translation-activities-in-the-language-classroom

Oh! Ahh! 15 New Language Classroom Translation Activities

Raul sauntered into my English Review class, slouched into his chair and threw an open notebook onto his desk in disgust, pouting.

“What’s up, Raul?” I asked him.

“My teacher gave us these sentences to translate and I don’t get them at all!”

This wasn’t an uncommon situation. In Spain’s teaching of English as a Foreign Language, the activity of translating from L1 into L2 is considered standard. It’s often used in testing and evaluation. Students regularly get frustrated with this activity.

I took a look at one of the sentences his teacher had assigned and felt my own frustration, even a bit of anger:

María cree que el calentamiento global es un problema para todos y llevaba una falda escocesa azul. (María thinks that global warming is everyone’s problem and she wore a blue plaid skirt.)

¡¿What?!

It was obvious that Raul’s teacher was looking for “thinks” instead of “believes” for the word cree, “wore” instead of “carried” for llevaba and “plaid skirt” rather than “Scottish skirt” for falda escocesa—because it was vocabulary studied that semester.

Who wouldn’t feel sorry for Raul? And what did María’s sporting a blue plaid skirt have to do with her opinion on global warming?

The truth is, translation in the language classroom often gets a bad reputation because of situations like this, but that doesn’t mean you should write it off entirely.

In this post, we’ll go deeper into the possibilities of translation as a classroom activity, and present some refreshing ideas for how to incorporate it into your lessons in a way that won’t have your students rolling their eyes and throwing their hands up in frustration.
 


 
Learn a foreign language with videos

Why Translation in the Language Classroom Gets a Bad Name

Raul’s experience in his English as a Foreign Language class is, unfortunately, way too common in language classes across the board. It’s this type of “rote translation,” aimed at getting specific responses without consideration for context, that leads most teachers to shy away from using it.

It all started back in the good old days of the Grammar Translation Method of teaching foreign languages. Teachers gave students long lists of rules and vocabulary to memorize, and most practice time involved translating classical literature. This began first with classical Greek and Latin study and overlapped into general foreign language teaching for some time.

With the advent of more communicative methods (the Direct Method, the Audio-lingual Method, the Natural Method, etc.) focus was switched to L2 language use in the classroom. This focus sometimes reached the extreme of prohibiting the students’ and teacher’s use of the L1 during class. Not being able to use L1 meant that translation would be impossible.

This communicative target-language-only theory, combined with a traditional definition of translation as the solitary activity of changing a text from one language to another, led to disuse of translation in the language classroom. There was a general attitude developing that translation was not useful in second language learning.

What’s a Better Definition of Translation for the Language Classroom?

Most language teachers today consider translation as being that textual, code-switching activity. Recently, though, more expansive definitions of translation are being put forth by the professionals who actually work in the field.

In the summer of 2013, the European Society for Translation Studies presented their report on over a year’s study of how translation is used (or ignored) in the language classroom. The study involved a survey of teachers in several European countries, as well as countries outside the Union, such as China and Turkey.

In their report, the authors defined translation as:

….the reception and/or production and/or reworking of spoken and written bitexts within the classroom situation. This includes:
– Concurrent translation, where everything said in one language is translated into the other, usually by the instructor
– Dual language preview-review
– Performance translation or dialogue interpreting
– Identification of non-correspondences between languages and their resolution as translation problems
– Identification of problems in machine-translation output, and their correction
– The use and production of subtitled and dubbed video material.

So, How Should Translation Fit into Language Class?

That flexible definition allows teachers to think outside of the old-fashioned box of handing out texts and telling their students to translate them, either into L1 or L2.

