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What your English teacher never told you - Stop translating, start talking!

Dicembre 2015
‘Traduci le seguenti frasi in inglese’. Quante volte viene assegnato questo esercizio in classe? Troppe. A scapito di altre attività molto più utili per l’apprendimento, ad esempio parlare. Rachel Roberts ci spiega perché la traduzione ha una valenza didattica molto limitata.

di Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts
Rachel Roberts

Nowadays, most Italian parents recognize the importance of good English for work and study opportunities and are consequently frantic for their kids to speak English well. They willingly pay for extra classes after school and expensive study trips abroad in the summer. It’s unfortunate that they should have to do this. Given the importance attributed to English in the school curriculum in recent years, school lessons should provide students with useful skills that they can actually use to communicate. However this is rarely the case.


In Europe, Italy comes 20th out of 24 countries, for proficiency in English. That places it above France, but below Slovakia, Portugal and Spain. It may not surprise you to learn that the top three countries are Denmark, Holland and Sweden in that order, and yet Italy and Denmark have the same number of school hours dedicated to learning English. So what’s the difference?


The problem surely comes from the fact that didactic methodology is very different. Italian teachers of English spend a lot of time focusing on grammar rules, writing and translating, Danish kids learn first of all to speak in English and to apply the language in real life situations.
Just as Italian students spend hours in their Italian lessons studying complex grammar rules, the same methodology is used in their English lessons; an approach which is guaranteed to bore them, and to leave them terrified of opening their mouths in case they make a mistake.


Perhaps the most outdated activity in the Italian English lesson is translation. Even today Italian school kids are asked to spend a lot of time translating what are often quite complex texts from Italian into English and vice versa. The didactic benefits of such an activity are extremely limited, mostly because it’s something people almost never do in real life unless they become professional translators or interpreters.


Even if students go abroad to study at university in an English-speaking country and therefore have to read complex academic texts, they should read and think about these texts in the original language. Of course they might need a dictionary, but they certainly won’t translate any reading material, word for word into their own language.


Translation is an art. It takes years of study and practice and requires an in-depth knowledge not only of the two languages, but also of the differences and similarities between them, of the cultural context of each language and of all those idiomatic expressions that develop in any language over centuries. When Danish school kids converse with each other in the classroom during role play or information exchange activities, they certainly don’t waste time asking themselves what each single word means in their own language.


At a low or intermediate level, translation can actually be counterproductive. There are so many “false friends” – words which look similar but have completely different meanings – and these always cause mistakes at lower levels. Many common Italian expressions simply don’t make sense when translated literally into English and vice versa. We also use our tenses differently, so literal translation can lead to the production of erroneous and often incomprehensible English (see the table below).


As long as Italian students are left to read and study English in silence, their knowledge of the language will remain passive. The only way to develop this knowledge into an active usable tool, is to speak the language, to produce it and generally to interact with it in real life situations. So Italian teachers of English should get their students to stop translating now, and start talking.

Typical mistake: We’re in four
Correct expression: There are four of us

Typical mistake: I’m agree
Correct expression: I agree

Typical mistake: Sorry for the late
Correct expression: I’m sorry I’m late

Typical mistake: I need to anticipate the meeting
Correct expression: I need to move the meeting forward

Typical mistake: There are a lot of libraries in my room
Correct expression: There are a lot of bookcases in my room

Typical mistake: It’s years that I don’t see him
Correct expression: I haven’t seen him for years

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