Translation Bridge as a Facilitator in ESL Reading Comprehension: Empirical Evidence 
Dr Binod Luitel
A quasi-experimental study conducted among the Nepalese college students to test the efficacy of translation in ESL reading comprehension is reported in this paper. The intervention was designed to see whether the treatment supplemented through L1-translated materials (additional to their original English versions) can contribute a higher rate of progress among learners or not, when compared to the treatment in absence of translation. Results showed positive effect of the facilitation instigated by the ‘translation bridge’ provisioned in the materials that were implemented among the learners with poor level of competence in English. Findings are discussed in the light of some previous studies; and it has been concluded that such a ‘bridging’ facility, when used judiciously, is proved successful in facilitating poor learners’ comprehension. An issue for further research has also been pointed out.
Keywords: translation bridge, translanguaging, tracking, facilitation, motivation
As learners experience, mental translation occurs during the learning of an ‘additional’ language – i.e. a second language (L2) or foreign language (FL). Based on the review of empirical literature and a quasi-experiment carried out among the Nepalese college students learning English, this article aims to present how far the facilitation provided to the learners through translation causes any difference in their reading comprehension.
While learning an L2, learners already possess their ‘first language’ (L1). It has been argued that ‘translanguaging’ – which makes learners alter L1 and L2 receptively or productively (García, 2013) – is inevitable in this course in one way or the other. In the attempt of understanding new expressions in L2, learners tend to employ their mother tongue resources when they feel it difficult to understand L2 by means of other strategies.
Chen (2009) has considered translation as a strategy of ‘bottom up processing’ in language learning. It can be said that, in such processing, the concepts already acquired in L1 are re-labeled in L2 – instead of attempting to ‘construct’ the meanings or concepts in the target language itself. Such a mental process does operate even if the teacher insists on avoiding the use of any language other than the one being targeted for teaching – learner’s mother tongue, for instance (Luitel, 2005). In pedagogical context, as such, translation takes the form of ‘mental conversion’, and is applied by learners in reading as a strategy unique to L2 (Li and Munby, 1996; referred to by Sadeghi, 2007, p. 212). This process can prolong even after years of one’s learning career, and is deployed by learners particularly when they are in problem.
Considering this reality, it has been suggested to devise some “translation bridge” (Politzer; referred to by Wilss, 1983, p. 249) and employ it as a strategy for facilitating learners, whenever needed, in FL teaching. As we know, facilitating the process of grasping contents on the part of learners should be the goal of language teaching, without which the learner “does not only abstain from important information being taught, she also feels left out, excluded and discriminated” (Sharma, 2015). When meaning is the ‘prime concern’ during L2 learning, it is considered that use of L1 in teaching, naturally, will be a great facility if many learners share a native language. In such contexts, suggesting students deliberately to interpret and translate the reading materials will be a common way-out during instruction (Yagi, 2000; referred to by May, 2007). The idea of L1-L2 bridging, of course, is contrary to ‘immersion approach’ whereby learners are taught solely “through the medium of a language which is not their native one.” (Johnson and Johnson, 1999, p. 173)
Review of empirical literature
It has been claimed, while teaching an FL or L2, that teachers in real classroom practice (if they have the freedom of choosing their own path) do not seem to be in line with the idea of immersion mentioned above. Instead, they are “agentive in resisting this ideology” (Sharma, 2015); so they are using learner’s language (L1) in various ways. The paragraphs below, based on the review of empirical literature on this issue, will shed lights on: (i) how this matter is handled by teachers in L2 instruction; (ii) how the same is practiced by learners during their struggle for L2 learning; and (iii) how far the use of L1 is effective in the learning of L2.
