Among teachers, there are two directly opposing viewpoints regarding the use of intermediary language and translation in the lessons of Russian as a foreign language: There are teachers who do not use intermediary language at all, and there are those who translate absolutely everything they say to students in the lesson.
How do I feel about it? How do I conduct my lessons?
I tend to begin with the questions, What for? What is your final objective? What goals do you pursue? Who are your students? Then I focus on the situation. Let’s consider different situations and see how it is with the use of translation and intermediary language in relation to the course objective.
Situation #1: You have a diverse group of students and all of them speak different languages. What language are you going to translate? In my opinion, the matter of intermediary language becomes irrelevant here. You have only Russian, so you use this language for study. However, a diverse group is a rare thing. Commonly, we work in a country where our students speak the same language.
Situation #2: Some teachers believe that everything in a foreign language lesson should be translated for small children. I personally think that very little depends on the age of the students. For example, there is the method of total physical response (TPR), which is commonly used with preschoolers. With TPR, a teacher uses actions and pictures rather than translation. Since I don’t work with preschool children and this method is only slightly familiar to me, we won’t dwell on it. You can read more about it in the guest post on my blog (See also: “Перевод на уроках РКИ”).
Situation #3: Students have a high level of language skill, and we are having a translation lesson. Obviously, there is a translation, and an intermediary language is actively used here. It is in this language that we should explain all shades of meaning.
Situation #4: The most common case is when we are somewhere in the middle. Our students already know some things, but not everything. They are not beginners, and at the same time, their knowledge is still far from high-level. In my opinion, we need an intermediary language here in order to control comprehension and task performance.
Finally, I’d like to share my own experience and attitude toward translation. Generally, I explain all the grammar to students in their mother tongue. Especially as we are not limited by grammar, we cover lexical topics as well. We learn words, word combinations and speech situations. Yes, an intermediary language is involved here.
Gradually, we decrease its presence in our lesson. The more we dive into a lexical-grammatical topic, the more we get involved, and the less we use an intermediary language. At the final stage, when the topic is explored and introduced to speech, we no longer use it. Students have a good command of the material within the topic by this time.
When it’s time for a new topic, a new wave of not knowing moves toward knowledge, and as we did before, we start from explanation using the intermediary language. Gradually, we again diminish its presence and reduce it to nothing.
Note: It’s better to learn some words and phrases immediately and then review them each lesson, so that they can firmly settle in our students’ heads — for instance, the phrase Я не понимаю. Повторите, пожалуйста!, or command words such as “повторите, читай, слушай, открой, закрой учебник” and so on. These words are needed in all lessons, and it’s better to remember them at the very beginning. To feel confident and secure, a student should know how to ask for something to be repeated and use words that indicate he needs some assistance in understanding. If something goes wrong, he will be helped.
Sometimes students ask the teacher to translate something for them. If we work in a group, I first ask if there is someone who wants to help with translation or explanation. If we work individually, then it depends on the situation. If it’s a completely unfamiliar word, I translate it right away. Additionally, I can give an example of using this word in a sentence or phrase, especially if it’s ambiguous.
If students ask me to translate a word that they have recently learned, I first help them to recall it. I say sentences and phrases where we used it, and give examples. Ordinarily, that’s enough for students to remember. If I see that it isn’t working, I simply translate it.
Finally, I’d like to tell you about my attitude toward the lexical-grammatical method. I’m OK with it. Each course has its own goals. According to the goals, we choose the method. If your goal is to pass a grammar exam, you don’t need to spend your time on speaking skills. But if you still need to speak, don’t forget to introduce all grammar to your speech.
Sometimes a teacher’s arsenal includes a method that he has used his entire career. If he is a professional and his students achieve their goals, that’s great. And it has nothing to do with translation or an intermediary language. Some students want to explore only the familiar and common. Some students are ready to experiment. Situations are different!
To sum up, we use translation and an intermediary language depending on the goals we set for the course.