Recently I had a conversation with a teacher I work with about how well the 1st grade students, who have one hour a week with each of us, know the colors in English. When I work with them, they can point to different colors and name them. She even heard a student answer “green” when I asked her “What color is my shirt?” However, she found that when she asks them in Hebrew they can’t always give the English word. This led to a discussion about which is more important – being able to use a word or translate it. The answer to this depends on why we teach – If our goal is to enable students to speak English, then using the words in context is what they need.
In order to speak a foreign language correctly and fluently, one must begin to think in that language. Constantly translating while speaking will almost always result in errors. When I began studying Hebrew in Ulpan over 30 years ago I was advised to write definitions for words in Hebrew instead of their English translations. Determined to learn the language properly, I followed this advice and it has served me well. That is, I have learned to speak fluently and have no problem understanding what I hear and read, but I can’t always translate words and concepts into English even though I understand them.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the goal in most classrooms. “Teach to the test” is still the motto, and on many of those tests students must translate words into or from their native language. So they are taught lists of words with their translations, and believe that as long as they can translate words they can read and write.
I believe this may explain studies in which children who began learning English later actually performed better on tests, even though there is plenty of research to back up my experience and that of other teachers who teach young children, showing that the younger children start learning the easier it is for them to absorb a foreign language. When children start very young, they learn to speak, when they start later they learn to pass tests. Read more about my experience with young learners here.
Why doesn’t translating work? Every language has its own syntax, a word can have two different meanings in one language which are represented by different words in another, and some words and expressions just can’t be translated properly.
Here are some examples.
How do you say “go” in Hebrew? How do you say “walk”?
How do you say “like”? Now translate the sentence “Your teeth are like stars”.
How do you say “do”? How do you say “How do you say do?” or “Do you know how?”
Explain in Hebrew the difference between class, classroom, grade and grades.
How to you say “take”? “take a shower”? “take a picture”? “take a break”?
And if you’re still not convinced, try explaining present progressive!