Interference and intervention: using translation
in the EFL classroom

Nigel J. Ross


We usually avoid saying it out loud, but it's nonetheless a recurring thought with most teachers: "Why has that student made that same mistake yet again after I went through it thoroughly with everyone yesterday?" The answer might be simply that the student has forgotten, that the point wasn't understood or that the teacher didn't make the explanation clear enough. All of these reasons are plausible, but in many cases another cause is more likely: the student has been confused by the way things work in his or her own language. From grammar to vocabulary, from word order to idioms, the student's own language can undermine skills and performance in English.

All teachers are aware of language interference, but many - especially native teachers - feel they can do little or nothing to help students come to terms with it. In many cases, teachers who have no knowledge of the students' own language, or do not feel they have a thorough enough knowledge to work on the differences, believe that it is not their business to intervene or even to suggest that there may be some interference. As a result, students may go on making a mistake without even realising that the reason is due to intrusiveness from their own language.

Translation: the 'fifth skill'

The need for some form of translation work in language learning is usually advocated more frequently by non-native teachers of English or English mother-tongue teachers who have a reasonably good command of the students' own language. The following comments from three books on translation (the first French, the second Italian, the third German though written in English) are in many ways typical:

Il vient un moment, en fait, dans l'apprentissage de la langue étrangère où la méthode directe atteint ses limites, car elle n'est pas en mesure de fournir des explications suffisantes ou pertinentes pour que la "greffe" tienne. Et l'on sait bien aujourd'hui que ne pas tenir compte des capacités langagières qu'un apprenant possède et peut développer dans sa propre langue, qu'ignorer comment il construit le système étranger à partir de sa propre "grammaire interne", bref que faire l'impasse sur sa langue maternelle, revient à se priver arbitrairement d'un moyen efficace de diriger le processus d'acquisition, de comprendre les erreurs, de construire sur des bases sûres. C'est, pour tout dire, absurde. (Hardin and Picot 1990)
(When learning a foreign language, there comes a time when the direct method is stretched to its limits; it is no longer able to provide insights that are clear or relevant enough for the 'transplant' to be successful. And it is well known today that if we ignore the language abilities that learners have and can develop in their own language, if we disregard the way they build up a system for the foreign language based on their own 'internal grammar', in brief if we try to give their mother-tongue the slip, then we are doing learners a gross disservice. We are arbitrarily denying them an efficient means of approaching the learning process, of error analysis, of building up their knowledge on sound foundations. To put it succinctly, it's an absurd state of affairs.)1
Si tende sempre di più a considerare la traduzione una "quinta abilità" da aggiungere alle quattro abilità fondamentali della glottodidattica moderna (ascoltare, parlare, leggere, scrivere), come parte importante delle attività linguistiche successive alle tappe preliminari. (Brownlees and Denton 1987)
(More and more often, translation tends to be regarded as a 'fifth skill' to be used alongside the other four basic skills in modern language teaching (listening, speaking, reading, writing), and thus it becomes an important part of language activities after the early levels.)1
given an initial command of the foreign language, translation presents an ideal opportunity, not merely to learn the technique of translating itself, but above all to perfect knowledge about an active mastery of that language, and to investigate the interlingual relationships between the two languages concerned, whereby the text functions as an empirical basis. (Snell-Hornby 1985)

In many foreign classrooms, therefore, translation is included alongside the other four skills, becoming the fifth skill at an intermediate and advanced level. For some, not only outside English-speaking countries, it holds special importance at an advanced level:

In the advanced or final stage of language teaching, translation from L1 to L2 and L2 to L1 is recognised as the fifth skill and the most important social skill since it promotes communication and understanding between strangers. (Newmark 1991)

Translation studies and translation in the EFL classroom

Before going any further, however, it is necessary to discriminate between the teaching of translation as a vocational skill and the use of translation in the teaching situation as an aid to language learning. Obviously EFL teachers are not in the job of training students to become professional translators; there are special courses for such purposes, usually held at university level and known as Translation Studies. Students on such courses are expected to have an advanced knowledge of the foreign language before they enrol. Translation Studies teaches budding professionals the translation methods and procedures they will need, along with bilingual dictionary skills, ways of coping with some specific bêtes noires of the translator, and approaches to translating sectorial varieties of language. Translation in the EFL environment should clearly remain very distant from such courses:

As a technique for learning foreign languages, translation is a two-edged instrument: it has the special purpose of demonstrating the learner's knowledge of the foreign language, either as a form of control or to exercise his intelligence in order to develop his competence. This is its strong point in foreign-language classes, which has to be sharply distinguished from its normal use in transferring meanings and conveying messages. (Newmark 1988)

Most experts rightly insist that translation should not be the first aim in the EFL teaching process, while pointing out that competence in the spoken language comes first and foremost. We only need to think of the results of old-fashioned language courses where students were (or still are: see Pacek 1996) confronted with translation exercises even from a very early level to realise that 'spoken incompetence' is the outcome.

