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Back to Mother Tongue. L1 and Translation as aids to fla in a clil context

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Back to Mother...Tongue. L1 and Translation as aids to FLA in a CLIL context

Maria González-Davies (Universitat Ramon Llull, Barcelona, Spain)

Christopher Scott-Tennent (Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain)

    1. Introduction: general framework

Action research was carried out with a group of 241 teacher students (i.e., future EFL professionals), whose mother tongue is either Spanish or Catalan2, and whose level of English varies between the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL) B1 and C1. The pilot study set out to observe and describe their spontaneous use of L1 and translation in what is effectively their third language acquisition (TLA)3 process. The group studies at an institution where future English teachers are immersed in a CLIL context (Content and Language Integrated Learning). The subject matter in this case was “Linguistics”, as a habitual part of their degree program in the second semester of the first year. All these students had had previous CLIL experience in the first semester with the subject-matter “Phonetics”. The students were all informed about the broad aims of the study and freely consented to provide the required data.

Our general theoretical framework is based on the following:

  • Research in Translation Studies

  • The Optimal Position (Ernesto Macaro)

  • Multicompetence Theory (Vivien Cook)

  • Effects of Humanistic and Collaborative Learning environments in the learning of additional languages (ALL)

The main research questions determining the study design were the following four:

  1. How, what for and how successfully do the students use L1 and translation as an aid to improve their learning process?

  2. How does this use seem to relate to cognitive, metacognitive and socioaffective strategies?

  3. On the basis of our previous knowledge and the findings for a) and b) above, can learning materials be designed that include an informed use of the L1 and translation for FLA?

  4. How can a humanistic, collaborative setting favour or enhance such learning materials?

The underlying principles that guided the study were the following three:

  1. L1 and Translation are spontaneous learning strategies in Additional Language Learning Contexts

  2. L1 and Translation are not interchangeable terms, as each contributes different skills and strategies to the learning of additional languages

  3. An informed use of L1 and Translation may be beneficial for the learning of additional languages

Although these questions and guidelines are prospective in nature, i.e., we are not yet setting out to prove/disprove hypotheses, our expectations are that this initial pilot study will allow us to identify some key points to subsequently study more closely and/or fully. We view this study as the starting point of what we hope will be an ongoing, relatively long-term research process.

In this paper we will concentrate on points 1 and 2 of the general theoretical framework and on research questions 1 and 2. Finally, we aim to give an overall view of the main tendencies we have observed from the results gathered and processed so far in the study.

    1. Translation Studies: L1 or Translation?

Most – if not all – research in Applied Linguistics tends to equate L1 and Translation. This and the extended rejection of their use in language learning may well have carried over from the Grammar-Translation days, with long lists of words to be memorized together with their supposed correspondences in the L2 and L1.

Having worked for many years both in the world of TEFL and as professional translators and translator trainers, we would argue that the use of the L1 cannot be equated to the use of translation in the learning of additional languages, that each of these provide the language student with different strategies that can help them in their progress, and that they very probably have different roles within the process of language learning.

Taking as starting points these beliefs that stem from both professional practice and research in both fields, we also set out to explore, whether, in a similar line to Cook’s Multicompetence Theory, they encourage the acquisition of other skills that can be useful for the language student, such as the development of intercultural competence or mediating skills, as described in the CEFRL (2001).

The use of L1 seems to be increasingly present in a substantial amount of research over the last 10 years or so. Also, surveys that ask teachers’ opinions often reach the conclusion that teachers from different backgrounds think it should be present in the learning of Additional Languages (e.g. Celaya 2001, Cook 2001, González Davies 2002, Macaro 2005, Prodromou 2001). Furthermore, research on the cognitive/connectionist model of learning seems to confirm that the use of any previously acquired language “can have at least as substantial a facilitating acquisitional role as it can have an inhibitory role” (Macaro 2005: 41). The associations, shortcuts and mnemonic aids are certainly there. However, in Macaro’s words: “The way that L1 is regarded and how much of it should be present in the input and interaction, however, is still highly contested” (2005: 42).

As to Translation, allow us to go into a little more detail about what we mean by it as it is still not included in research on language acquisition, at least not as frequently or thoroughly as the use of L1: it usually comes under the broad category of “use of L1” or “codeswitching”, if at all.

There are a few exceptions, however, where it is dealt with as a strategy or skill of its own (e.g. González Davies 2002, 2007; Chesterman 1998, Deller and Rinvolucri 2002, Malmkjaer 1998, Owen 2003, Verzai and Mirzaei 2007). This rejection of translation becomes even less understandable when we consider that contact between languages has always been of interest and has given way to theories and studies related to Contrastive Analysis, Error Analysis and Interlanguage, Cross-Linguistic Influence, the Natural Order Hypothesis, the Markedness Differential Hypothesis, Psychotypology, Transferability rules, Full Transfer / Full Access Theory, studies in Pragmatics, etc. (see, e.g., Celaya 2001 for a clear summary of these studies). Translation is at the core of all this and, paradoxically, its role in ALL has not been seriously researched.

