Month: May 2014

Can translation classes improve students’ English skills?




Translation has a tool of teaching foreign languages is undergoing a rejuvenation, after it was out of fashion for many years. Translation is also part of the curriculum within the Department of English Studies at Trier University. We at Uni Trier have always felt that teaching translation to C1-level monolingual learners helps improve their grammar and accuracy in English, helping our students to recognize possible areas of interference from German (their L1). This assumption, however, was never put to the test.

So we decided to test it. A first step in doing so was carried out in winter semester 2013/14. Our test subjects were five translation classes taught by three different instructors. These translation classes are not meant to specifically train translators, but rather the focus is using translation as a method to learn English. To do so, sentences or short paragraphs relating to specific grammatical features in German or English, or longer texts containing multiple such features, are translated from German (L1) into English (L2).

The classes were given a grammar test in the first week of class prior to any translation. A similar test was then administered in the last or second-to-last week of class to the same five groups of students. The results of these two tests form the basis of our study.

The Grammar Test

The areas we chose to cover were articles, tenses, modal constructions, prepositions and false friends. The test exercises were taken from course books with an appropriate level (advanced or C1). The tasks were made as similar as possible across the two tests and with similar numbers of points as well.

An important point was to get as close to ‘real’ production as possible in the artificial test format. We decided against overuse of multiple choice answers, because we did not want our students to recognize and pick the right answer. As our students are fairly high level, they often make mistakes despite knowing the right answer. Thus in multiple choice, they will often recognize and pick the correct answer, although when asked to produce free speech or their own written texts, they may make mistakes in these same areas. We wanted them to create an answer with as little outside help as possible. We were able to especially achieve this in the section on articles, tenses and prepositions, where only the context of the texts or knowing the rules of English grammar or collocation led them to create the correct answer. We were unable to create a version of the false friend section that did not give a selection of words. As students scored high in this section on both the first and second test, this perhaps indicates that they can recognize the correct answer although they may not always produce it.


Our sample size was 94. Once the tests were administered in class, they were corrected and the scores were tabulated. The exams were administered anonymously and students were identified by their student number.

The data were analyzed using a dependent t-test. This test is used when the same participants have provided data in both experimental conditions, as is the case here. With a sample of this size (N=94), the dependent t-test is able to detect even fairly small effects. The t-test aims to compare the average difference between each participant’s scores on the various test exercises before and after the intervention. It was used here to test the following hull hypothesis:

H0 = There will be no difference on average between students’ scores on the grammar test exercises completed before the translation course and after the translation course.

The results of the t-test showed statistically significant improvement in the areas of tenses, prepositions and false friends, and of course in the combined scores of both tests. Articles showed a statistically significant decrease in scores, and the modals were not statistically significant. Of the areas where improvement was shown, our statistics showed a medium effect for prepositions and false friends, and a large effect for tenses.


Our translation class has brought about improvement in the areas of tenses, prepositions and false friends, which is a sign that translation has a place in language teaching, although we advocate it as one of many tools of language teaching. We feel it is best used with advanced students, as translation particularly targets interference mistakes, and at lower levels of teaching, these have not fossilized yet, or mistakes are made because students are attempting to produce structures they have not learned yet. Translation seems to be best geared towards students who have learned most grammatical aspects classically taught in books but need to work on the finer points of applying these rules outside of textbook exercises. We also feel that is it not helpful in a multilingual setting, but rather works best when students have the same native language and the teacher has a high proficiency in both languages and can explain aspects of both languages’ grammar to the students.