Posts tagged: L1

The Importance of Learning Strategies


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.

Translate & Teach


I read a really good article tweeted by the English Blog the other day discussing not the usefulness, but the need for translation within the language classroom.

I would agree that this is indeed the case, especially when looking at some of the strange sentences my students produce and the issues those signify.

One of my favorite lessons from Jamie Keddie’s TEFL Clips is Lesson 9 – Teaching Get. It’s from a great series of videos made by Lev Yilmaz (which sounds like a Turkish last name). The one Jamie uses is Procrastination (my personal favorite is the one on mothers).

In this lesson the students are asked to translate some sentences into their L1 and then back into English. This activity is extremely useful because:

1) It helps students notice gaps between the languages and gaps in their understanding.

2) It brings an attention to focus on chunks of meaning.

3) It helps establish connections between the languages.

4) It gives students the often welcome chance to use their L1.

5) It challenges the teacher.

Here are three of the sentences Jamie asks students to translate.

1) When I got home, I didn’t feel like cereal anymore.

2) When I got back, it was getting late.

3) I just need to make sure to get to bed early.

Here is how a large percentage of upper level and TOEFL students from my classes consistently (mis)translate them into Turkish:

1)  Eve geldigimde kendimi daha fazla misir gevregi gibi hissetmedim.

2)  Geri dondugum zaman gec oluyordu.

3)  Ben sadece erken yataga girmekten emin olmak zorundayim.

The problem with the first example is that, among other things, students have translated “feel like” literally and produced nonsense in Turkish.

In the second example they literally translated a grammar structure that no one would ever use.

In the third one they are attempting to translate the sentence word for word. In the end, the sentence can be said to be grammatically correct in Turkish, but no one would ever say such a strange thing.

Here’s a much better translation for all 3:

1)  Eve geldigimde artik misir gevregi yemek icimden gelmedi.

2)  Geri dondugum zaman gec olmustu.

3)  Erkenden yatmaliyim.

Notice the differences?

In each case high level students have made the false assumption that languages are translated literally word by word. As my students tell me, a major reason for this is that this is what they were taught to do in school. This has major repercussions on how students are understanding English in the classes and points to a lack of awareness of a need to focus on meaning.  It also reflects on how a purely L2 classroom can lead to possible misunderstandings.

It’s also quite fascinating to me that students would translate something into nonsense in their own L1 and shows the depth to which misperceptions can go.

I use to run into this problem all the time when I’d ask people to help me learn Turkish. They would constantly give me the English translations for things as word and grammar crossovers rather than what people actually said or what the phrase actually meant.

This is just one of many examples I have of translation issues that crop up in my classes. I have found it incredibly fruitful to do such activities and get students to start being aware of differences, similarities, and the complexities of translation.

After all, most students will have to do large amounts of translation at some point. Many job interviews in Turkey ask candidates to translate documents rather than speak English at the interview because the manager probably can’t. Additionally, many companies often use their English speaking employees as cheap translation services.

While there are many good reasons to limit the use of L1 in the classroom, translation remains a very necessary part of the English classroom both as an aid to understanding and as a skill most students will need.

What are your thoughts on translation? Have you used similar types of activities? How valuable are they? How much doubt does this cast on the usefulness of monolingual English teachers in monolingual classrooms?

Related Posts:

Against Translation

Using Turkish in the Classroom

Turkish-English Dictionaries

Against Translation


I have just read Vocabulary by John Morgan and Mario Rinvolucri, a part of the Resource Books for Teachers Series by Oxford House Press.  This post has nothing to do with the merits of the book although I would say that I didn’t find it very useful.

My problem is with one of their assumptions that relates back to one of my earlier posts.  Right in the introduction there is a mention of why translating is a natural learning strategy and should be allowed or at least built upon in the language classroom.  As it so happens, the example they give has to do with the Turkish word ev.

Rather than making a case for them, it actually makes an excellent case for not using the students’ L1.  John and Mario claim that a student will naturally associate any new word in English with its translation in the L1.  They are right, this is inevitable, at least at low levels.  However, it is not something that should be encouraged.