(i) Translation adopted by school and teachers: When bilingual medium of instruction is adopted, translation definitely becomes part of the ‘pedagogic life’ of school. In the context of teaching English to migrants and refugees in England, Kaneva (2012, p. 58) has found the use of “bilingual support” (using students’ home languages in addition to the target language) as “a commonly used strategy” in school; and it has been “part of the daily routine in all aspects of the school life” (Kaneva, 2012, p. 58) – where translation is found not only in spoken conversations but also in formal and official demonstrations such as “school rules and consequences, bilingual workbooks and dictionaries…” (Kaneva, 2012, p. 60) In such contexts, thus, translation is extensively employed by teachers.
As Chang (2007) found in the context of teaching English to young learners in Taiwan, ‘verbatim translation and explanation’ has been a ‘common technique’ used by teachers – where 4 of the 5 teachers whose lessons were observed had translated sentences from English to Chinese; and the only exception was a native speaker of English (p. 93). In the finding of Riazi and Riasati (2007, p. 108), most teachers (78.6%) considered translation as an effective way of teaching vocabulary. Highlighting the comfort and ease experienced by teachers while using translation in teaching English for Chinese speakers, Wang (2006, p. 213-214) has quoted a teacher’s utterances in the following words:
Sometimes I don’t know whether my students understand certain sentences, and it is hard for them to explain in English. After their translation to Chinese, I immediately know whether my students understand it or not. Especially, for some long English sentences, it is easier for them to translate than to explain in English. From their translation, I get to know how well they understand the sentences.
(ii) Translation employed by learners: As stated earlier, employing L1 while learning L2 seems to be one of the favourite strategies of learners, particularly when they face difficulty in understanding L2 expressions. Such use of L1 has been reported in various circumstances. In rural and semi-urban contexts, Van (2015, p. 182) observed the majority of students interacting through mother tongue in classroom while learning English. Among tertiary level learners, Seng and Hashim (2006) had found that more than 30% of the total instances of strategy use involved L1 while trying to comprehend L2 texts. Gebhard and Nagamine (2005, p. 61) have mentioned the experience of working with students in writing conferences, where they showed the tendency of thinking in their native languages and translating into English while preparing the drafts. Weil (2008, p. 42) has portrayed how a Korean learner of English resorted to the strategy of translation, in these words:
…She turns her attention to the word ‘outskirt’; she pronounces it many times and seems to be trying to figure out what it means from the context, but after nearly 30 seconds at it, she finally resorts to the dictionary. Again, she finds the Korean translation and annotates her text.
(iii) Benefits of translation in L2 learning: Some empirical evidences have been reported, showing the advantage of translating from or into L1 while learning English as L2. Examples include: (i) the finding of Kim and Petraki (2009) – which showed a supportive role of using L1 (i.e. employing translation) for clarifying the meanings of words and grammar explanations in the early stages; and (ii) Tiangco’s (2005) observation, among the Taiwanese EFL learners, of faster processing of visual linguistic information through reading with the aid of translation. Regarding the development of writing skill in EFL context, Sattayatham and Honsa (2007) found: “…If students practice frequent translation at a paragraph level, they will eventually be able to write a good paragraph.” (p. 189)
Statement of problem
Instigated from the phenomenon of ‘translanguaging’, the idea of ‘translation bridge’, and the review of empirical research presented above, the need for studying the effect of using L1 in L2 reading comprehension was realized. So, a quasi-experimental study was carried out (in the course of an action research project – Luitel and others, 2014) among the Nepalese college students learning English, with a view to see how far the use of L1 along with L2 in reading materials makes difference in the learners’ comprehension of texts.
Accordingly, this study has examined the learners’ comprehension of English (L2) texts in two contexts: (i) when taught in association with its translated version given in Nepali (L1); and (ii) when taught with the sole use of L2. The specific research questions, process of study and results are described below and discussed thereafter.
Specifically, the study attempted to seek answer to the following questions in the context of learning English among Nepali learners at college level:
- Can the learners taught without using translation make progress in comprehension?
- Can the learners taught by using translation, in addition to other treatments, make progress in comprehension?
- Can translation contribute a higher rate of progress in comprehension, compared to the treatment given in its absence, or not?
