as a learning/teaching technique in second/ foreign
language classrooms has a long history, since
its value to the process of acquisition has been discussed
for many years. According to Lado (1964 in Malmkjaer,
1997, p. 59), translation is seen as an artificial
and complex process, which cannot be achieved without
mastery of the second language. On the contrary, many
teachers and students believe that the process of learning
a second/foreign language is not effective if it does
not take into account the learner’s first language.
For these professionals, translating is a tool used
to help students to perform well a second language,
by basing themselves in some kind of input in their
own language system.
However, there are still some constraints to the use
of the mother tongue (L1) in the classroom. According
to Newson (1998, p. 64), the use of L1 translation
cannot be expected to produce good results in second
language learning, due to its unnatural characteristics.
The author emphasizes that translation may lead students
to believe that it is impossible to understand something
in a second language without translating it, in other
words, it misleads learners into believing that expressions
in L1 and L2 correspond word-to word.
Thus, dealing with translation in the classroom is
not so easy as it seems to be. One way to investigate
the use of the L1 in the foreign language classroom
is to take into account learners’ and teachers’ perceptions
of the learning process, so that it is possible to
determine how and when they resort to the mother tongue.
The purpose of this small-scale study was to investigate
how learners and teachers deal with translation from
L1 to L2 (and vice-versa) in the classroom. Data was
collected through the application of two questionnaires – one
designed for teachers and the other for learners. The
questionnaires assessed students’ and teachers’ beliefs
about the use and the role of the L1 in class. Eight
teachers and eight students from a language school
were interviewed. Students ranged from 14 to 40 years
old and comprised several levels of L2 proficiency.
2. Data Analysis
2.1 Students’ Questionnaires
In order to
analyze learners’ beliefs about
the role of the mother tongue in the learning process,
data was organized into three categories:
- Category “S1”:
This category comprises students who believe that English
is a little difficult to learn. They justify they
are studying it mostly because of their occupation.
These learners feel they have some problems with
grammar rules, memorization of new vocabulary and
the listening skill. They also believe that Portuguese
and English are very different; therefore they do
not see the use of the mother tongue as a valid instrument
for learning the L2. Most of the time, they try to
understand what is taught through the context, without
asking for instruction. But when they feel it is
necessary, they prefer it in English at the first
moment. This first category represents 49 percent
of the interviewed students.
- Category “S2”:
These learners feel that they have great difficulties
in the speaking ability. They are also concerned
with learning how to read efficiently and also how
to take advantages of the use of Portuguese while
learning English. Even though they agree that there
are some differences between the two languages, they
believe that depending on the approach used by the
teacher in the classroom, L1 may contribute positively
to L2 learning. All of the students from this category,
that is 38 percent, prefer to receive formal instruction
in English and struggle for translation, in most
of the cases, to understand meaning, not form.
- Category “S3”:
It was found only one student in this category (which
represents 13 percent of all learners). This learner
does not show any difficulty in learning English.
She claims that she appreciates learning the language
because she feels motivated by her capacity of learning.
The learner argues that the L1 can help in the process
of learning the L2 in the sense that when a student
knows his/her own language it is easier to learn
another one. However, the learner thinks that both
the structure of her L1 and the L2 are very dense.
The student tries, whenever possible, not to ask
the teacher to translate, unless it is the last resource.
2.2 Teachers’ Questionnaires
The data collected
through the teachers’ questionnaires
was organized into four categories:
- Category “T1”:
(L1 may be a negative tool)
Teachers included in this category use L1 in class
whenever necessary. They believe that beginners need
much more translation than intermediate and advanced
students. When students ask them about new vocabulary
or grammar instruction, they always prefer to explain,
at first, in English. However, if they notice that
learners still have doubts, they resort to the L1.
Teachers are sure that reading, writing and speaking
are the least developed skills when there is an excessive
use of translation. They do not feel very comfortable
when they need to use Portuguese in the classroom,
because they claim that it may be a negative influence
for learners if it becomes a habit. This category represents
49 percent of the teachers who answered to the questionnaires.
- Category “T2”:
(L1 provides linguistic background)
This teacher (representing 13 percent of all teachers)
believes that the more advanced the learners are, the
more they ask for translation, although they use the
L1 only if the instruction in the L2 does not bring
a positive effect. On the other hand, she points out
that in many cases, the use of the mother tongue can
be helpful to the process of L2 learning/acquisition,
since it is better for learners to have a good linguistic
background upon which they can base themselves. In
other words, the teacher seems to assume that students
do not learn English because they do not know Portuguese.
For her, the speaking ability is seriously injured
when translation is widely used in the classroom.
- Category “T3”:
(L1 is fundamental)
This category includes only one teacher (representing
13 percent of the total number of teachers who participated
in the study) who works specifically with beginner
students of English. For her, L1 is a very helpful
and important tool, since students still cannot understand
many instructions and commands without translating
them. They believe it is impossible for beginners
not use the native language (L1) while learning the
target one (L2). Thus, as learners do not have so
much contact with the L2, the teacher claims that
the listening skill is much more affected by the
use of L1 than the other abilities.
- Category “T4”: (L1 does not affect
This group of teachers believes that L1 translation
can be a very good instrument if it is used with caution
and in a very sensitive way, regarding students’ levels
of proficiency. They also assert that none of the communicative
skills (writing, reading, listening and speaking) are
affected by the mother tongue. In their opinion, the
important goal is to solve students’ doubts,
thus translation is not seen as a problem. Teachers
from this category correspond to 25 percent of total
of the sample.