Just looking at the word ev in Turkish.  The closest English equivalent would be “home”.  However, “home” is often an adverb in English, so we can’t say things like “We’re going to my home” or “We went to home.”  In Turkish, it always functions as a noun and so there are immediate grounds for error.  This word can also be translated as “house” or “apartment.”  In Turkish, the word can be used for your house or your apartment, whereas, at least in American English, we would distinguish between going to our house or going to our apartment. This is a common source of confusion in the classroom as you ask students if they live in a house and they say they do (houses are very expensive and hard to find in Istanbul).

This is why I really discourage this kind of approach.  Even with the simplest words, there are vast differences in grammar and usage.  Encouraging translation encourages these kinds of mistakes.  We want to build students’ learning strategies that don’t rely on this crutch.  It slows down their processing of the language, leads to untold numbers of errors, and kills their fluency.

I’ve had so many students that struggle to say even the simplest sentences because they are still translating.  It becomes a conceptual problem as well.  Students get so frustrated when there aren’t grammatical or lexical equivalents to new language.

My best students and the people I know that learn languages well always think in the target language as much as possible.  They don’t get tripped up by “I feel like a coke.” because they don’t translate “feel” and “like” literally.  Rather, they take it in context and immediately understand what it means.  If we translated the Turkish kola icmek icimden geldi it would literally translate as “cola drinking came from my inside” which makes no sense in English.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students be unable to process new words unless translated because it’s become such a habit or because they haven’t developed better learning strategies yet.  I’ve had a picture of an owl and pointed to it and said, “owl” and still had a student ask “what it meant.”  I’ve had students come up with the weirdest translations for present and future perfect tenses (there are no equivalents in Turkish).  They mangle their own language just to try and make it work.  I’ve had students using causatives correctly yet still want to know “what they mean” because they can’t translate them.

One activity in Vocabulary was to play Othello with words in L1 on one side of a card and words in L2 on the other.  This kind of decontexualized activity only makes the situation worse.  What’s the point of having students make sentences in decontexualized fashion and at the same time reinforcing bad translation habits?

Condition the students to think in English as soon as possible and the rewards they will reap in the future will be enormous.

Related Posts:

Turkish-English Dictionaries in the Classroom

Using Turkish in the Classroom

3 Kinds of Teachers by Anita Kwiatkowska


Anita Kiwatkowska, a.k.a. Little Miss Bossy, is a rising star on the ELT blog scene.  She is currently a YL teacher at private school in Istanbul, Turkey.  She also happens to be one of the few people in my PLN I have met in person.  Her blog deals with YL in ELT among other things.  I am very happy to have her over here for a guest piece, so without further ado…

There are three kinds of foreign language teachers.

  1. A teacher whose nationality is the same as the students’ and they share the same mother tongue (e.g. a Turkish teacher of English teaching Turkish students)
  2. A teacher who does not share the same nationality with his/her students and does not know their mother tongue (e.g. an American teacher who does not know Chinese teaching Chinese students)
  3. A teacher whose nationality is different from his/her students’ but he/she knows the students’ mother tongue (pretty) well

In a great majority of countries priority is given to teachers type 2 i.e. native speakers who do not know their students’ mother tongue. But is it really the best option?

I have been lucky enough to pass through all these stages. Teaching in Poland I knew the mother tongue of my students – Polish. Having started my job in Turkey, I knew no Turkish whatsoever. Living in Turkey for almost three years now, I know enough Turkish to get by.

Of all the kinds of teachers, number 2’s job is the most difficult, especially when you have to teach Young Learners. With adults it is a lot easier even if they are beginners. Adults are capable of abstract thinking, can concentrate longer and their knowledge of the world enables them to guess a lot from context.

Young Learners, on the other hand, come to the classroom knowing (almost) no English. Eliciting usually fails, as they have no previous knowledge of English. Teaching them basic instructions involves a lot of miming but eventually a teacher is still not sure whether his/her students got what he/she was trying to explain or not. And how to check whether they understood? Concept check questions are definitely not recommended. Those of you who do not agree should try to explain the word ‘only’ to a bunch of seven-year-olds.

Another issue is classroom management. Even if you succeed in having the kids sit down and do their work, there are always cases of students misbehaving. If you tell them off, the only thing they will understand is that you are angry and possibly why you feel so. Your exact words however will remain a mystery to them.

Some students, to make the matter worse, curse and use bad language in the classroom. The only way for a teacher type 2 to find out that it takes place is after other kids start complaining to their parents. And who is then to blame? The teacher, of course.

