Jumping the language barrier: The `fifth skill´

— Philippa Baker

Defining the `fifth skill´

Bettina is an elementary student in an in-company Business English class. She enjoys her lessons, but the hard part for her is walking into the classroom and making the switch between German and English. For her, skills work is a long and laborious process of word-for-word translation, and she would like to know how to eliminate the need to move between the two languages, in other words, how to jump the language barrier. Removing the need for translation is an entirely realistic goal, one that involves putting classroom emphasis on precisely the process Bettina describes, moving from one language to the other, referred to here as the ‘fifth skill’. I contend that the fifth skill not only deserves as much attention as the other four, but is in fact key to mastering the language.

Traditional communicative methodology advocates students ‘thinking in English’. For students like Bettina, this goal may seem impossible, but there is no doubt that some of her colleagues are entirely capable of doing so. In an informal discussion with these students, a total of twenty people from elementary to advanced level, the pattern was clear: elementary students felt they translated word-by-word from German in production activities, and back again in receptive activities, intermediate students felt they usually translated but experienced moments of ‘taking flight’ and thinking in English about 5% of the time, and advanced students reported that the majority of their language processes took place in English.

If we accept that most learners follow this pattern, would it not make sense to focus on the process, to treat is as a fifth skill in addition to the other four, and by drawing students’ attention to it during class time, speed up the ‘automatisation process’?

Reasons to teach the fifth skill…

Perhaps the weightiest argument in favour of focusing on translation skills is that as reported above, use of the fifth skill is a fact of life for many students much of the time. Asking a student to think in English is superfluous if his vocabulary amounts to two hundred words. Asking him to translate a short sentence into English is not only possible, but mirrors what the student claims to experience as he learns.

Regardless of the student’s level, translation exercises are also a fascinating tool for comparative study of L1 and L2. Let us imagine a business student who has to write a formal letter to his English client. By asking him to draft the letter himself in German, we ask him to concentrate first on ideas rather than language, thus generating a checklist which ensures that all his ideas will be included in the English version. We could then ask the student to draft his own English translation and compare it to our own, drawing also attention to the letter conventions. The discovery approach applied to translation makes for a more memorable introduction to the topic, and of course generates a fully proof-read business letter which the student is then ready to send. We could even take things a step further, as suggested by Luke Prodromou in his recent article on mother tongue use in the classroom and have students translate back into the original language (as a final check, perhaps, or to reinforce mental links between equivalent phrases).

An added benefit of using translation exercises in class is their inherent value as an indicator of how well the student has assimilated a new item of vocabulary or grammar. Incorporating a translation exercise as homework after the free practice stage of a grammar lesson, for example, could draw attention to areas which are still unknown. Such an exercise used with sensitivity could give students the opportunity to close lexical gaps, and also to reflect on the information they can express in English. In a recent intermediate class, students were so delighted to find they could express ‘je… desto…’ in English that they produced a spontaneous stream of (correct) examples of the construction without any prompting.

Another argument in favour of translation in the classroom would be that this is what students often expect. Germany is a country where teachers are presumed to be proficient in the language of their students: surely this knowledge should be exploited for the students’ benefit? After a detailed explanation of a new vocabulary item, students are often left muttering to one another or arguing over potential German translations. Perhaps the quickest check question is ‘German?´. In conversation with my students, it transpired that even the most assiduous student, regardless of textbook advice to the contrary, still records vocabulary in English-German pairs: they should at least have an accurate translation. No less useful as an exercise in sensitising students to nuances of language is having them compare and justify their personal or group translations (for concrete suggestions see Language Learning in Translation Classrooms and Learner-Based Teaching).

… and why some hold that we should not

The most commonly cited argument against translation in the classroom is that is not a real-world activity. Businesspeople are not usually confronted with a mass of text which they must translate to a deadline, and they are rarely required to interpret the words of their colleague for a visiting business partner. A quick look at the work of Bettina and her colleagues shows that this is very far from truth. Translation, in various forms, in fact forms a regular part of their work. Few companies use English exclusively as an official language: the more common scenario is for people to work with their immediate colleagues in German and with – usually non-native-speaker – colleagues or business partners in English. An e-mail arriving from Sweden would for example be summarised in German for a colleague, the result of a meeting passed on to the boss briefly in German. A less confident English speaker might formulate his e-mail in English, then forward it to his colleague for checking. An executive sent to a conference in Vienna might listen to native speakers focusing on the gist of their speech rather than the specifics before reporting these back in an e-mail in German to his boss in the evening. If we aim for our classes to mirror the real world of businesspeople then it is precisely this kind of summary translation exercise which we should be practising.

Is it not possible that through a general English course, with no focus on translation skills, the ability to think in the language will be acquired automatically, with no focused input from the teacher? After all, total immersion courses where students spend time in an all-English environment, claim to deliver excellent results. Almost too good: students who have spent time abroad often find they struggle to render some expressions in idiomatic German. Ideally however they should be able to move between both languages just as easily as they can now express themselves within one language.

Translation brings with it the danger of word-for-word renditions of German, the kind of incomprehensible texts produced by most internet translation tools. While literal translations of phrases often sound unfamiliar to the native speaker ear, and also risk being incomprehensible, literal translations at the lexical level can be very helpful, especially in the German – English context when the common root of a word is clear. And by ‘teaching around the word’, by encouraging students to note similarities and differences in usage (‘Does this verb take the same preposition as in German?’), we focus on the phrase rather than the individual word.

Perhaps translation work is viewed as dry or superfluous by students raised on the communicative approach. Notwithstanding surveys suggesting that younger learners (who are more likely to have a background in communicative methodology) tend to prefer minimal use of L1 input of any kind in the classroom, many older students feel differently. Our goal should be to help all learners understand the benefits of studying the ‘fifth skill’, and offer them a chance to incorporate imagery from their own cultural background into the target language and so use it more vividly.

A suggested classroom strategy

If we accept that the fifth skill deserves a place in our classroom, where can we look for teaching material? Few textbooks devote space to issues of translation as such. The vast majority of textbooks are of course monolingual. Notable exceptions are Getting Ahead (includes bilingual word-lists), Cutting Edge (occasionally asks ‘how do you say this in your language?’), and the translation chapter of Learner-Centred Teaching.

We could use as a fifth skill task any activity which compares German and English vocabulary, grammar, or cultural conventions, for example: a conventional translation or summary of a written e-mail; a comparison of past tense forms in the two languages; or an investigation into letter-writing conventions. Other approaches mentioned above are summarised below:

— Using awareness-raising activities which give students the chance to examine their own attitudes to translation in   the classroom
— Setting investigation tasks into German and English letter-writing conventions
— Comparing tense forms in the two languages
— Reformulating German output produced in fluency activities
— Using summary translation exercises with businesspeople
— Ensuring students who record vocabulary in German have an accurate translation
— Setting ‘contextual’ translation vocabulary tests
— Instilling or developing an interest in the process of translation.

All these approaches seek to use fifth skill activities as a bridge, a tool to break through the language barrier and allow students to achieve their aim of ‘thinking in English’.


Prodromou, L. From mother tongue to other tongue.

Campbell, C., Kryszewska H., Learner-Based Teaching, O.U.P. 1992.

Translation in the classroom, Cindy Cunningham

Language Learning in Translation Classrooms, Carol Ann Goff-Kfouri

Walter, H. C., Reading in a second language

Sewell, P., Hidden merits of the translation class

[Philippa Baker studied Eastern European Languages at the University of London. She speaks Russian, Hungarian, French and German. She has taught in Russia and Hungary and is currently working at International House in Hamburg.]


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