Nowadays, you are most likely to hear language professionals say: ‘When I was a student, things used to be a lot different from what they are today’. Indeed, we definitely worked harder, as ‘old-school’ teachers and their methods not only taught us more but also expected more in return. Exams were tougher and, willingly or not, foreign language students spent more time doing self-studying in order to fulfil the teachers’ expectations, cut the mustard and become true language professionals.
Past vs. Present
English as a major foreign language at many universities across Europe has been a popular student’s choice mostly due to the outstanding importance of the language in all fields of activity. Many of the foreign language students opt for a translation job when they graduate but the difference between the late 20th century language schools and the 21st century ones is that the former somehow managed to prepare students better for a translation/interpreting job. On leaving university, you had enough experience with a wide variety of texts, had translated hundreds of pages from and into the language of your choice, had practised hours of simultaneous and consecutive interpreting and were ready to make a living out of your thorough language knowledge. The language department in any university prepared the students to become both teachers and translators. It was thus very easy for a university graduate to prove their translation/interpreting skills, as the school curricula involved many practice hours and serious translation/interpreting exams.
The most interesting part of the process, however, did not start with university education. It was about the way that secondary school teachers approached the translation matter in their classes. The foundations for a translation/interpreting career were laid in secondary school, by means of the language teaching methods which never overlooked the importance of translating words, phrases or whole sentences into the learner’s mother tongue. Thus, the 18-year-old language university student-to-be had such a well-structured mental database that native and foreign language information was stuck together and readily-available at any time. In other words, a translator was born in his/her teens thanks to what many secondary teachers (and methodologists) today consider to be ‘old-fashioned’ teaching methods.
Translation in the English Language Teaching Classroom
If you have ever been at a language school in the UK, either as a student trying to improve your English skills or as a teacher doing compulsory teaching practice in order to become a qualified English teacher, you must know that each and every activity there is based exclusively on the idea that your own L1 (if you are a non-native English teacher) or your students’ mother tongue is immaterial. The teachers do not employ their mother tongue (or any foreign language knowledge they happen to have) as an aid in explaining things to their students; similarly, students who share a common language other than English, usually L1, are advised not to sit together during the English classes, lest they should take the easy way out of a challenging language situation and avoid speaking English, thus breaching the school policy.
The goal of such a language school is to create and maintain an exclusively English learning environment and to help students to acquire the target language just as a baby does from being talked-to on a daily basis by its mother. Most teachers would object, tongue in cheek, to what I have just written, saying that L2 acquisition doesn’t have much in common with L1 acquisition for the plain reason that a baby knows no language at all before starting to speak its mother tongue, while a teenager or an adult, consciously or not, will always try finding similarities or differences between L1 and the target language. But, of course, these students are not there to learn how to become translators. They only need to brush up their English knowledge in order to further their education at a university in the UK or to be able to get a job.
To be continued….