More specifically, this allows them to do the following:

  • If teachers are able to use L1 effectively, they can feel free, when appropriate, to aid understanding of L2 content through translation of key aspects into L1.
  • During the introduction of new themes and the posterior review of taught material, they can present in both the native and target languages to ensure understanding.
  • They can make comparisons between the languages spoken and those being learned, leading to more cognizant understanding of meaning and differences between ways of expressing ideas and thoughts.
  • They can take advantage of modern-day translation software for class correction, allowing opportunities to identify where the machine isn’t as accurate as a person—which gives more opportunities to identify and correct students’ grasp of L2.
  • They can use video, an ever-increasing teaching tool, as an active source of understanding, dubbing and translating dialogue, again leading to a deeper comprehension of the spoken word. FluentU is a great language learning and teaching platform that teachers can use for an endless supply of video content for classes of all levels. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

All of the above can also be applied to the ongoing and final evaluation of student progress in the language classroom.

Keeping these thoughts in mind, I present you with a number of activities you can use in your language classroom that involve, in some way or another, translation. Have fun with them!

Write Off Rote! 15 Language Classroom Translation Activities

Translating Words Alone

Vocabulary is something you’ll be looking at from beginning classes to more advanced proficiencies. These activities look at specific words and how to find the best translations for them.

Activity 1: Oh! Ahh!

This is a quick warm-up activity focusing on non-verbal sounds made in reaction to specific situations.

Objective: To compare sounds across cultures.

What you’ll need:

  • “Situational” cards that evoke a reaction (showing pictures of cute kittens, a tragic scene, something disgusting).

How to proceed

  1. Pair students up.
  1. Show one student the first card. Ask them to make the sound they would in their native language if they saw this.

Example: a cute kitten. English reaction: “Awww!”

  1. Ask the second student, without showing the card, to translate that sound to L2.
  1. Show the card to the entire class and ask if the sound was appropriate.
  1. If so, continue. If not, teach the sound and have students pass the card around, each student making the L2 sound for the situation.

Activity 2: Old MacDonald

The “Old MacDonald” song is pretty universal, but if your students don’t know the song, it’s pretty easy to teach.

Objective: To compare how animal sounds are vocalized between languages.

What you’ll need:

  • Cards with different animals on them.

How to proceed:

  1. Hand a card to each student.
  1. Begin the song, having the first student show their card (for example, “cat”).
  1. Sing the song, alternating between the L1 and the L2 animal sound: “Old MacDonald had a farm, ee-ai-ee-ai-oh / and on that farm he had a cat / with an L1 here and an L2 there, here an L1, there an L2, everywhere an L1/L2…”

The fun in this activity is not getting the two sounds mixed up, always doing L1, then L2, and maybe switching the order for a second singing.

Activity 3: Watch Out!

We often use short, imperative formulas to warn people of danger ahead. Learning to use these quick orders may just save a life!

Objective: To learn to quickly use appropriate warning expressions in L2 without thought.

What you’ll need:

  • “Danger” cards (like “slippery pavement,” “falling objects,” “speeding cars”).
  • Tokens or chips (for points).

How to proceed:

  1. Line students up along one wall in single-file.
  1. Give one student a danger card.
  1. The student warns the first student in line in L1.
  1. That student must return the same warning in L2.
  1. This is a danger situation, so if that student can’t warn at once, they go to the end of the line and the next student tries.
  1. If all students fail, the student with the danger card earns a token and gives the next warning.
  1. If a student correctly gives the warning in L2, that student earns a token and takes the place of the first warning student.

You can switch the role of L1 and L2 for this activity.

Activity 4: Mad Lib

A fun way to review vocabulary, as well as parts of speech, the classic “mad lib” fill-in-the-blank exercise also helps concentrate on single words and their appropriate use in sentences.

Objective: To produce words that fall into parts-of-speech categories, such as “noun,” “verb,” “adverb,” etc.

What you need:

  • Several mad lib texts at the proficiency level of your students. If you write your own, when leaving the blank, put the part of speech in parentheses: Mary bought a (noun) ____ yesterday.

How to proceed:

  1. Pair students up.
  1. Give a mad lib text to one student.
  1. This student asks their partner for words in L1 to fill in the blanks.
  1. The student with the mad lib text translates the word to L2 and inserts it into the blank.
  1. The second student will read out the text to the class for a few laughs.
  1. Now you’ll move on to the “What’s the Wrong Word?” activity.