The field of Translation Studies has devoted much energy to (re)defining “translation” and “translation competence”. Taking into account these Studies, here “translation” implies the ability to complete the following three steps more or less appropriately, depending on the stage of linguistic and sociocultural proficiency of the students:

  1. understand the message and effect of the Source Text (i.e. text, word or expression, verbal or visual) (the “world of origin” according to the CEFRL)

  2. relay the message and effect appropriately for the Target Community (the “world of the target community” according to the CEFRL)

  3. apply appropriate translation strategies according to familiarity with problem-solving and spotting skills

For instance, in a Teacher Training context, the subject Parla Infantil in Catalan is better rendered as “Child Speech Development” in English than as “Children’s Talk”, as most students translated it.

Practitioners and researchers in the fields of Translation, agree that translation can be defined as “A dynamic process of communication” (Hatim and Mason 1990: 62). That is, translation is not an exact transference from one language to another, contrary to what Grammar-Translation advocates claim In fact, professional translators never consider it as such. Exercises such as "read this sentence –or word – and translate it", with little or no context, no previous reflection, no setting of the translation assignment4, and no training in the intricacies and possibilities of translation etc. are not meaningful to the learner, and produce mistranslations, calques and literal renderings that are far removed from real communication. Professional translation is a creative and dynamic activity that bridges the cultures and languages involved using specific transference skills and strategies (e.g. Canale and Swain, Danks 1991, Gile 1995, González Davies and Scott-Tennent 2005, Pym 2003, Tirkkonen-Condit 2000, Scott-Tennent and González Davies 2008) – which explains why not all bilinguals are good translators or interpreters. Surely something more than a "read and translate" directive is behind all this activity. When translation enters the language classroom as a meaningful communicative procedure, far from Grammar-Translation artifice, reality enters the classroom: it involves authentic communication with a clear aim. It is also unavoidable, for students often use "translate" and "understand" as synonyms. Let’s see how one of our students reflects this (sic):

(Finnish Erasmus student)


This was a crucial word for me to know because it was one topic in the classes and also the title of an essay. I understood what the teacher was telling when she was telling about language acquisition, but I didn't know the actual translation. For me, this word was very important to translate in order to understand perfectly... I believe most of the time it's better to try to explain in English rather than translate directly. However, I believe that there are also lots of moments when it's more purposeful to translate the difficult words to the L1 in order to learn them better

Could it be that we are not listening to one of the most frequent questions our students (or we as lifelong language learners) ask? If we do not listen, they end up not asking, but that does not mean the question isn't hidden under the surface. We suggest, then, that Translation could be used as both a skill and a strategy in an informed way (González Davies 2007).

    1. The Optimal Position

In his groundbreaking paper (2005), Ernesto Macaro suggests that there are three approaches or “Positions” in relation to teachers’ attitudes concerning the use of L1 in the SLA classroom. We took his description of The Optimal Position (2005: 535) as part of our working framework adapting it to our project as follows (each quote from his description has given way to questions in our project):

  • “There is some pedagogical value in L1 use” – what value?

  • “Some aspects of learning may actually be enhanced by L1” – which ones?

  • “There should therefore be a constant exploration of pedagogical principles regarding whether and in what ways L1 is justified” – we set out to observe both “whether” and “in what ways”

Macaro does not mention Translation – it may be that he takes it as a synonym of use of the L1. Should this be the case, as we have explained above, we argue that they are different skills that contribute different strategies to language learning. However, his proposal has been a central point of departure for our study.

    1. The Research instruments

Observational and self-report instruments were used, following a mainly, but not exclusively, qualitative approach to action research. The annex at the end of this paper specifies what each instrument was designed to observe:

  1. Initial (pre-study) Questionnaire

  2. Final (post-study) Questionnaire

  3. (Two) Individual Written Protocols, to be handed in with respective essays on topics studied for approximately 5 weeks each

  4. (Two) Group Work Reports, to be filled in by group members on completion of group tasks

  5. Final (Self-) Report

    1. Provisional findings for research questions 1 and 2

Q1. How, what for and how successfully do the students use L1 and translation as an aid to improve their learning process?
Students do use the L1 and translation in the two individual essays. There was a very stable side to the use of translation, which was usually self-addressed, in order to ensure maximum semantic accuracy, by using a bilingual dictionary, and retrospectively rated as quite/very useful. However, significant (inter-task) variation was observed in the use of translation regarding: (a) what the specific reported use was for, and (b) regarding the existence (in students’ belief) of potentially useful alternative strategies to having used translation. It seems most logical to assume that this was at least partly related to the specific nature of the task.