Teachers type 1 are in a much better position. In case of an emergency caused by bad behaviour or any other problems, they can immediately switch to the students’ mother tongue and have it all settled in a couple of seconds.

These teachers have also learned the foreign language themselves. They know what the process feels like and can easily anticipate learners’ problems. Most likely they will be able to explain the rules of grammar to the students better having experienced learning them before.

On the other hand, teachers type 1 often overuse L1 usage in the classroom. It’s not that I am criticizing non NESTs – explaining things in the students’ mother tongue is simply faster and a lot easier.

To take the matter further, non native speakers of a given language tend to mispronounce certain sounds absent in their mother tongue or have difficulties with stress and intonation of English. Consequently students of non-native teachers, being exposed to mispronounced words, start copying the teachers’ mistakes and the vicious circle goes on.

In contrast with teachers type 1 and 2 is teacher type 3 – myself at the moment. I no longer have the same problems as teacher 2 and knowing my students’ mother tongue well enough lets me have more control of what is going on in the classroom.

Comparing all the types, I can honestly say that being teacher type 3 works best both for me and my students. We feel more comfortable and relaxed in each others’ presence and dealing with difficulties is no longer the main issue. Most importantly this situation provides an opportunity for a constant intercultural dialogue which enhances learning on both sides – what more can one wish for?

Related Links

Using Turkish in the Class

Turkish-English Dictionaries in the Class


There is nothing I hate more than those little red and yellow dictionaries that students bring to class.  The only thing more counterproductive and disruptive in the Turkish classroom is your students’ cell phones.  I have tried a number of approaches over the years and I find the best approach is to ban them outright.

Why are dictionaries such a problem?  Well, I think the biggest issue is that Turkish and English simply do not translate into each other well.  There are approximately 104,481 words in the Turkish language compared to over 600,000 in English.  Type a simply search query into Zargan.  You will find that the number of possible translations is often 10 or more.  How then, can a pocket dictionary possible provide the correct translation?

Also, it’s very normal for Turkish words and English words to function differently.  For example, if I look up the word “s?k?lmak” the dictionary will produce “to be bored.”  However, in Turkish, it literally means, “being squeezed.”  Turks also use it for when they are uneasy or annoyed.  If you talk about the headscarf issue in class many students will tell you that they are bored.  What they mean is that they are uncomfortable.  Another example is “kabul etmek” which means accept, but in Turkish it’s possible to say things like “I don’t accept you” if you disagree with someone’s opinion.  Using it that way in English would be wrong, so, in reality, the words don’t really translate.

As anyone who has taught in Turkey for any period of time knows, Turkish learners often make the most ridiculous sentences after using a dictionary.  This may not be as much of a problem for learners whose language is closely related to English, but it is a major source of communication breakdown in Turkey.  Another factor is that students will believe the dictionary over you because they value book knowledge so highly.  If a student produces a sentence using translations from a dictionary and you tell them it’s not correct, they will be very skeptical.  Turkish learners are always shocked when you tell them the dictionary is often wrong.  To nip this problem in the bud, it’s better to just ban Turklish-English dictionary use in your classroom from day one.

Turkish learners need to be encouraged to think in English right from the beginning.  Because literal translation is such a problem among Turkish learners, it’s best to discourage this type of thinking in the classroom.  Also, you can get your students to start relying on each other for help and asking questions in English, both important skills and behaviors that need to be developed in a good class anyway.  If they don’t know a word, push your students to ask others in the class for help in English.  As teachers, we need to create learners of English because our students simply aren’t aware of  how to learn a language.  We have to develop that skill in them and one way to do that is to remove their reliance on literal translation.

Another important point to consider is that, if the Turkish student is looking in his or her dictionary, they aren’t listening to you.  When I used to allow dictionaries, this was a constant source of irritation.  I’d be trying to elicit or explain new words and some people would have their heads buried in their dictionaries.  In the time it took the student to look up one or two words we had already done five to seven.  Inevitably, once you start the activity the student will not understand the new words or recognize their pronunciation.  They will start bothering either you or other students, most likely in Turkish, for help, which is a waste of time for you and them, not to mention frustrating.

