The Skeleton in the TPRS Closet

Many teachers who have heard about TPRS from enthusiastic colleagues, drawn to the Storytelling angle, hearing about the increased enrollments and job security, go to a workshop with high hopes, but then return to their textbooks and conjugation charts. When asked why they didn’t pursue the new methodology, they shake their heads and reply with one word that seems to leave a bad taste in their mouth. Translation.

We can tell them that there are TPRS teachers who teach English as a Second Language to mixed groups with no shared language. They never translate because they can’t. They have to rely on realia, pictures and gestures to make their language comprehensible. And I want to say here that I admire teachers like Janique Vanderstocken immensely. They are running a grueling marathon while the rest of us are jogging around the block. With their instruction stripped to the basics, they know that it will take tremendous stamina and drive from both them and their students to reach their goal of being comprehensible. They never seem to be given starring roles at workshops; like true marathon runners they rarely get the headlines. Marathon running is too demanding to be a very popular sport.

Yet, pointing out that we have heroic TPRS teachers who don’t use translation is begging the very legitimate question: Why do we use translation? Some young teachers may have no qualms about translating, but I am old enough to remember when No-Translation-100% Target-Language was a revolutionary new method. I know where teachers who say “There’s too much translation with TPRS” are coming from. I can remember when Immersion was a bright sun rising over the horizon, giving hope and color and life to a grey landscape where Spanish was taught like a dead language.
I was a Freshman in high school and I had a wonderful French teacher who spoke no English in class (except when she had to lecture the boys about doing their homework and paying attention). Even our book was entirely in French. It explained French grammar in French. I didn’t understand the explanations very well, but French seemed like such a beautiful language, it was all poetry to me. I was head over heels in love.

I only had two years of the “Direct method” when my family moved to a school that didn’t offer French. I enrolled in Spanish and Latin, which were both taught by the same teacher. She used a traditional memorize-the-vocabulary-learn-the-grammar-translate the-passage method and taught both languages in exactly the same way. I got straight A’s, but I was not in love. My parents found a native French woman, not a certified teacher, who was willing to tutor me and once a week I went to her and we read Vingt ans après by Alexander Dumas by translating it.

In college I was accepted into an Advanced French class where we spoke no English and an Intermediate Spanish class where we spoke more English than Spanish. I also enrolled in first year German. The German teacher had lived in Germany for many years and was an ardent proponent of the Direct Method. She spoke no English in class and explained German grammar in German. Having studied Latin, I knew what declensions were. Most of my classmates had never heard of them, so you can imagine how much of her lecture they understood. Since I was more than ready to play her game, I understood a lot of what she communicated, thoroughly enjoying the intellectual challenge. Although the word had not yet been invented, I was a language geek. At the end of the year I passed her oral final with flying colors by telling the story of the fisherman who lived in a vinegar jar. The fact that most of my classmates were frustrated and totally lost in her class just added more shine to my glory and did not bother me in the least.

When I began teaching in the Peace Corps, of course I was going to speak only English in class. By then the Direct Method was official doctrine. My Peace Corps training included a month of French language training in complete immersion. We were drilled eight hours a day by native speakers who ate with us and lived in the same dormitories. We were told to speak only French from morning to night. And some of us actually obeyed the No English rule. I never questioned the method. I was living proof that it worked. Admittedly, it didn’t work for everyone. Some people were struggling, but they were sent to the English speaking part of Cameroon where they would have little need for French.

So yes, the Direct Method, speaking only the Target language, works, but let’s be honest and admit that it works only for highly motivated students. Others find the lack of comprehensibility frustrating and soon abandon all effort. The great advantage that TPRS has over other methods is that it works with everyone, even those who are not language geeks or particularly gifted.