Altogether 85 students from two colleges had participated in the study project. All these learners had studied in Nepali medium schools previously, though English was taught to them as a subject of instruction. Besides, most of them had their schooling from rural schools of Nepal in the past – their exposure to English being confined to the course taught to them in one 45-minute class per day. Mostly they had nothing else to read in English except for studying from a textbook as instructed by the teacher.
During the project, the participants were tested three times (pre-test, post test 1 and post test 2) in reading comprehension, each time using 20 multiple choice test items (that were maintained the same every time, though not distributed for practice to the participants) based on 5 different English texts. Two interventions took place during the project – the ‘first intervention’ and ‘second intervention’ – which were implemented among participants between the first two tests (pre-test and post test 1) and the last two tests (post test 1 and post test 2) respectively.
No translated material was used in the first intervention; so all participants got similar treatment in reading instruction. The materials implemented in this phase were: (a) the original texts taken from students’ course book – including those used for testing as mentioned above; (b) the paraphrased/ simplified versions of the original texts; and (c) teacher-made subjective and objective question-answers based on the original text.
In the second intervention, use of the same original texts (which were taught in previous intervention and used for testing) paired with their paraphrased versions was continued for all the participants. In addition, they were also treated through new exercises based on the same texts. But a small group of learners (altogether 19, who were having considerably poorer performance) were isolated from others and provided with the L1 (Nepali) translated versions of all the original texts. Besides, the exercises given to them were presented to these learners in both languages (English and Nepali). Thus, there were two groups of learners during this intervention: While the first group of learners (altogether 66) was instructed to do the exercises just by reading the original L2 texts, the second group attempted to do the same after reading both L2 and L1 versions of texts and exercises.
The scores obtained by each of the participants became the quantitative data for analysis of results. Statistical analysis was carried out to study the progress made by the participants from previous test to the subsequent one – comparing the results where applicable.
Based on the participants’ scores in the three tests, statistical calculations were made; and data were studied comparing the performance of the two groups of learners. The chart below depicts the progress of the two groups throughout the project, based on the average figures calculated from participants’ achievement in the tests.
(Adapted from: Luitel and others, 2014)
In the baseline of pre-test, the score of ‘non-translation group’ was higher than that of ‘translation group’ (with 5.9% difference between the two). The discrepancy between these groups increased considerably in post test 1 – whereby the students who received treatment through translated materials afterwards (i.e. in the second intervention) had scored 13.05% less than those who did not get that treatment later on. In post test 2, however, ‘translation group’ increased its position drastically while the increase in ‘non-translation group’ was limited; and the difference in score between the two groups became negligible this time (‘non-translation’ group scoring 1.39% greater than ‘translation group’).
Learners’ progress from post test 1 to post test 2 deserves special attention here, since it was during this period when translation strategy was employed in ‘translation group’ through the learning materials. Studying the scores in post test 1 and post test 2, we can notice considerably higher rate of progress brought about by L1-translated materials (with 15.26% greater score in post test 2 than post test 1 in the case of ‘translation group’) compared to the progress found in the learners who did not have the opportunity to read the translated version of the reading texts and exercises (i.e. the learners of ‘non-translation group’, who progressed just by 3.6%). It must be noted that ‘translation group’ had a remarkably poor rate of progress during the first transition (from pre-test to post test 1) while ‘non-translation group’ had garnered substantial progress (by 12.9%) in the same period. From the study of the pattern of progress, we are in a confident position to speculate that, had the baseline in post test 1 been the same for the two groups of learners, ‘translation group’ would have outperformed the ‘non-translation group’ drastically in post test 2.
After applying t-test, it was found that the progress yielded by ‘translation group’ was insignificant during the first transition (P-value = 0.13), while it was highly significant during the second transition (P-value = 0.001). Application of significance test in the scores of learners who were in ‘non-translation group’ revealed that the highly significant progress made during the first transition (P-value = 0.000) was reduced to the level of moderate significance during the second transition (P-value = 0.019).