Activity 5: What’s the Wrong Word?

A continuation of the mad lib game, this activity allows you to debate the words that have been added, looking for more appropriate vocabulary to help the text make sense.

Objective: To change inappropriate vocabulary for more meaningful words within context.

What you’ll need:

  • Those completed mad lib texts, collected from the earlier activity.

How to proceed:

  1. Collect the texts from the pairs of students.
  1. Hand them out to other pairs.
  1. Have these pairs work on replacing the inappropriate words with vocabulary that better fits the context of the text.
  1. Have a read-out of the text and debate word choices made among all the students.
  1. Allow students to suggest words in L1 that other students can translate to L2 if there’s a lack of vocabulary.
  1. Remember to note all new vocabulary on the board and ask students for L1 translations to make the meaning of each word clear to everyone.

Activity 6: False Friends and True Friends

In this friendship activity, students will be comparing words that are shared in L1 and L2, learning to identify those that have similar meanings and those that mean something quite different.

Though this activity won’t be useful for all L1/L2 combinations, it should work well with languages that share roots, like Indo-European languages, or Asian languages, or English with most modern languages.

Objective: To identify friends, both false and true, between L1 and L2, and clarify correct usage.

What you’ll need:

  • False/true friends cards (one set in L1 and another in L2).
  • Poker chips or tokens for scoring.

How to proceed:

  1. Mix the L1 and L2 cards (tip: make L1 cards a different color from L2 cards for easy separation later!).
  1. Hand out, at random, all of the cards to your students until you have no more.
  1. Have students check their cards to see if they have friendly pairs.
  1. Sit at the front of the room and have students line up to present their pairs to you.
  1. Ask the first student in line if any of their pairs is true friends or false friends. If they know the right answer, collect those cards, give them a token and send them to the end of the line.
  1. Once a student has presented all the pairs they have in their possession, they must find students with friends that match theirs.
  1. Now students should present, in pairs, their new-found friends and identify if they’re false or true. Token goes to the right answer.
  1. For more proficient students, you can have them make example sentences in L2 to demonstrate that they know how to correctly use the word, and reward with a token.
  1. After a period of time, say ten minutes, review any remaining pairs with the group and make quick explanations as to why a pair might be false friends.
  1. Return to this game periodically to remind students of the friends between the two languages and the caution needed to use the friends correctly in L2.

Activity 7: Autocorrect Fails

We all get frustrated with “autocorrect” when sending messages with our cell phones. Sometimes the mistakes are pretty humorous, other times they’re downright embarrassing. However, they always give us a chance to correct our language.

Objective: To identify inappropriate words from context and replace them with better vocabulary.

What you’ll need:

How to proceed:

  1. Pair up your students.
  1. Hand out all the cards.
  1. Have students figure out what word was incorrectly autocorrected.
  1. Have them try to figure out a better word, or the word that the person really meant to put.
  1. After ten minutes of pair work, have students share the original and the correction with the class.

Now let’s take that work with individual vocabulary words and apply it to the middle ground of translation complexity, the complete sentence.

Translating Sentences

Activity 8: Knock Knock! Who’s There?

Jokes are notorious for being hard to translate. Because they so often depend on word play and pun, what’s mildly funny in L1 might make no sense at all in L2. That’s what makes this translation activity particularly challenging—it involves getting students to understand and keep or transform the humor from L1 into L2.

Objective: To identify humor and translate it from one language to another.

What you’ll need:

  • A whole bushel basket of Knock Knock jokes in L1.
  • Another bushel basket of Knock Knock jokes in L2.

How to proceed

  1. Tell your students a really silly Knock Knock joke in L2.
  1. Ask them why they think it’s funny, or at least silly.
  1. If they don’t get it, diagram the reason L2 speakers might find it funny/silly.
  1. Hand out L1 jokes to pairs of students.
  1. Have them work out why the joke is funny/silly in the original language.
  1. Have them try to make a similar joke, as close to the original in the target language.
  1. After some work time, have the pairs perform their Knock Knock jokes for the class.
  1. You can award tokens or points for any translations that were successful in making the class laugh or groan.