Areas of intervention

The real usefulness of translation in the EFL classroom lies in exploiting it in order to compare grammar, vocabulary, word order and other language points in English and the student's mother-tongue. The areas where differences occur range from relatively small points such as 'false friends', through sizeable areas such as tense systems, to more complex fields such as contrastive rhetoric. But in all cases, if students are aware of the differences, interference is likely to be reduced:

In order to develop in the students a linguistic awareness of contrast between L1 and L2 grammatical structures, and thus counteract interlingual interference here, the teacher can quite legitimately get students to translate L1 sentences designed to pinpoint and clarify structures and patterns the student still has not assimilated. (Perkins 1985)

Newmark also gives a more specific description of the kind of EFL translation activities he envisages:

In the elementary stages, translation from L1 to L2 may be useful as a form of control and consolidation of basic grammar and vocabulary This form of control should be regular but sparing, should not usually introduce new L2 items and must not dominate the teaching In the middle stages, translation from L2 to L1 of words and clauses may be useful in dealing with errors; therefore interference, interlanguage or unconscious translationese can be illuminated by back-translation, as an aid in the production of creative discourse or texts. (Newmark 1991)

In other words, after some work on contrastive analysis - comparing English and the student's mother-tongue - the actual practice of problem areas can also involve some translation from time to time. In this sense, translation also becomes useful as a means of consolidating and controlling (not necessarily testing) performance in those areas where interference may occur.3

Asking students to compare and contrast English and their mother-tongue is not a new idea. Translation-based foreign-language courses of the past embodied this approach, then translation was abandoned almost completely when English-only methods came into vogue. The situation today is no longer one of such extremes. Some recent course books have a question or two at the end of a grammar point something along the lines of: how do you express this in your own language? The aim is to encourage some contrastive analysis, but the scope of such questions and the time devoted to analysis is usually very limited. The lack of any detailed comparative investigation perhaps stems from authors or publishers fearing that many teachers would shy away from a course book with more than just a smattering of contrastive analysis. Furthermore, course books are designed for classes which may well be made up of students of different mother-tongues and/or where the teacher may not know the students' mother-tongue(s), these factors being seen as a barrier to all but the scantiest use of translation. On the other hand, most people would acknowledge that some translation for contrastive purposes can be useful in the language classroom, particularly at intermediate and advanced levels. Can these apparently opposing situations be reconciled in any way? The answer must be a qualified yes, so to the prove the point it is time to move on from theory to practice.

Practical examples of translation work in the EFL classroom

Having recognised that interference from the student's mother-tongue can at the very least impede accuracy, it is worth looking at some practical ideas for using translation in a communicative context. Comparisons with the students' native language(s) should, however, only be made as a back-up, either to ward off possible interference or to combat it if it has arisen.

Perhaps one of the simplest ways of intervening is when checking through written work. Some of the mistakes that the teacher highlights or corrects may well have been caused by interference, but the students themselves might not even be aware of this. Whether or not the teacher knows the students' mother tongue(s), it could be very useful to ask them to pin-point errors stemming from mother-tongue interference, say why they arose and what they might do to try to avoid similar mistakes in the future. This could even lead on to further kinds of practice using translation.

Many grammar points lend themselves to some form of contrastive analysis. An ideal time to make such a comparison might be when grammar points are reviewed at upper-intermediate or advanced level. After focussing on an area of grammar, the students can be asked to translate a series of model sentences into their own language and see what patterns emerge. Sample Activity 1 demonstrates the kind of material that might be prepared for use after progressive forms have been reviewed. Students should provide a natural - not a 'forced' - translation in their own language and then be encouraged to come to some conclusions about how their language compares with English. Other languages with progressive forms (such as Spanish or Italian) do not use their progressive form as widely as English does, for example. Clearly if all class members have the same mother-tongue and if the teacher also speaks the foreign language, a fairly detailed comparison can be made. But even in classes where mother-tongues vary and/or the teacher does not know the language(s) in question, some useful pointers are likely to emerge. Students who have the same mother-tongue might be paired and asked to prepare a brief explanation for the rest of the class about how English compares with their own language. Students who have different mother-tongues might be paired and asked to explain to their partners briefly how English compares with their own language.

Sample Activity 1
Progressive forms - contrast with mother-tongue

Contrast the use of the English progressive tenses with usage in your mother-tongue by giving the most natural translation for the following examples.

