Language Learning in the Translation Classroom

 Volume 9, No. 2 
April 2005

Dr. Carol Kfouri

  Front Page  
Select one of the previous 31 issues.

Index 1997-2005

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
A Lifetime of Learning and Teaching
by Betty Howell

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
Why are most translators underpaid? A descriptive explanation using asymmetric information and a suggested solution from signaling theory
by Andy Lung Jan Chan

  In Memoriam
Thomas Snow: 1930 - 2005
by Alex Gross
Lessons Learned
by Wilfried Preinfalk
  TJ Cartoon
Great Moments in Languages: Character is Destiny
by Ted Crump

Software Localization
Demystifying Software Globalization
by Kenneth A. (Sandy) McKethan, Jr. and Graciela White

  Translators Around the World
Translation and Interpretation Work for the LNG Tangguh Project in Papua, Indonesia
by Izak Morin

  Translation Theory
¿Qué traducción? Los métodos de traducción en el análisis contemporáneo
Armando Francesconi, Ph.D.
Foreignization/Domestication and Yihua/Guihua: A Contrastive Study
He Xianbin

  Arts and Entertainment
The Power of Film Translation
by Agnieszka Szarkowska

  Translating Social Change
Translation Problems in Modern Russian Society
by Irina Khutyz

  Book Review
A Conversation with Ilan Stavans
by Verónica Albin
Tolkien’s Use of the Word “Garn!” to Typify a Motley Crew of Reprobates
by Mark T. Hooker

  Literary Translation
Ideological Manipulation in Translation in a Chinese Context: Su Manshu's Translation of Les Misérables
by Li Li

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
On Idioms, Intertextuality, Puddings, and Quantum Physics (all of them in simultaneous, please)
by Carlo Marzocchi

  Translator Education
Knowing Before Learning: Ten Concepts Students Should Understand Prior to Enrolling in a University Translation or Interpretation Class
by Brian G. Rubrecht, Ph.D.
Language Learning in the Translation Classroom
by Carol Ann Goff-Kfouri, Ph.D.

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Research on Dictionary Use by Trainee Translators
by María del Mar Sánchez Ramos, Ph.D.

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies

  Translation Journal

Translator Education


Language Learning in Translation Classrooms

by Carol Ann Goff-Kfouri, Ph.D.

"Learning is a social process that occurs through interpersonal interaction within a cooperative context. Individuals, working together, construct shared understandings and knowledge."

David Johnson, Robert Johnson, and Karl Smith. Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom.
Edina, Mn: Interaction Book Co., 1991.


   haven't heard it recently, but there was a time when it was common to hear people say, "those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Perhaps this saying has lost its appeal because first of all more and more educators have realized the advantages students reap when professionals add their competence to the academic framework. Second, there are many people both working in their fields and teaching in a university setting. Prominent translation trainers such as Gouadec, Kiraly and Pym have emphasized the advantages of work-simulated translation classes; professionals are the logical instructors in such programs (Gouadec: 1999; Kiraly: 1995; Pym: 2002).

Although practicing translators and interpreters are not in the classroom to learn, one of the major benefits to teaching is definitely how much teachers do learn about the complexity of the learning process by supporting student efforts to become competent professionals. One of the common errors that new instructors at university make however is to assume that their students are already expert learners. Because university students are adults, many instructors presume that their own role consists of presenting material once, applying it briefly and then moving on to a new concept. They often assume students are able to apply newly acquired concepts in foreign situations after having been exposed only briefly. However, this may not be the case. In reality, each classroom is made up of a set of individuals with their own backgrounds, learning styles and academic levels. Translation professionals preparing to share their techniques and experience with students will find it helpful to review the basic ways it is believed that students learn. This article explores learning approaches applicable to translation instructors whose goal it is to improve their students' language learning competence. Bob Hodge in Teaching as Communication (1993) stated that "language, above all, holds a community together" (p. 2). Even though children learn a language implicitly, people who use languages as the tools of their professions, such as translators and interpreters, must learn languages much more deeply than others. Although the discussion of how people learn is still a very controversial subject, those approaches that follow may be particularly applicable to adult learners.

One of the roles of a psychologist is to investigate the way people learn. One of the most influential explanations has been the behaviorist approach. An instructor who uses this approach would break up knowledge into small, logically organized pieces of information and provide positive reinforcement so that students learn to use that information. Behaviorists emphasize repetition of material so that it becomes a natural reaction for the student. Behaviorism has fallen from favor somewhat recently with the broadly held belief today that learning is a complex activity involving more than just repetition. However, language students and students who use language do benefit from a certain amount of well thought-out repetition and the use of models as a basis for their writing.