In the ESL classroom, we are always trying to develop skill sets in English.  Two incredibly important ones are listening to explanations and understanding meaning from context.  If your students are looking in their dictionaries all the time rather than listening to you and trying to understand the meanings of words from a speech or text, then they are not developing these extremely important skills.  If your students don’t understand a new word after you have explained it, it’s probably an indication that you have failed to explain it, not that they failed to understand.  Ask yourself, did I explain it simply and clearly, did I provide contextualized examples, did I CCQ it well enough?  I always remind my students that they should always make note of any new words they don’t understand.  They can then ask me for help with these new words, use an English-English Internet dictionary, or google search it for examples on the break or after class.

Another benefit of banning Turkish-English dictionaries is that it encourages them to actually buy an English-English learner’s dictionary.  Believe you me, if you tell your students to buy one, but allow Turkish-English dictionaries, they will never bring it to class.  I often will take a field trip with students one day to go buy learner dictionaries together.  It’s also a good idea to persuade your school to by a set of learner dictionaries for you to use in the class from time to time.  This way you can ensure that everyone has one and that nobody has a need for a Turkish-English dictionary.

In the end, Turkish-English dictionaries undermine everything you are trying to do in the class.  They reinforce the habit of translation, which is not just a problem on a word-to-word level, but on a conceptual level as well.  The students need to get in the habit of using English as English rather than as a cipher for Turkish.  Turkish-English dictionaries also undermine the development of listening skills and understanding meaning from context skills.  Finally, they are often disruptive, as students aren’t paying attention and will later bother you or others for information that was already taught.

For a lesson that helps convince your students of the importance of this rule, try this lesson.

What are your opinions?  Do you allow Turkish-English dictionaries in your classroom?  If you do, do you ever find them beneficial?

Using Turkish in the Classroom


Many schools in Turkey, and the opinions of many teachers that work here,  usually agree that Turkish should not be used in the classroom.  This tends to be a necessity as few teachers actually ever bother to learn the language anyway.  While there are many problems related with the usage of Turkish in the classroom, I tend to side with those that say it should not be categorically banned and that it can be used to benefit the students in a number of ways.  Foreign teachers should take the time and effort to learn their students’ language, so they can interact more fully in the country they are living in and use it to benefit their students in the class.

The problems with using Turkish in the classroom are many and well justified.  Because of the dissimilarity between the languages and Turkish students’ obsession with literal, word-for-word translation, it is often best just to do away with Turkish entirely as a way to encourage thinking in English.  If Turkish is allowed in the classroom, student talking time also goes down as they will be more prone to converse in Turkish than in English.  And, of course, using the students’ native language should be banned in multilingual classrooms.  It’s unfair to students to translate into one language but not others and will create a negative learning environment for those students that feel left out when the teacher translates into a language other than theirs.

Despite these objections, I have always agreed with something I read in Jim Scrivener’s Learning Teaching back during my TEFL course days.  He said that the students’ native language shouldn’t be banned in the class.  Instead, we, as teachers, should make our classrooms a place where students speak English because they want to, not because they are forced to.  Motivation is one of the most important elements in the language classroom and if we constantly harp on students to stop speaking their language in their own country,, this can be not only discouraging, but insulting as well.

As an alternative to categorically banning Turkish, I think it is much better to create engaging lessons that make the students want to learn English.  Additionally, the reasons for and benefits of speaking in English should be made clear to the students.  Gentle reminders or signs encouraging the use of English around the room are helpful in this regard.  As teachers who speak the students’ language it’s also important to never use their language to translate yourself.  If a student speaks to you in Turkish, play dumb or tell them you don’t speak Turkish in the classroom.  Always provide a positive model for your students.  I’ve seen too many teachers try to use halting Turkish to (usually incorrectly) translate words or sentences for students.

With that said, there are several occasions where the use of Turkish in the classroom can be very helpful.  I think the first and most obvious is the relaying of instructions for lower levels.  Any student feels uncomfortable if they don’t know what’s going on and you can waste a lot of time re-explaining things when the students don’t understand.  However, I’m not saying we should automatically give students instructions in Turkish.  The students need to get used to following instructions in English and learn the language associated with it.  We need to remember to always give simple instructions, one at a time and ICQ (instruction check question) them with the class.  Many teachers often ignore this simple, but incredibly important technique.  In addition to that, we must always demo the activity.  If the students see the demonstration as you give the instructions it contextualizes the language and makes it easily intelligible.  What I propose is that, as a final sort of ICQ, students explain the instructions back to you in Turkish.  This way you practice the English, you get to be certain the students understand, and the students feel comfortable knowing what they are doing.  As the class progresses and students become more comfortable, relaying the instructions back in Turkish can slowly be phased out.

