When I first became an EFL teacher eight years ago, I used to translate new English vocabulary for my students into their native language (in this case, Thai), if they had difficulty understanding what the word meant. In my naivety, I thought this was helping them learn English faster but, after only a few months teaching, I realized it actually wasn’t.
EFL and ESL teachers are often tempted to translate an English word into their students native language in a misguided attempt to help them learn. There are however many good reasons why experienced EFL/ESL teachers dissuade them from doing so, as translating can be a detriment to an EFL student learning English correctly.
The Teacher Is Not A Dictionary – Over the years, I’ve learned many EFL/ESL students are lazy when it comes to looking words up in a dictionary. They would rather have the teacher translate the word into their native language, than spend a minute looking it up for themselves.
As a teacher though, you’re not a dictionary and studies show, if the student looks up the word themselves, there’s much more chance they’ll remember it than if it’s simply given to them by the person teaching them. Never tell your students a word in their native language. That’s what a dictionary is for.
Sometimes Which Word You Think Is Correct Isn’t – Unless you’re a native speaker of the language your students speak, giving them the word you think is close enough to the English vocabulary may not actually be the case.
For instance, in Thai, there are two ways to say you cannot do something. Unlike in English, where saying you can’t do something pretty much explains how it is, in Thai depending on if you can’t do it because you haven’t been taught, or can’t do it because you’re not physically able, the words used are different. If you translate using the wrong vocabulary, the meaning is entirely different and your students may go around for the rest of their lives understanding an incorrect meaning.
Your EFL Students’ Native Language Doesn’t Have The Word – One thing I learned quickly when trying to translate from English to Thai for my students was Thai is a language much more minimalistic than English. That meant when I was scrambling for a word in Thai to explain the new English vocabulary, I was wasting my time as the word didn’t exist.
That’s why, instead of trying to translate from English to your EFL students’ native language, it’s better to show photographs or pictures or give an explanation in English. From here they can decide for themselves which vocabulary in their own language would be the most appropriate, but only after they’ve learned the English word first.
Translating Wastes Too Much Time – When I would translate from English to Thai, I would often find I would end up wasting 10 minutes or more just explaining one word, as the class would go off on long tangents discussing whether the word I had given them in Thai was correct or not.
At the end of class, I’d realize my hour lesson plan went out the window as 25 minutes of it was spent trying to decide upon the right Thai words to use for new English vocabulary. But, newsflash. My students already speak Thai. They needed to learn the English word, not improve their knowledge of Thai.
Translating Causes Students To Think In Native Language And Not English – The biggest problem with translating from English to your EFL students’ native language though is it causes them to, forever more, think of the word in their language first and then English. This slows down their ability to think and thus speak in English, particularly if they’ve learned hundreds of words this way.
As an EFL or ESL teacher, although you think translating for your students is helpful, it’s really not. If you truly do want students who learn fast, speak quickly and remember vocabulary easily, use hand gestures, facial expressions, photographs, pictures and explanations for every new word you teach, before you think about translating into their own language.
I now only translate as an absolutely last resort, if my students are never going to get it. Like I said, I’m not a dictionary. And neither are you.