To be more specific regarding the research questions, we can note the following important points based on the study of data:
- The learners taught without using translation have progressed in comprehension – which is sometimes noticed distinctly (indicated by the highly significant progress of ‘non-translation’ group in the first transition), and has sometimes remained less distinct (indicated by the moderately significant progress of ‘non-translation’ group in the second transition). In the case of ‘translation group’ (which consisted of learners with poorer level of competence) during the first transition (when the intervention did not involve translation), however, progress was not evident (indicated by the insignificant difference between the scores in pre-test and post test 1). Overall, the data demonstrated the reality that, in absence of translation, the learners who were relatively better off garnered noticeable progress while the poorer ones could not.
- Data also clearly demonstrated progress brought about by the intervention made through translation among learners – indicated by the highly significant progress during the second transition in ‘translation group’ (in which translated materials were implemented).
- It was evident that translational supplement contributed a higher rate of progress in learners’ comprehension than the progress brought about by the treatment in absence of translation – as indicated by: (a) the highly significant progress noticed in ‘translation group’ during the second transition as mentioned above, compared to the insignificant progress of the same group during the first transition; and (b) the moderately significant progress of ‘non-translation group’ compared to the highly significant progress of ‘translation group’ during the second transition.
Discussion and implication
Besides the changes in learners’ achievement discussed above in quantitative terms, a notable point observed in ‘translation group’ was that the translated versions of learning materials had contributed a lot to increase learners’ motivation in reading texts – which caused noticeable difference in their participation as well. According to one of the teachers involved in implementing the reading materials during the interventions, this change occurred in the behaviour of poorer learners who were not participating willfully in the classes during the first intervention – indicated by their habit of frequently looking at the things outside the classroom, or lack of attention on teacher when he was demonstrating the key points from reading passage on the whiteboard, and so on. After using the translated versions of materials in the second intervention, they came closer to the teacher for interaction, raised questions and curiosities regarding the words-phrases and message contained in the text; and teacher responded for clarification accordingly. These happenings in the classroom must have been associated with the progress of learners taught through translation in the second intervention.
Behind the progress of ‘translation group’ in the study described here, the ‘translation bridge’ created through the L1-translated version of the reading materials (See the samples in Annex) must have played a key role by ‘tracking’ (showing destination) the learners’ attempt of ‘translanguaging’ the reading text in their struggle for comprehension – which resulted in significant improvement among the learners of this group, who had performed poorly in the previous tests (in absence of such a facilitation provided in the reading materials beforehand). Moreover, use of L1 in this way also inspired the learners for interaction (with teacher) on the message contained in the texts – as revealed in the raised level of their motivation described above.
Thus, seeing the success of L1-translated versions of reading materials in making the learners understand L2 texts, we can stress the point that ‘translation bridge’ has been proved as one of the useful strategies for the teaching of reading comprehension in English (as an L2); and this strategy is applicable among the students having poor level of competence even after studying at college level. Moreover, bridging has also been proved a wonderful tactic for instilling the feeling of ownership (created by L1) among learners in the L2 reading texts – that has contributed, as found in the second intervention, to increase motivation in reading L2 texts and ultimately to enhance comprehension.
The success of facilitation through translation demonstrated in this study is in consonance with the studies conducted by Kim and Petraki (2009) which had proved the supportive role of L1 in the learning of word-meaning (See above: ‘Benefits of translation…’ under ‘Review of empirical literature’). Similarly, success of this technique in the teaching of paragraph writing in L2 found by Sattayatham and Honsa (2007) is proved applicable in the teaching of reading comprehension as well.
In addition, the result of this study has also indicated that the learners with relatively ‘better off’ position are, to some extent, able to progress in reading comprehension even without the aid of translation; while those having poorer achievement profile have not been able to progress in its absence. This is somehow in conformity with the finding of the author’s previous study (Luitel, 2005) – which indicated, in the teaching of word-meanings, that use of translation brings about better result among the learners of ‘lower strata’ (having poorer achievement profile); though using this strategy or adopting the ‘direct’ way of practicing word-meanings in L2 does not matter much in the case of the learners who are in better situation in terms of their ‘word-meaning knowledge base’.