Why do TPRS teachers use translation? Our primary goal is to be comprehensible, so we use translation to establish meaning. Teachers who refuse to translate often find themselves in the situation of the Spanish teacher who wrote “mariposa” on the blackboard. After five minutes of flapping her arms and flitting around the room, sniffing at imaginary flowers while her students yelled “flies”, “bird”, “little bird”, “in love”, they still had not guessed that mariposa means butterfly. Simply writing the English word next to the Spanish, without even saying it, would have saved five minutes of class time. As one writer on the subject asked, “Why throw out the baby with the bath?” Traditional grammar-translation methods were ineffective, causing an enthusiastic and wide-spread conversion to immersion, which left many teachers with the impression that translation is inherently evil. They became language purists that frown and pinch their lips at any intrusion of the mother tongue. Personally, I’ve always been suspicious of purists. If our language teacher had written “butterfly” next to mariposa and spent five minutes circling (Do you like butterflies? Do you eat butterflies? Where do you see butterflies? When do you see butterflies? What do butterflies eat? How long do butterflies live?) her students would have been well on their way to acquisition of the word mariposa. Using translation to establish meaning is quite simply the most efficient, least ambiguous way of doing it.

In conclusion, I think there is no logical reason not to use translation to establish meaning, especially when it takes so little time, allowing us to respect the guideline of 95% target language use in the classroom. Translation is quick and painless and gives students confidence that they are understanding the teacher. Where there is no shared language, I believe that allowing students to use modern technology to google words they don’t understand is harmless and actually quite beneficial. Language is acquired when input is comprehensible. Why refuse to use the quickest and easiest way of making it comprehensible?

However, TPRS teachers use translation not only to establish meaning, but also to verify students’ comprehension. This is by far the greater culprit because decoding a text can take up an entire hour of class. Reading is a major component of the TPRS method, the last, and some might say, the most important of the Three Steps.
1 – Establish meaning of new vocabulary
2 – Use the new vocabulary in PQA, Story-asking or another oral activity which allows the students to hear the new words being used repeatedly and in novel ways.
3 – Read a text which incorporates the new vocabulary.
There are many ways to treat a text, such as Reader’s Theater, discussion, parallel stories, etc. but they all require that we verify that the students have understood the story. Unless the text is extremely simple, the only way to check their comprehension is to ask them to translate it, line by line, into their mother tongue. Once we know that they understand the text, we can then exploit it in ways that do not require using the mother tongue, but unless we verify their comprehension, quite a few students will be guessing at your meaning, rendering all our brilliant exploitation activities pointless.

And this is where we lose many potential recruits. Believing that translation in itself is inherently evil, they can’t accept using so much class time on “reading” the text. What I’d like to point out to these teachers is that there’s a certain hypocrisy in their position. They tell the students to read the text at home and then hold them accountable. Do you honestly believe that the students who actually do their homework and read the text are not translating it? Can we really expect students to understand the text perfectly and be able to manipulate it in class, to answer questions and discuss it, without having translated it at home? (You know perfectly well that we all have funny, even hilarious stories of our students’ ridiculous misinterpretations of a text.)

The TPRS teacher recognizes the students’ need and helps them to decode the text in class, avoiding misinterpretations, and then uses a rich panoply of activities in the target language to exploit the interest of the text. Expecting students to “read” a text at home and then come to class prepared to discuss it is almost like giving a greenhorn a horse and telling him you’ll teach him to ride if he can make it to the ranch.

Looking back on my own story, have you wondered how I was able to integrate an advanced college class after only two years of high school French and a year of weekly private lessons? Well, my tutor didn’t know how to “teach” French. So we read Vingt ans après where I first encountered subjunctives and other “advanced” structures. It was translation, but neither of us knew there was anything wrong with it. As a result, I had no difficulties reading Proust, Victor Hugo and Sartre in college.

So I would like to tell teachers who believe that it’s wrong to use translation in class that they are absolutely right, if they are talking about translating English into the target language. However, using translation from the target language into the mother tongue is a different ball game. We gain in clarity, precision and time when we use translation to establish meaning. We gain in honesty when we help our students to decode a difficult text in class, rather than expecting them to do it on their own and to suffer the consequences of their errors. By eliminating confusion and ambiguity, we enable them to appreciate the text and to manipulate it with greater confidence and ambition than they could otherwise.

So it’s time to stop thinking of translation as something shameful that we do only when no one is looking. It’s time to come out of the closet and be proud of this powerful tool in the TPRS arsenal.

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