Tense and Usage

English Example

Mother-Tongue Example

Present Progressive


action happening now

He's looking at the newspaper.


temporary action or situation

She's reading The Telegraph while The Times is on strike.

__________________________ __________________________

'always' to indicate anger

He's always interrupting me.


for pre-arranged future

We're leaving early today.


Present Perfect Progressive


action begun in past and continuing now

I've been waiting for 5 mins.


action or situation begun in past and continuing

I've been reading The Guardian for three years now.

__________________________ __________________________


She's been going there a lot recently.

__________________________ __________________________

Past Progressive


continuing past action, no time mentioned

The church bell was ringing.


description of a situation

The wind was blowing.


continuing past action, at a certain point in time

At three o'clock he was having a rest.

__________________________ __________________________

continuing past action, contrasted with short past action

I was leaving the building when I heard the shots.

__________________________ __________________________

two contemporary past actions

I was painting while you were cleaning.

__________________________ __________________________

Past Perfect Progressive


continuous past action before another past action

They had been waiting for an hour before he turned up

__________________________ __________________________

Once differences and similarities between the two languages have been noted, further practice is to be encouraged. This could be in the form of a traditional grammar exercise, a speaking task where the grammar point is likely to be used, a piece of writing where such language forms will presumably arise, and/or a translation. The translation exercise could take the form of a few sentences to be translated into the student's mother-tongue (for Italian see Barnes and Marzola 1979 & 1997, for French see Hardin and Picot 1990), or English sentences to translate and then translate back into English, perhaps with a time lapse in between. But rather than a list of sentences with little context, a short passage is usually much more stimulating and practical.

By carefully considering text source and type, it is usually not too difficult to find some useful texts - though they will often need to be shortened for this kind of translation exercise. For example, any text written towards the end of the year reviewing developments and events of the previous twelve months is likely to be ideal for practising perfect tenses and contrasting them with past tenses. Horoscopes can be used for future forms. Even simple instruction sheets may require numerous passive forms. Students themselves can be asked to provide their original versions if necessary (see Duff 1989 for excellent ideas on articles, passives, conditionals, tenses and vocabulary). When practising comparatives, consumer magazines are likely to be full of handy material. Sample Activity 2 shows just such a translation of a short article comparing telephone costs in Europe done by a class,4 with a little teacher intervention during the preparation of a final version. Practice books are also available that might provide useful material (such as for French: Hardin and Picot 1990, for Italian: Milesi 1986, Brownlees and Denton 1987, or for English texts: Duff 1989, Chamberlin & White 1975 and 1978).

Sample Activity 2
Translation of a short passage

Practice with comparative forms - as underlined

How Much Do Europe's Telephones Cost?

In Switzerland you have to wait about three days to get a phone installed after you request a line. In Britain you have to wait a bit longer: eight days, in France, ten. Things are much worse in Italy. In theory there is a maximum time limit of 60 days, but in practice the waiting period may even be five times as long. The situation is even worse in Spain and Greece.

In Italy the monthly charge is more or less the same throughout the country; at 18,600 Italian Lira every two months, Italy is more or less mid-way between the most expensive country (Eire) and the cheapest (Greece).

All European countries have one rate for local calls and another one or more for long-distance and international calls. In Italy there are as many as six different rates; in Holland there are only two, though most countries have three.

Most countries have two time bands: office hours and a cheaper off-peak rate. Once again Italy has the highest number of bands. And the more time bands a country has, the greater the difference between the cheapest and the most expensive. In countries with many time bands, therefore, it is exorbitantly expensive to make calls during peak hours. For further information, see the first few pages of the phone book.

The material in Sample Activity 3 shows the kind of vocabulary practice where translation can come into its own (see also: Heltai 1989). In this case it is an exercise to check that some fairly common 'false friends' (specifically in the Romance languages) are known. Spotting the deceptive cognates in each sentence might be the first stage, discussing which are possible traps for the language(s) in question could be the second step. Then after the meanings have been made clear, a suitable translation may be put forward. Although this kind of exercise is particularly suited to classes with students from a single language background, mixed language classes will also benefit, with the added advantage of further discussions and comparisons emerging. More specific 'false friends' exercises (designed for students of one particular mother-tongue) could easily be prepared - by the teacher or by the students themselves - using the helpful, though rather embryonic tables in the Cambridge International Dictionary of English (Procter 1995) or specific books (e.g. Cortesi 1985, Room 1988).

