What it comes down to is do the students know how to learn. I was having a conversation the other day with one of my teachers who happened to hate immersion methods. She expressed very similar sentiments to ones Gavin presented a while back on Jeremy Harmer’s blog. Both conversations made me reflect again on my own beliefs.
With my own language learning I prefer a lot of live communication, but I even also use a lot of translation in various ways. Now, I’ve met learners who use translation and never seem to progress in the language even after years of study and then I see others who use it and learn very well. Why is this? On reflection, what I think it really comes down to is learner beliefs, strategies and habits. The biggest obstacle, and I think the best reason to use primarily the target language in the classroom, is to divorce learners from over-analyzing, focusing on discrete items, and doing word-for-word translations.
Having taught hundreds of students, I know it’s often a big shock and a constant source of frustation for students to learn that languages have different grammar and vocabulary. Most learners assume languages can be translated word for word. Even after this often becomes immediately obvious that it isn’t the case, learners still hold on to a related belief and constantly try to translate structures piece by piece.
The second piece of this puzzle is standard language education. Word-for-word translation and over-analyzing are the primary focus of most 2nd language programs world-wide. This simply creates or reinforces bad learning strategies and habits. This previous education is sometimes decades long and incredibly entrenched. Changing not just the beliefs, but the learning strategies themselves can be very difficult.
In my opinion, the (over?) use of grammar translation or L1 in the class is only an issue for learners who don’t have the right learning beliefs, strategies, and habits yet. Good learners use whatever means they have at their disposal to pick up a new language. They might take a class, listen to podcasts, and research grammar online. They can take all that and combine it together to add to their language knowledge and abilites. A good language learner might translate a new word, but then recheck the word back into L1, double check those translations in sentences on google, try them out in conversations, pay attention to listener reactions and level of understanding, and hold in the back of their head that their understanding of the word may not be 100% correct.
On the other hand, many new learners simply don’t do this. They often assume a tranlsated word is 100% correct, obsess over everything they don’t understand, constantly search for exact translations, are only looking at grammar,etc.
I think more important than the teaching methodology/use of translation is the learning awareness of the learners if their learning strategies are effective or not.
For these reasons, I advocate less translation and less use of L1 with newer students. After students break free of a number of false assumptions they often carry with them into the classroom and after they develop some good learning strategies, I think a wide mixture of teaching methods and mixes of languages can be used.
What do you think? Maybe the key is where the learners are at and how they go about learning rather than the external factors of how they are taught and whether or not L1 is used in various ways.