Activity 9: Signs of the Times

The signs we see that are supposed to inform us sometimes simply lead to confusion. This activity tries to fix these information sign fails or look for ways to intentionally make good signs funny.

Objectives: To identify what’s wrong in a sign’s language and correct it. To take real signs and try to make them funny.

What you’ll need:

  • Pictures of normal signs in L1 and L2.

How to proceed:

  1. Show the students a failed sign.
  1. Ask them to identify why the sign has failed.
  1. Help them to correct the sign.
  1. Show a normal sign.
  1. Try to imagine with your students how to make the sign a fail.

This activity can be done in both directions, L1 to L2 or L2 to L1. You can also have students work in pairs to create the fails from real signs.

Activity 10: Telephone Game

Who hasn’t played the enchanting child’s game of Telephone? The message moves as rapidly as a piece of juicy gossip. Like any good gossip, it gets totally distorted with each telling.

Objective: To practice class work, listen carefully and work on oral code-switching.

What you’ll need:

  • Several short L2 sentences from current class work.

How to proceed:

  1. Sit your students in a semi-circle on the floor.
  1. Hand the first student a slip of paper with a sentence.
  1. In the first couple of rounds, just have the sentence whispered as-is, in L2.
  1. The last student writes the sentence on the board, then the first student writes the original sentence from the slip of paper.
  1. Add spice by having the first student translate the L2 sentence into L1. The second student will whisper the sentence, translated into L2, and students will alternate translating to the end. The final student will write the sentence on the board in L2.

This exercise highlights the importance of knowing what you’re trying to communicate, pronouncing it clearly and listening carefully.

Activity 11: Liason Interpretation

This is a type of role-play where students will be working on interpretation skills. This will work best with more proficient students; however, if you prepare level-appropriate conversations, it can be done at lower levels as well.

Objective: To orally work translation/interpretation skills of learned material.

What you’ll need:

  • Several short, every-day conversation scripts, one in L1 and the same in L2.

How to proceed:

  1. Choose three students for the first round to come forward.
  1. Give matching L1 and L2 scripts to two students. The third student does not get to see the script.
  1. Have the two students with scripts practice reading their scripts twice, first in L1 and then in L2, while the third listens in.
  1. On the third reading of the script, student one says the first text in L1, student three translates to student two in L2, who replies in L2. Student three translates back to L1 to student one, who replies, again in L1. For example:
    • S1: ¿Cómo estás, María?
    • S3: How are you María?
    • S2: I have a terrible headache.
    • S3: Tengo un dolor de cabeza tremendo.
  1. When the script is finished, send student one to their seat and choose a new interpreter from the class.
  1. Give a new script to students two and three and repeat the procedure, student four interpreting.
  1. Continue until everyone has had a chance to play the interpreter.

Block Translation

These activities now delve into a more complete context for the understanding of translation. Instead of simply exchanging individual words or sentences from L1 to L2 or vice-versa, we’ll be looking at how to best use the most appropriate language for a more complete text.

Activity 12: Read in L1, Summarize in L2

This is a listening-speaking activity, with some note-taking or board-marking. The teacher will need to be pretty fluent in L1 in order to do this in a L1 to L2 direction. If you’re not fluent in your student’s L1, then you can simply do it in L2 to L1.

What you’ll need:

  • Several brief, descriptive texts, both in L1 and L2, about 200 words long.

How to proceed:

  1. You’ll read, aloud, the text in L2 to your students.
  1. Ask the students to identify basic information they’ve heard, like who, what, where, when.
  1. Read the text again and ask a student to summarize the same text in L1.
  1. Ask other students if they agree with the summary. Have them point out where they don’t agree. Open the debate among them.
  1. Now pass a new L2 descriptive text to a student, who reads it aloud.
  1. Again, ask another student to summarize in L1. Open the summary to debate.