A more recent explanation of how to encourage learning, the cognitive approach, is quite appropriate to university teaching as it recognizes that learning is not only the recall of facts but also involves memory, reasoning, critical thinking and problem solving, all of which are applicable to the daily activities of a translator or interpreter. According to Svinicki in Memory Enhancement (1997), six principles of cognitive learning can be directly applied to learning.

  1. Students must see the information to be learned as important to their lives.
  2. Implication: the instructor must show the students how this information is beneficial.

  3. During learning, learners act on information to make it more meaningful.
  4. Implication: Instructors and students should clarify information through examples, images, elaborations and links to prior knowledge.

  5. Learners store information in long-term memory in an organized fashion related to their existing understanding of the world.
  6. Implication: Instructors should provide an organized structure in their presentation of information.

  7. Learners constantly check understanding which results in refinement of what is retained.
  8. Implication: Instructors should provide opportunities.

  9. Transfer of learning to new contexts is not automatic; it results from exposure to multiple applications.
  10. Implication: Instructors should provide links for later transfer.

  11. Learners who are aware of their learning strategies and monitor their learning habits will learn more rapidly.

    Implication: Instructors should help students become aware of how they learn.

One additional very interesting theory of learning from the late 20th century presented an innovative method of viewing individual students' learning styles and increasing their motivation to learn. Howard Gardner postulated that students do not all learn in the same manner; students may not all be cognitively gifted. He stated that there are in fact eight types of intelligence: intrapersonal, interpersonal, logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, verbal/linguistic, bodily/kinesthetic, naturalist and musical/rhythmic. (Gay, G. 2000, Culturally Responsive Teaching Theory).

University instructors may incorporate appreciation of these eight types of intelligence to involve more students in learning efficiently. For example, if many students in the classroom seem to be intrapersonal learners, that is, they prefer to work individually, it may be beneficial to pause between parts of your explanation and let the students think about the explanation and then leave a short question or comment period. Intrapersonal learners prefer to work alone rather than in a team setting. Interpersonal learners would benefit from team-oriented teaching and small group work assignments. If students are visually oriented, it may be beneficial to use diagrams, charts and graphs to further back up the principles of your teaching. Some students may need to picture the relationships between ideas in order to apply them. Students of translation who have a scientific background may benefit from the problem-solving approach. The main implication of this theory is that students do not all learn in the same manner, but it does not signify that they cannot learn. It only means that instructors should try to teach in ways that will motivate the desire to learn in as many students as possible. Translation instructors will often find that their students come from varying backgrounds; some have scientific degrees, others have law degrees and some are interested in the humanities and the arts. Gardner's theory encourages instructors to take the various backgrounds into consideration when planning the strategies they use in the classroom.

The famous Russian psychologist, Vygotsky believed that instructors who organize their teaching based on how much knowledge the students already possess and move on from that point will aid the students to acquire confidence in their ability to learn and progress. He also postulated that language accompanies thought; he called it "inner speech" (Hodge, B. 2000, p.113.). Students should be allowed to verbalize and talk through their learning process. Vygotsky's point of view may be the point of focus for the foundation for learner-centered classrooms that provide students the opportunity to apply Svinicki's principles. Offering students options to allow for differences in their interests, making sure that there is both teacher-student, and student-student discussion of content and emphasizing class activities that encourage both understanding and application of the principles taught is the crux of learning (Brophy, 1997). Learner-centered classrooms can be considered to be the fruit of the self-regulated learning principle. There are many definitions for learner-centered classrooms; the most practical are those which stress student need as the basis for classroom teaching.

The development of technology at such a rapid pace has propelled the term "life-long learning" to become a part of learning theory and strategies. Not only do contemporary educators believe that all students can learn, but they also support the idea of continuing education once the student has graduated. A degree or a diploma no longer signals the end of one's education. Rather, it should indicate that degree holders are able to recognize the limits of their knowledge and have the ability to search further for answers. Instructors can only indicate means to access information and incite students to keep abreast of new additions to their profession. Motivation and learning are thus closely related.

On the university level, learning may be enhanced through the intrinsic motivation of the student. Intrinsic motivation is the belief that the material being taught has a direct relationship to the real-life needs of the students. For instance, a translation student who wants to work with the European Union after obtaining a degree will quickly grasp the necessity of knowing the intricacies of Europe's geography. Relevance to the student's future plans makes this assignment intrinsically valuable. The instructor will not have to insist that the student study carefully. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is the material benefits students earn when they prepare an assignment. A high mark is extrinsic motivation to do well; a scholarship, a high-profile internship are also examples of extrinsic motivation. Even though it is evident that a mature student should work for the intrinsic value learning has, extrinsic motivation is an added plus. In fact, there have been many studies done that have shown clearly how motivation enhances learning (Good,T. & Brophy, J. 1991). The self-efficacy theory has shown that students vary in the way they evaluate their ability to learn. Some students believe that they have a high ability to learn and generally perform at high standards. Others see themselves as slow learners, or see certain subjects as difficult to comprehend. They are directly influenced by their perceptions of their learning abilities and may not perform to their potential. University instructors should be sensitive to the perceptions students have of their abilities and teach so that students see that success is an achievable goal.

