Bi-Directional Translation

This technique is Luca Lampariello’s baby. Luca is an Italian polyglot and you can find out more about him here at the polyglotdream.  Given that the poor guy is trying to make a living out of language learning, I’m not going to go into massive detail on his methods here, but this is his own summary of the method I want to focus on today, bidirectional translation, available free to view at this site:


And so what I do is, I use a bidirectional translation, meaning that I use my own native tongue as a “crutch” a help to figure out how the other language works, and by translating things back and forth, let’s suppose that I am learning German, I translate from German into Italian, and by translating it into my own native tongue I make sure that I understand everything because you cannot translate something unless you have understood it. So this is the “analytical part” so to say, and then I translate it back into German in order to figure out how the language works. By doing so, you know if you translate from your target language into your own native tongue, it is not that complicated, but when it comes to translating it back a few days later, you will figure out that first it is much more difficult, and it actually helps you figure out the nuts and bolts of the language figure out how different languages convey the same message. And by doing that I form what I call “a language core” meaning that I do learn words, because words are quite important if you want to speak fluently, but first and foremost, I learned how to assemble the pieces together, like a lego. I learned how to form sentences.


Essentially, he is focusing on translation as a language learning tool for greater acquisition of a core structure, with his idea of ‘lego’ and it’s a nice analogy: those of us who have read about Lewis’ chunking are familiar with this concept and I have certainly found it easier in Spanish at a very basic level to learn my verbs with prepositions at the same time – para de, confiar en and longer chunks such as ‘lo que mas me gusta es…’. This method of bidirectional translation seems an interesting focus for language acquisition, given that firstly, it is inevitably contextualised, secondly it employs both receptive and productive skills, thirdly it allows freedom over text selection and is appropriate from almost the lowest level to proficiency (although lowest levels may be limited to sentences), and finally, it can raise awareness regarding the differences in language structures.


There are some who would prefer to see L1 use totally limited when studying a foreign language in the ELT classroom, and an informal blog like this one is not the place to enter into the debate on this, but to my inexperienced eyes, at least, it seems counterintuitive not to acknowledge that language learners inevitably pin a new language on what they already know: perhaps that is not necessarily their L1 – when I forayed briefly into Portuguese I was more likely to make links with Spanish than English – certainly a debate for another time.  However, as an individual language learner I see no problems in making the most of my understanding of the syntax of my own language in figuring out that of another.


So given that I’m not doing actual research and no one is going to shout at me for having unclear aims and woolly objectives to my action research, I just tried it. Just a bit. Just to see, like. I started with an authentic text from El Mundo which I read now and then when I am trying to avoid doing any work.  My own move to Mexico is imminent, so I decided to choose a text about that country.


Admittedly, I could have chosen something pleasant about the Incans or the Mayans or Mexican food or whatnot.  Nevertheless, I chose death, murder and destruction for I know not what reasons.  However, the selection of a news text was because I wanted to consolidate my past tenses a little: I sort of vacillate airy-fairy between preterito and imperfecto based on a very hedgy understanding of the differences. The method did help with this: I definitely recognized the more heavy use of finished time, but I think the real benefits that I yielded were not actually the focus I’d expected. Actually, I gained much more from acquisition for example of a new lexical set in general around crime: attacks, criminal gangs, leaving 14 people dead, armed men, killing. A particularly cheerful lexical set, this one. But an interesting observation. The other major thing I picked up from this was those pesky prepositions and indirect / direct objects which I always do have issues with in Spanish. I learnt that if we want to go killing someone, our verb ‘matar’ takes ‘a’. I noticed clear differences between English and Spanish in use of but also similarities which surprised me: the phrasal verb ‘to take place’ has a Spanish equivalent, ‘tomar lugar’, yet local time is ‘hora local’, not ‘tiempo local’.


I wonder, however, whether another Spanish student would have found other things to focus on. One of the biggest issues for me in Spanish is that due to my method of acquisition (ex-boyfriend), it is quite uneven. I can pretty easily read a general text in Spanish and a highish level, but lack some basic specific vocabulary. It could be that this method is also particularly useful as it is personal: from any text that I see, at my level of Spanish (receptive reading probably around B1), there are going to be some grammatical surprises for me when translating back, and raising awareness of these in such a concrete and specific way may well be invaluable. In a speaking lesson on Skype a week later (a post to follow), I found myself using some of this vocabulary, so some of it had evidently already ‘stuck’ and was ready to shift to production.