Clearly, in both Group Written Protocols, and to a very similar degree, students think the L1 was used very little overall. Finally, the students’ “Position” regarding the use of L1 and Translation in Additional Language Learning contexts can be summarized as follows:

  • The Optimal Position: there is pedagogical value in the use of L1: 11/22

  • The Maximal Position: there is no pedagogical value in the use of L1, but teachers sometimes have to resort to L1: 8/22

  • The Virtual Position: Total exclusion of L1: 3/22

The following is a typical comment from one of the students (sic):

Although the classes should be mostly in English, sometimes translation can be very effective... to make concepts clear to the students... to transmit the cultural value of the meaning... or, if you are seeing in (our students') faces that they don't understand a word, we shouldn't be afraid of using translation... In conclusion, I think that we shouldn't pretend to be what we are not and we should use our intelligence and take profit of what we have around us.
Q2. How does this use seem to affect cognitive, metacognitive and socioaffective strategies?
The results regarding metacognitive, cognitive and socioaffective strategies yielded the following: Overall -i.e., counting both Essay 1 and Essay 2-, the presence of metacognitive and cognitive strategies is quantitatively very similar, while the presence of socioaffective strategies is lower than the former two, and more variable in an intertask sense -in this case, it was much lower in Essay 2 than in Essay 1. L1 use is almost always linked to or associated with metacognitive and socioaffective strategies, whereas the use of Translation is mostly linked to or associated with cognitive strategies.





37 (1 TR + 36 L1)

38 (2 L1 + 36 TR)

33 L1


45 (L1)

34 (11 L1 + 23 TR)

10 L1


83 (1 TR + 82 L1)

72 (13 L1 + 59 TR)

43 L1

We reproduce here what one of the students had to say about this (sic):

Sometimes I had to communicate with my classmates and speak in Catalan or Spanish instead of English. Why? depending on the situation. Sometimes it is to transmit my opinion clearly, sometimes to facilitate communication, and sometime for purely embarrassment... These are the reasons why I said that the use of the L1 is related to the need, the level and personality of the learner.

    1. Some conclusions

Related to the initial underlying guiding principles:

  1. L1 and Translation are spontaneous learning strategies: all the students used both with no prompting.

  2. L1 and Translation are not interchangeable terms, as each contributes different skills and strategies to the learning of additional languages

  • There appears to be more inter-task variation in the use of translation than in the use of L1.

  • Different uses and frequency of use for translation, on the one hand, and for L1, on the other, are reflected in the results.

  • Specific translation strategies are needed in order to carry out tasks appropriately (e.g. explicitation, domestication, foreignisation, addition, omission, intersemiotic modifications, etc. (e.g. Henvey et al 1995, González Davies 2004)).

  1. An informed use of L1 and Translation may be beneficial for the learning of additional languages.

Although the following is not conclusive as yet, an informed use of L1 and translation does not seem to favour an increased use of L1 and translation by the students. In fact, according to our findings, and in agreement with Macaro’s (2005), the use of L1 and of Translation have either remained similar or even decreased according to the results yielded by the study instruments, thus confirming that, contrary to underlying beliefs implicit in the Communicative / L2 Only Approach, an informed use of L1 and of translation may not necessarily increase students’ use in an additional language learning context.

  1. Finally, as a result of our readings and research, we would like to suggest that operative definitions of Translation, Use of L1 and Codeswitching be included in research papers dealing with these concepts to help readers grasp the outlook of the authors regarding these concepts.

Some final thoughts: In an increasingly multicultural world where bilingualism is already the norm, it seems to be unavoidable to use L1 and translation as one more useful strategy or procedure to learn a foreign language. In the process, it can also become a skill that our students may need in their future for personal or professional reasons and may favour the development of intercultural competence and mediation skills to bridge those areas not shared by the “world of origin and the world of the target community”.


Celaya, Mª L. 2001. "'I've got 12 years old': L1 in SLA", APAC of News, nº 42, May.

Chesterman, A. 1998. "Communication Strategies, Learning Strategies and Translation Strategies". In Malmkjaer, K. Translation and Language Teaching. Language Teaching and Translation. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Cook, V.J. 1991. “The poverty-of-the-stimulus argument and multi-competence”, Second Language Research, 7, 2, 103-117.

Cook, V. J. 1992. “Evidence for multicompetence”. Language Learning, 42(4), 557


Cook, V. J. 2001. “Using the first language in the classroom”. Canadian Modern

Language Review, 57(3), 184-206.