From this study, the author is in a bit confident position to point out that recommending this strategy for the preparation of reading materials would be one of the wise decisions in favour of the learners with poor competence in L2. However, it would be better to stop applying this technique once the learners raise their position to ‘better off’ level – as the study indicated that they can progress even without such a ‘bridging aid’ if their level of competence is a bit higher. In addition, we must also remember that meanings and units of linguistic chunks/expressions tend to develop from unknown to known level in every learner (whether they are in ‘better off’ position or ‘poorer’ in competence). In this connection, the facilitation created through translation (in teaching) or translanguaging (in learning) can be beneficial till the items/expressions or meanings remain ‘unknown’ to the learner. Once these problematic things change their status and become ‘known’ in absence of L1 assistance, need for ‘bridging’ becomes redundant; or, its relevance is ended.
In line with the study findings, we can say that there is no doubt in the judicious use of translation for L1-L2 bridging that is required for raising learner’s motivation in the reading materials while learning. But careful and critical judgment is needed to decide when to use and when to stop using this strategy – based on the newness of the contents and language used in the materials. In this connection, ‘newness’ should be considered in terms of learner’s familiarity with the content matter and linguistic expressions employed by the material rather than on the basis of anything else.
Considering the author’s conceptualization of reading skill development at four basic depth levels (which include ‘recognition of stated facts’, ‘understanding implied reality’, ‘understanding gist’ and ‘making judgment’) (Luitel, 2016), it would be relevant to point out some further scope of the present study. As this study has not attempted to inquire into the issue of employing translation for teaching reading at these particular depth levels, a potential issue of further research could be the efficacy of translation bridge across these levels. Exploration of this kind will bear significance in connection with the identification of factors that can contribute to the development of reading comprehension at deeper levels. When exploration of the factors affecting reading comprehension in English as a Second Language (ESL) becomes our agenda (Luitel, 2017), it becomes equally relevant to explore the factors that facilitate comprehension in ESL.
Doing so, we can go into the question such as: Does the presence or absence of translation or translanguaging affect (positively or negatively) ESL reading comprehension at one or more of the particular depth levels (such as the ones mentioned above), or not? There could be the possibility, for instance, that translation bridge does facilitate comprehension at the level of ‘recognition of stated facts’ but works as an obstacle at the level of ‘understanding gist’, and so on. Such issues need further exploration.
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Annex: Sample reading text, test items, translated text, exercises and their L1 versions
 The author is grateful to University Grants Commission/Nepal for supporting a research project entitled “Improving students’ learning of English through teacher participation in action research: The case of vocabulary and reading comprehension at B Ed level” (2012-14), on which this paper is based.
 The authors’ initial (and middle) names are abbreviated here as per the style followed by this journal. Their (full) names as appeared in the respective sources will be given in: http://www.binodluitelblog.wordpress.com. Also read Salute to author identity in academic writing and research (by Binod Luitel, published in Review Nepal on 15 October 2015 – see: http://reviewnepal.com/articles/salute-to-author-identity-in-academic-writing-and-research.html) for the rationale in favour of the identity of authors while referring to their works in academic writings.
Dr. Binod Luitel is an Associate Professor of English Education at Tribhuvan University. He has got PhD in language curriculum, undertaken several researches in the field of language education, published papers in scholarly journals, and delivered presentations in many national-international academic events. His areas of interest include: course designing, material development, teacher training/development, vocabulary, reading comprehension, learner hierarchy, cooperative learning, pedagogic literature, action research and classroom-based pedagogic innovations. Having more than two decades of teaching experience, he is now working as a researcher at Research Centre for Educational Innovation and Development (CERID) under Tribhuvan University.