-llâh. A bilingual approach to learning this phrase would have stood Professor Cook in better stead than the monolingual understanding of it as ‘I hope so’. His use of the phrase to mean ‘I should bloomin’ well hope so!’ to a slow-working handyman was inappropriate in an Islamic context, as a crosslingual approach to the phrase could have taught him.

Much emphasis is laid on the importance of bilingual or crosslingual interactions. It is obviously an area of intense interest to Professor Cook, and he is convincing in propounding a solid grounding in it for learners. The aims of the modern-day language learner, he argues, have shifted from the old-guard (monolingual, teacher-stated) aims to bring learners as close as possible to native competence, to new aims which involve a constant awareness of how languages interact, cross over and complement each other. Technological perspectives demand second language competence to ensure the survival of many organisations and their engagement in international affairs: see particularly the UN, World Bank or WHO. Another perspective of second language as a form of social reform demands translation for encounters between languages and cultures, for better understanding and awareness of difference, and ultimately avoidance and resolution of conflict and equality of opportunity and status.

So how does this affect the classroom practice heavily implied in the book’s title Translation in Language Teaching? Here is a suggested reader’s guide to extracting the most useful information from the book as a whole:

  • Accept wholesale Professor Cook’s learned review of how translation was vilified as part of language teaching for the best part of a century, including general theories of SLA, through the stages of focus on form to those of focus on meaning. The first 100 pages of the book are a thorough and insightful review of the last 100 years of language teaching best practice, but do not move the language teacher forward much in the quest to actually use translation in language teaching (TILT).
  • Bathe a little in such delicious phrases as: Ten years into the 21st century there is potential for a radical change in academic approaches to language teaching and learning; and in the intriguing idea that the very fact that translation has been marginalised for so long makes it a prime target for investigation and re-evaluation.
  • Be titillated by the information that comparative studies of learners of vocabulary via Direct Method and translation-based methods proved the greater efficacy of translation.
  • Nod sagely when Professor Cook says that TILT provides students with an academic metalanguage & a deeper understanding of the nature of language and language use.
  • Start talking serious notes on page 127, when practical classroom considerations are approached. Draw on some suggestions for actual classroom practice, such as: close translation to try and transmit ideas as closely as possible; word-for-word translation to emphasise the memorably bizarre differences between common utterances in two languages; vocabulary teaching through translation, where instructive difficulties may arise in simple items such as the Italian ‘prego’; critical appraisal of video subtitles; round-the-class sentence building, where alternate students add a word to a short sentence, and translate it in turn; and the teacher technique of sandwiching’ L1 phrases in the middle of L2 input: ‘You’ve missed a line – saltaste uma linha’ – you’ve missed a line’. The rich linguistic environment can apparently operate in more than one language at once.

Useful lessons to draw from this book? Translation has been (grudgingly) accepted as a useful tool for decades, even if it went against recent theories of language learning; translation is inevitable, as Professor Cook and others point out. We are L1-based creatures, but this is also a potential bridge to L2, 3 or 4. That translation can be stimulating, fun and enriching. And, for me, most stimulating of all, that a long-held precept (in this case the outlawing of translation as a language teaching method) can be usefully and excitingly challenged. How many other precepts do you hold dear for no particular reason other than that you were taught them on your CELTA or DELTA? It is always a good time for walls to fall.

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