Gile, D.1995. Basic Concepts and Models for Interpreter and Translator Training. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Deller, Sheelagh and Mario Rinvolucri. 2002. Using the Mother Tongue. Making the most of the Learner’s Language. English Teaching Professional: Professional Perspectives.

Duff, A. 1989. Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

González Davies, Maria. 2002. “Humanising Translation Activities: Tackling a Secret Practice”, Humanising Language Teaching, University of Kent: Pilgrims, July.

González Davies, Maria. 2004. Multiple Voices in the Translation Classroom. Activities, Tasks and Projects. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

González Davies, Maria and Christopher Scott-Tennent. 2005. “A problem-solving and student-centred approach to the translation of cultural references”. Meta (50-1) Monograph: Enseignement de la traduction dans le mond, pp.

González Davies, Maria. 2007. “Translation: Why the Bad Press? A Natural Activity in an Increasingly Bilingual World”, Humanising Language Teaching, Year 9; Issue 2; March,

Hatim, Basil and Ian Mason. 1990. Discourse and the Translator. London: Routledge.

Henvey, S., Higgins, S. and L. Haywood. 1995. Thinking Spanish Translation: A Course in Translation Method. London and New York: Routledge.

Macaro, Ernesto. 2001. “Analysing Student Teachers’ Codeswitching in Foreign Language Classrooms: Theories and Decision Making”. The Modern Language Journal, 85, iv, 531-547.

Macaro, Ernesto. 2003/2005. Teaching and Learning a Second Language. A Guide to Recent Reseearch and its Applications. London & New York: Continuum.

Malmkjaer, K. 1998. Translation and Language Teaching. Language Teaching and Translation. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Montalt, Vicent and Maria González Davies. 2007. Medical Translation Step by Step. Learning by Drafting. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Owen, David. 2003. “Where’s the Treason in Translation?” Humanising Language Teaching, University of Kent: Pilgrims, January,

Prodromou, L. 2001. “From mother tongue to other tongue”.

Pym, A. 2003. “Redefining Translation Competence in an Electronic Age”, Meta 48/4.

Scott-Tennent, Christopher and Maria González Davies. 2008. “Effects of Specific Training on the Ability to Deal with Cultural Referents in Translation”, Meta, 53/4, pp.782-798

Shahin Vaezi and Mehdi Mirzaei. 2007. “The Effect of Using Translation from L1 to L2 as a Teaching Technique on the Improvement of EFL Learners’ Linguistic Accuracy - Focus on Form”, Humanising Language Teaching, September,

Tirkkonen-Condit, S. 2000. “Uncertainty in translation processes”. In Tirkkonen-Condit, S. and Jääskeläninen, R. (eds.) Tapping and mapping the processes of translation and interpreting. Tübingen: Gunter Narr. pp 123-132.


1. Initial (pre-study) Questionnaire, to observe and/or measure

  • student’s views on collaborative learning

  • student’s perception of own, habitual use of learning strategies

  • student’s perception of own, habitual use of L1 and translation

2. Final (post-study) Questionnaire, to observe and/or measure

  • student’s views on collaborative learning

  • student’s perception of own, habitual use of learning strategies

  • student’s perception of own, habitual use of L1 and translation

  • student’s assessment of collaborative learning as experienced in the teaching unit

  • student’s assessment of L1 and translation as experienced in the teaching unit

3. (Two) Individual Written Protocols, to be handed in with respective essays on topics studied for approximately 5 weeks each

  • reporting on relative frequency, during the task, of certain specific types5 of L1 and Translation use and also reporting on, and assessing, details (what, when, why, who with, and how felicitously) of one actual case6 of each of these specific types of L1 of Translation use

4. (Two) Group Work Reports, to be filled in by group members on completion of group tasks, to quantify

  • (students’ perceptions of) relative frequency, within the group, of certain specific types of use (of L1 and Translation)

  • opinions on appropriateness of (overall) frequency of L1 and Translation use within the group

5. Final (Self-) Report, to quantify

  • general position on L1 use in FLL

  • views on potential usefulness of L1 and Translation in FLL

  • position on potential disadvantages thereof

  • personal reasons for using L1 and Translation in FLL

1 29 students were the subjects of this study over a period of 15 weeks, but five of them were excluded from the data because theirs were not submitted or was not completed correctly.

2 Possible effects of this L1 difference will be monitored in the data-processing stage.

3 From now on in this paper, we will mainly use the expression “the learning of Additional Languages” to refer to foreign/second/ third etc. language learning or acquisition.

4 i.e. what is expected by or what is appropriate in the “world of the target community”.

5 (as listed in the Protocol)

6 Whichever the student considered most “interesting”

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