It is clear from the learning theories above that university education is not an end in itself and university instructors are not only fonts of knowledge. Today's university instructor provides tools so that students may themselves build their knowledge base.

How students learn languages and are able to use them to earn a living is quite a complex subject. If you experiment and look up the word "language" in a linguistic book index, you will see that you are asked to consult, "meaning." This is not at all surprising since languages do not exist in a void. Without meaning, language is gibberish. One of the most common normative definitions of the term "language" is: "a body of words and symbols governed by rules that tie people together into a speech community." When people of one speech community wish to communicate with those of another community, translators are needed. When methods of communication between communities are studied, education is also a factor to be considered. According to Hodge, (2000,p.1), "good teaching and good learning alike are so dependent on language and communication that the two are inseparable." Translators and media specialists have the enormous responsibility of assuming the role of a bridge between communities who either have the need to communicate such as in the translation of technical texts, or who desire access to another's cultural richness. Knowing the other's language as intimately as possible is the basic means of accomplishing these tasks with success.

The language study is one of the oldest domains in education. The four basic elements of culture: language, communication, translation and education have been examined since at least 1600 b.c. when we first have proof that linguists were questioning the sources of language (Framkin & Rodman, 1998:26). Even though language and discussion of how people learn language have been with us for a long time, there is a still a lot we do not know. Many linguistics textbooks still amazingly begin with statements such as "we know only this," "there is a lot we do not know," or "yet unknown mechanisms." Scholars are still trying to determine how people learn a first language and what parts of that mechanism are, if any, are transferred when we learn a second or third language. According to neurolinguists, the main language centers are located in the left hemisphere of the brain (Fromkin & Rodman, 1998:56). Broca's area, in the front, Wernicke's area in the back, and the angular gyrus, also located in the back of the brain are known to play the main role in a person's language ability (Steinberg, 1993: 180.)

As a translation instructor, it is definitely not necessary to become a neurolinguist, but it is helpful to be aware of the factors that influence language learning and take those into consideration as you plan your classes.

Sociolinguists, scholars who study language and how humans acquire it, believe that there are psychological, social and perhaps genetic factors that allow students to progress more or less rapidly than others. Specialists in semiotics have added that verbal and non-verbal factors influence how well students may learn languages (Hodge, B. 2000, p.21.)

Although his work may no longer be universally agreed upon, Noam Chomsky has made most of the inroads into language learning theory. According to Chomsky, there are certain language universals. The first is that all languages are learnable. The second states that all languages share certain characteristics, and the third contends that there are rules and principles that speakers apparently follow in making sentences. In the classroom, translation instructors are particularly concerned with points two and three. If all languages share characteristics, instructors should help the student recognize them and use these characteristics in their translation activities. In order to facilitate translation, instructors should make the rules of language available to their students. Chomsky also made a now very famous distinction between language competence and language performance. Competence is just the knowledge the student possesses of the grammar of a language; performance is considered the ability to produce through use of one's competence (Steinberg, 1993: 97).

In order to understand how adults may excel in language learning, researchers have delved into the ways children acquire language and have established some correlations. The main correlations seem to stem from the knowledge that children understand their native language before they actually speak it. They pick up the rhythm, pitch, stress and melody of the language and imitate the lyrics of the language before they actually speak it fluently first by saying single words, then two-word units, grammatically incorrect sentences and finally logical, correct expressions of meaning (Steinberg, p. 4).

In addition to understanding a language before speaking it, memory is also extremely important. Children learn languages more quickly when they are able to visualize the object, hear the sound of its name and then store that link in their minds for further retrieval. This fact is linked to basic theories of education from the time of John Locke who emphasized the need for a student to have access to an object so as to internalize its meaning.

Fromkin and Rodman also emphasized the important role creativity plays in the acquisition of language. Although there may be a certain primitive resemblance between human and animal language, animal language is finite and the messages are stimulus-controlled (1998:13). Human beings write fiction and poetry; they sing songs in duets, and in choirs. Animals do not.

Research on second-language acquisition is advancing very rapidly. Until Chomsky's research, repetition and mechanical drills comprised the essence of language learning curricula. But classroom drill was found to be insufficient; logic and communication competence are now emphasized.

Many brilliant approaches to teaching translation are applications of general learning and language learning theory. The functionalist approach to translation as explained in Translating as a purposeful Activity in 1997 by Christiane Nord emphasizes the need to make a translation "purposeful" (p. 1). Translators take practicality into consideration as they transfer a text from one language into another. There are many other approaches, as well.