Turkish is also useful for classroom management issues.  While it should be obvious if you are angry or unhappy with a particular behavior, many students might not understand why, especially if it stems from cultural differences.  Here would be a good time to explain to the students clearly what the problem is and what behavior you’d like in it’s place.  Along these lines it can be a very good idea to explain classroom rules and expectations in Turkish on the first day.  This way you know everyone is on the same page and a student can’t claim later that they didn’t understand .

Because most language learners do not understand how to learn a language, especially in Turkey where the education system creates students with skill sets and classroom expectations very counterproductive to language acquisition, it is quite helpful to explain methodology and reasons for some of the things you do in the classroom in the students own language.  (Wooh, quite the sentence there :P .)  Think back to your training days.  Did you expect language teaching to be the way it is?  Like most people, you probably thought you needed to know the students’ language, that the teacher should be up front doing a lot of explaining, and that study was more important than use.  If you didn’t know what to expect in a language classroom, how can you expect your students to?

Another important use of Turkish, and one I think is the most valuable, is establishing rapport with the students.  If you speak Turkish, it shows the students that you’ve taken the time to learn their language or at least are willing to make the effort.  It’s a sign of respect.  They will also be much more willing to trust you when you claim a Turkish way of saying something is wrong in English.  I guarantee you that when you tell a student the correct way to say a Turklish phrase they will not believe you.  They often think that you don’t understand what they’re trying to say and that you’ve put something different on the board.  Believe me, it happens all the time.  Another great way to establish rapport is to use Turkish in a humorous way from time to time.  Make the students laugh and show them that, while you won’t speak Turkish with them in general, you appreciate their language and culture and aren’t completely against its use in the classroom.

One thing that I have found is really helpful in my classes is a set time each week where you will speak Turkish with the class for 10 or 15 minutes.  It’s basically a big feedback session.  Students can voice any concerns they have about the class, explain what they like and don’t like, and you can discuss things like methodology or good study habits with them.  This really seems to help students because they know there is a time set aside each week where they can speak Turkish.  It makes them more relaxed about speaking English the rest of the week.  Also, many students are reluctant to discuss their problems in the class because they are embarrassed or unsure of their English.  There’s a lot you can learn from students when they are speaking in their native language.

The last thing I use Turkish for is translation gaps.  Generally, I’m dead set against translating words for students as it reinforces the idea that you actually can do this, which, from Turkish to English, is rarely possible.  What I do find beneficial, however, is translating chunks of information or highlighting important differences.  For example, one translation lesson I always do is the difference between “someone has/had/will have…” and “There is/are,was/were/will be…”, etc.  Because Turkish doesn’t really use “have”, they use “There is/are” structures, students find this very confusing.  Students can translate sentences into Turkish and then, covering up the previous translation, translate them back into English.  This enables students to notice gaps between the languages AND it reinforces the idea that literal, word-for-word translations are not recommended.  It draws the students’ attention to the need to look at chunks of language meaning and to notice differences between the languages.  Another great difference that I always use a translation exercise with is defining vs. non-defining relative clauses.  Turkish makes no distinction between the two, so it’s important to illustrate that, while they are translated the same, there is a slight change in meaning in English.  You can refer to my Challenges Faced in the Speaking Turkish Classroom – the Language section for more ideas about where this might be appropriate.

In the end, while I always encourage the use of English in the class, Turkish definitely has its time and place.  As long as Turkish is used judiciously and guidelines are clearly set as to when it’s acceptable or not, you will find that your students’ understanding will increase, their motivation will increase, and you’ll learn some things you might otherwise not have.

Is there anybody else out there who uses Turkish in the classroom?  In what ways do you use it?  What benefits or drawbacks have you seen with it’s use?

Other Relevant Links

Balancing L1 Use

Why Students Use L1

Limiting L1

The Illiterate Teacher

3 Kinds of Teachers

Monolingual vs. Bilingual Approaches

Using L1 with Turkish Children

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