It’s been fascinating to read the thoughts of Steve Smith (http://frenchteachernet.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/so-what-point-of-translation.html) and Gianfranco Conti (https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/translation-part-1-the-case-for-translation-in-foreign-language-instruction/).
Here is a response, drawing on my own personal experience of the last twenty-three years’ teaching and my own education, in which I would like to suggest that the pendulum might be swinging back to a middle ground and that there could be an exciting opportunity to be seized to produce a synthesis of a communicative and a grammar/translation-based approach.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading both Steve Smith’s and Gianfranco Conti’s thoughts on the place of translation in the Modern Languages classroom.
I am fascinated by what seems like an ideological divide, years old now but reopened by the reintroduction of translation in GCSE. One’s own educational and training background obviously have a strong influence on one’s views here but I wonder whether this reintroduction might not mark the opportunity for a positive new ‘synthèse’ from the ‘thèse’ of ‘traditional’, grammar-based, translation-focused teaching and the ‘antithèse’ of the communicative approach.
My own experience straddles the two ‘camps’, if such things can be said to exist, as I did A-Levels, at a then very traditional school, in 1987, probably the last year, if memory serves, of a fairly unchanged syllabus (four literary set texts with answers all in English, translation both ways, oral exam a fairly unstructured, generalised chat) and started teaching in 1992. I remember feeling as though the world had been turned upside down in the intervening years. My initial reaction (for example, to University of York-produced text books such as ‘¡Vaya!, which seemed to reject explicit grammar teaching entirely) was one of bewilderment, if not downright hostility. This was so different from everything about the way that I had learnt and was also far-removed from everything that had made me enjoy learning languages (the textbook I had learnt my Spanish from at school – Living Spanish – was probably full of outdated clichés but the magic of the otherness of Spain was one of the things that captivated me – ‘España es diferente’ – whereas some of the textbooks I found myself using in the early ’90s seemed to go out of their way to make Spain seem just like England, presumably in a bid to make pupils feel as though this could be relevant to them). I seriously considered leaving teaching on a number of occasions in my twenties, telling myself that if I had been a pupil in the ’90s, I certainly wouldn’t have gone on to read Modern Languages at university, perhaps would not even have taken French and Spanish at A-Level. Fortunately, for me at least if not for my pupils, I stayed and gradually began to get used to some of the benefits of the communicative approach. When contemporaries of the ‘it’s not like the old days’ brigade (or even occasionally teenagers) ask me whether exams are easier now than they used to be, I feel that I can answer truthfully and say that they are neither easier nor more difficult – just different in what they test.
All of which brings us back to translation and the question, amongst other things, of whether it bores pupils. Steve Smith’s 20 ways.. for each of L1-L2 and L2- L1 translation (http://frenchteachernet.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/20-ways-of-doing-translation-into_25.html and http://frenchteachernet.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/20-ways-of-doing-translation-into.html) don’t seem to me at all boring. In my now twenty plus years’ experience, what bores pupils is lack of variety. Most reasonably able pupils do want to understand the mechanics – and I still hold to the view that nothing clarifies and ingrains them more precisely than translation – of the subject. I don’t think we should deny this wish to understand. We wouldn’t dream of doing it in other subjects. Yet, the heavy diet of translation I experienced at school, to the exclusion, to some extent, of listening and reading and, to a large extent, of speaking lacked variety, in the same way that I feel an exclusively communicative approach, treating second language-learning as the same entirely natural process by which we learnt our mother tongue when in practice the limitations of the classroom and the age difference mean that it cannot be so, also lacks variety and produces, in my opinion, too often a woolly understanding. Might the pendulum not be about to swing back to a middle ground where Modern Languages teaching might synthesise the best of both worlds? The plummeting entries at A-Level show, if nothing else, that the approach of the last twenty-five years has not enthused sufficient numbers of young people to continue the study of languages in the Sixth Form and beyond and, if this situation continues apace, there may not be enough people around to teach Modern Languages in schools in another twenty-five years, whatever approach they wish to take to the subject.