In our everyday teaching of language, or language-related activities in the classroom we can take advantage of the above research. Through even such a brief overview, it is clear that instructors who use concrete examples, who introduce creativity into their activities and offer students opportunities to achieve success frequently are offering interesting and beneficial experiences for their students.

As an example of writing exercises useful to students, which aims at reducing the gap between a native speaker and a translation student, the following has proven successful in improving both language competence and business writing proficiency of student translators. It would be plausible to expand on this sample in a variety of ways by asking students to translate an already well-written e-mail and to compare the English version with the French or Spanish. The instructor's creativity and desire to fulfill the objective of supplying opportunities for students to feel comfortable in the use of their prime tool, language, are the only boundaries.

E-mail Writing

One 50-minute session would be necessary to ensure sufficient practice.

Objectives: At the end of the session, the student will: be aware of the need to follow international format; be exposed to the principles of modern e-mail practices and will practice writing e-mails.

Activity One: If students are in a computer lab for your class, ask them to open some e-mails and objectively analyze their professional content and format. 10 min.

Students will certainly point out SHOUTING, (all capital letters) in some e-mails.

They may also notice chatroom-style abbreviations such as "u" or "ur." They may notice that there is no correct closing, etc.

Inform students of the following e-mail facts:

An e mail in business must be composed as if it were a formal memo, or letter. The same rules of format apply.

  • Begin the e-mail with a salutation (Dear Mr. Smith, Dear Ms. Jamison, etc.)
  • Repeat the subject line in the first line of the e-mail.
  • Organize the e-mail in paragraphs. Use the direct approach: i.e., ask, or inquire in the first paragraph, explain why in the second paragraph and close with a diplomatic ending.
  • End your e-mail with a closing such as, sincerely.
  • Include your signature with an address, and a phone number or fax. This makes the e-mail less "virtual."

Show students an e-mail, which does not fulfill its purpose.


Subject: Clients

Mary, can u send me your list of clients you have been dealing with for the last 5 months. Want to check if we their accounts are closed.

Ask students to correct this simple e-mail.


Subject: Client Accounts

Dear Mary,

Would you please send me a list of the clients with whom you have been dealing for the last 5 months?

The accounting department wants to verify if their payments are in order. We have been having many delays recently and we need to find a solution to the problem.


Dan Fisher, Accounting

Activity Two: 25 minutes for group work, 10 minutes for presentations. Ask students to work in pairs or small groups if they are used to doing so and provide two case studies from which they can choose. Provide each group with an overhead transparency if the class is not working on computer terminals. Each group is asked to provide a model e-mail to present to the whole class. The class will evaluate the e-mails for content, format and correct language use.

Sample Case Studies:

  1. Your company produces paper products of a very high quality. You wish to expand into the Easter European market, especially those countries which have recently become members of the European Union. Write an e-mail to the European Union Foreign Office department and inquire as to the formalities you must fulfill, as well as the possibilities for a company located outside the European Union to conduct trade with EU countries. Address the Trade office.
  2. You are the translator for the same paper product company. You have received many complaints from customers recently saying that English and Spanish are the only languages into which the directions for your new paper towel dispenser have been printed. Write a customer and assure her that the company plans to have translations in six new languages by the end of the month. Inform the customer that online services are available while she is waiting for the new packaging to be produced.

Professional translators who have chosen to join a university department of translation will certainly benefit from the time spent with students. Not only will they be able to share their experience with eager students but also they may find that their own translations benefit due to the review of principles and discussion on particular points of interest. If in fact you are invited to teach a course, take advantage of the new learning experience for yourself as well as your students.


Brophy, J.E. & Good, T. L. (1997). Teacher-Student Relationships Causes and Consequences. USA: Holt Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Fromkin, V. & Rodman, R. (1998). An Introduction to Language. Sixth Edition. USA: Harcourt and Brace.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally Responsive Teaching Theory, Research and Practice.

Multicultural Education Series, James A. Banks, Editor. USA: Teachers College Press.

Gouadec, D. (December 1991). "Autrement dire.....Pour une redefinition des strategies De formation des traducteurs" META vol. 36, n.4, pp543-557.

Hodge, B. (1993). Teaching as Communication. The Effective teacher Series. Longman.

Kiraly, D. C. (1995). Pathways to Translation Pedagogy and Process. Kent, Ohio. Kent State University Press.

"Memory Enhancement Using Cognitive Theories to improve Teaching." Cuesta College Academic Support. [Retrieved 15 Dec 2004] from "Using Cognitive Theories to improve Teaching" April 1997, The Teaching Professor. Vol. 3p.4.

Pym, A. "Trial, Error and Experimentation in the Training of Translation Teachers. [online] Retrieved 15 Dec.2004.