I tried this again: in fact, for three weeks I had three texts. The second text was an audio text that I took from Radiolingua’s Coffee Break Spanish: a podcast which is definitely worth looking at if you haven’t yet.  Again, a past tense focus, but with a wider appreciation of the other ‘nuts and bolts’, to use Luca’s term, that I might also absorb. This text yielded similar results: yes, my past tenses became a little more solid, but again lexis featured for me: this time related to parking cars: dobla fila, [double line], una multa de aparcamiento [parking fine], to leave the car [dejar el coche]. To be honest, this was not entirely new lexis for me, but established it more firmly in my mind. I also picked up new expressions such as ‘fui corriendo’, [I went ‘running’ (e.g. hurried)] ‘fundimos en un abrazo largo’ [we ‘enveloped?’ ourselves in a long embrace, essentially we hugged each other for a long time]. It wasn’t what I expected to pick up, but again I found it very useful. This might not be the highest frequency vocabulary in the world, but in my quest to move above Intermediate level, this kind of contextual input is becoming very useful. My final text, a complaint letter, was equally useful – but this time in terms of word order. I knew of adjectival changes in word order, but it was good to be reminded that ‘una intensa semana de trabajo’ [an intense week of work] was possible, as well as expressions such as ‘por fin había conseguido lo que tanto quería’ [I had finally found everything I’d been looking for].


image My sobering Mexican news story text…

So, overall, I found this an incredibly useful and illuminating process and far less time-consuming and boring than I had anticipated. At the point where in my translation I was reaching 95% accuracy, I let it go, although others might prefer to keep on going to 100% I found that I was wanting to move on from the text by this point. Careful text selection is vital, but I found that a range of text genres were appropriate for my own needs: during my experimentation I used a news article, an extract from The Hunger Games, a diary entry, and a formal complaint letter. The main takeaway for me is that this is a method that I will choose to use weekly, alongside my other acquisition techniques but that I cannot necessarily predict what I will really pick up on during the process. I can easily see that three months of this, as Luca suggests, would provide the language learner with an incredibly solid base in a language, although I would like to try it in a language where I have a lower level (perhaps my cruddy German) to see how valuable it would be for lower level students.


Well, that’s all lovely for me and my Spanish for sure, but what about application in the EFL classroom? Is it viable? Hands up and honesty ahoy- I haven’t tried it. Partly because at this point in our curriculum we are up to our eyes in preparing for a conference, and partly because I need to think it through more. It would be nice to think our students might be motivated enough to do it for themselves, but I think it does merit a place in our classroom with the rather immense caveat I suspect that the teacher must be comfortable enough with the L1 of the students. If the translation is not accurate, then everything will be lost, and the close focus between the differences and similarities of the two languages is where the rich understanding really comes. I imagine it could potentially be done in a student-centred way with students collaborating to create the translation, but a teacher ignorant of the L1 might risk errors slipping through and would definitely not be able to highlight key language areas.


I could see it becoming a useful weekly translation homework task for pre-ints to ints as an initial starting point: perhaps the first class could focus on the translation and then the subsequent work is homework. The students need to avoid sheer memorisation, however, and be encouraged to consult their translation rather than to go by memory. Text selection needs to be careful and I suspect would need to adhere to the comprehensible input theory in order not to be overwhelming for students, but, for example, if students are studying EAP, why not give them the opportunity to closely focus on the intricacies of academic nuances (level-appropriate)? If they are business English, a business English text could yield some very interesting expressions. But I think the teacher must be comfortable with the idea that the students may well learn different things from your expectations. One student might pick up on the use of conditionals, another will acquire or reaffirm a lexical set, another might suddenly realise that there are more similarities or differences between L1 and L2. It could definitely be an interesting homework activity for a week and then gauge students’ reactions and feedback as to whether they would like to continue.


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