Sample Activity 3
False friends

Each of the following sentences contains a few words which might be 'false friends' in your mother-tongue. For example, the English word 'actual' has a very different meaning from the French word 'actuel', the German word 'Aktuell', the Italian word 'attuale' or the Spanish word 'actual'. Spot the 'false friends', say what they mean and translate the sentences.

  1. Well I was very annoyed, actually. I missed my connection and had to wait ages on the station platform.
  2. If you want my advice, you should read this novel, it's really terrific - they have it in the local library.
  3. The conductor very sensibly made sure the orchestra didn't overpower the soloist at the grand piano.
  4. The two amateurs playing the villain and the lunatic officer acted well, and the extras were very brave.
  5. The hospital has many new facilities: better canteens, improved conveniences and larger wards.
  6. Although he was engrossed in the lecture he was attending on food preservatives, he had an absent look.
  7. He must be a very demanding director, I never realised that actor could look so callous on camera.
  8. She eventually moved house to be closer to her elderly parents; it was much more convenient for her.

To round off our examples, it is worth mentioning that translation can help in even the most unlikely places. Idioms and expressions are generally regarded as a professional translator's nightmare, but they lend themselves to some useful language work and a bit of fun when (momentarily) translated literally. In many countries, short illustrated paperback collections of literally translated idiomatic howlers are available and these can bring some amusement (and some learning) to the classroom. Jean-Loup Chiflet's Sky my husband! Ciel mon mari! and Heygen & Küstner's English for Runaways - Englisch für Fortgeschrittene are excellent examples. By using such books or other examples as stimuli, students can be encouraged to provide more, perhaps even illustrating them.


Although this short article has necessarily only just touched on the problem of interference and the role of translation in the EFL classroom (and the sample activities described have clearly only provided but a brief insight into approaches for intervention), the scope for native and non-native teachers to exploit purposeful translation within a communicative context should be evident. While it is generally agreed that too much translation is a bad thing when trying to deal with the practicalities of learning to speak a foreign language, perhaps too little is also a bad thing.


  1. The translations are by the author of this article.
  2. The term 'fifth skill' has been around for many years, Brownlees and Denton themselves cite a 1982 article by Nereo Perini.
  3. Out of pure interest, readers might like to have a look at Peter Newmark's chapter on 'The Virtues of Interference and the Vices of Translationese' in Newmark 1991: 78-86.
  4. A second-year English language class at the City of Milan School for Interpreters and Translators. The original Italian article (abridged) appeared in the consumer magazine 'Altroconsumo' 1993.

Barnes, R. and A. Marzola. 1979. Missing Links. Milan: Principato.
Barnes, R. and A. Marzola. 1997. Missing Links 2. Milan: Principato.
Brownlees, N. and J. Denton. 1987. Translation Revisited, Ritorno alla traduzione. Florence: Cremonese.
Chamberlin, D. and G. White. 1975. English for Translation. Cambridge: CUP.
Chamberlin, D. and G. White. 1978. Advanced English for Translation. Cambridge: CUP.
Chiflet, J-L. 1985. Sky my husband! Ciel mon mari! Guide de l'anglais courant - Guide of the running english. Paris: Hermé-Actuel.
Cortesi, L.H. 1985. Gli sgambetti dell'inglese. Milan: Centro Studi di Via A. Doria 17.
Duff, A. 1989. Translate. Oxford: OUP.
Hardin, G. and C. Picot. 1990. Translate, Initiation à la pratique de la traduction. Paris: Dunod.
Heltai, P. 1989. 'Teaching vocabulary by oral translation'. ELT Journal 43/4: 288-293.
Heygen H.G. and W.P. Küstner. English for Runaways / Englisch für Fortgeschrittene.
Milesi, G. 1986. Translate, Brani di versione dall'italiano in inglese. Bergamo: Minerva Italica.
Newmark, P. 1988. A Textbook of Translation. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.
Newmark, P. 1991. About Translation. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters.
Pacek, D. 1996. 'Lessons to be learnt from negative evaluation'. ELT Journal 50/4: 335-343.
Perkins, C. 1985. 'Sensitizing advanced learners to problems of L1-L2 translation' in C. Titford and A.E. Hieke.
Procter, P. (ed). 1995. Cambridge International Dictionary of English. Cambridge: CUP.
Room, A. 1988. Dictionary of Contrasting Pairs. London: Routledge.
Snell-Hornby, M. 1985. 'Translation as a means of integrating language teaching and linguistics' in C. Titford and A.E. Hieke.
Titford, C. & A.E. Hieke (eds.). 1985. Translation in Foreign Language Teaching and Testing. Tübingen: Narr.

   Published in Modern English Teacher (Vol. 9/3, July 2000), Pearson Education Ltd., Basingstoke, UK.




English Lang.

Art Insights