If you’re fluent in your students’ L1, then you can switch this activity to L1 to L2 summary. Or, you can have a student read the passage in L1 and have students summarize in L2 for you. Make sure you’ve done a Google translation of the L1 text so you have a pretty good idea what the text was about before evaluating the L2 summaries.

Activity 13: Mechanical Nightmare Translation

Artificial intelligence (AI) is quickly catching up to us humans; however, though improving, machine translation often leaves a lot to be desired in comparison with human translation.

Objective: To recognize and correct mechanical translation glitches.

What you’ll need:

  • Access to internet for mechanical translation program, or a mechanical translation software.
  • Several short texts that have been professionally translated and published.

How to proceed:

  1. Gather your students around the computer screen.
  1. Cut and paste your first text in L1 (five to seven sentences are enough).
  1. Press the “translate” button.
  1. Review the L2 machine translation for problems with your students.
  1. Cut that L2 translation and paste it into a new box.
  1. Machine translate back to L1.
  1. Review the re-translated text with your students.
  1. Now print out the L2 and L1 translations and compare them on paper with the professional translations.

Activity 14: This Translation Stinks!

Word-for-word translating is often where very beginning students get their first exposure to translation. The translation dictionary is both a blessing and a pain for both teachers and students. This activity highlights for students how they need to be careful using that tool.

Objective: To discern correct word choice when using translation dictionaries.

What you’ll need:

  • A translation dictionary (a book or an application).
  • Several short texts with vocabulary that can have different meanings.
  • Main vocabulary lists of each text.
  • Worksheets (described below).

How to proceed:

  1. First, you’ll prepare two types of worksheets.

Vocabulary translation worksheet

  • List all the main words found in the original text (nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs) in alphabetical order.
  • Leave two columns beside each word, one for the first translation, the second for the correct word choice.

Text translation worksheet

  • Print the text with vocabulary from the list underlined.
  • Leave lines for word-for-word translation.
  • Leave lines for grammar rearrangement.
  1. Have the students translate the vocabulary, always putting the very first translation found in the dictionary in the first column.
  1. Put away the dictionaries.
  1. Have students translate, word-for-word, in the same word order, the original text. Underlined words must be translated according to the vocabulary translation worksheet.
  1. Now have students work on putting the translation in correct word order according to target grammar or style.
  1. Identify how many of the first-found-word translations are accurate.
  1. Have students find the more appropriate translation for words that are not correctly translated and add them to the second column of the vocabulary worksheet.
  1. Now have students work out a final translation, replacing inappropriate words and brushing up on grammar.

This activity can be done in pairs or small groups, making one student the secretary, another the looker-uper, etc.

Activity 15: Video Subtitle Translation

Working with video can be fun, but it also gives your students innumerable ways of cross-referencing information learned in class, from grammar to vocabulary to listening to speaking.

Objective: To discover and improvise language listened to in video.

What you’ll need:

  • Several short videos of everyday conversations in L1 and L2 with translated subtitles (like FluentU videos).

How to proceed:

  1. Show the first video to your class without subtitles.
  1. Lead a round of questions about who’s speaking, what they’re speaking about, important vocabulary.
  1. Show the video again, pausing after each speech.
  1. Have students offer a translation of the speech and note it on the board.
  1. Once you’ve translated the entire video, assign students to play the roles, reading the translations from the board while you show the video without sound.
  1. Now, turn on the subtitles to the video (or unmask them if you’ve used a slip of paper on the screen!) and run the video again to compare students’ translations with the actual subtitles.
  1. Move on to a new video.

 

It’s really important to consider translation as a tool in your language classroom. While many of these activities may not exactly fit into your class structure, or may even be considered heresy by your school administration, the truth is, students will end up translating at one time or another during their quest to learn a new language.

If you try these activities with your students, you’ll be helping them to find strategies for making translation a useful way of studying, learning and remembering their new language.


Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into teacher training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.
 


 

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