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February 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Translation as a Mediation Strategy in the Teaching and Learning Foreign Languages: Case of the French - Arabic Translation

Mohamed Gacemi has been teaching French in Algeria for over 30 years. He has taught French in high school and has gained wide experience in teaching this language. He is also teacher trainer of French language. Currently, he is completing a doctorate in socio-didactics.

Azzeddine Bencherab is a university lecturer in Algeria. He has a wide experience in ELT in High School and College. He is author of several articles in international magazines worldwide. His interests include teacher development and developing skills.



Much research has been devoted to the mobilization of L1 in the learning of foreign languages. Part of the research has been able to establish that the use of language ​​"already there" is achieved through teaching or learning strategies depending on the case: encoding alternation, translation, mediation ... In this article, we propose an experience of translation into the production of writing as a strategy for mobilizing Arabic (dialectal Arabic used outside schools or classical Arabic used in schools) in teaching/ learning French.

This article includes two parts. The first part presents an overview of teachers' conceptions of the use of translation in their classes. The second part shows an experience through which we tried to test the Arabic-French translation as an aid in the French written production activity (paragraph writing). It is less a matter of systematizing translation into the practice of teaching French learning, but rather providing the student and the teacher with a tool for intermediation between two languages ​​that mix with each other in class.



Algeria is a country where people speak different languages ​​and varieties of languages. De facto plurilingualism (Kara, 2010, Taleb-Ibrahimi, 1995, Chachou, 2011, Djaballah-Belkacem, 2011) is naturally present in people’s everyday life. It has the characteristic of being fluid in its circulation through the different layers of society and sufficiently dynamic to constitute personal and diversified trajectories. However, this characteristic is quickly neutralized as soon as one crosses the threshold of the class of language courses. In other words, this ease in the language practices often favored by the codes of social interaction essentially dedicated to inter-understanding in exchanges, in search of word economy, ease or simply of availability, disappears at the same time.

Research in didactics, mainly those working on multilingualism, both Algerian and foreign, all agree that the use of other languages and other varieties of languages that make up the language repertoire of learners is an undeniable support in learning the target language.

In Europe, such orientations have not remained mere theoretical propositions. Indeed, some initiatives have been carried out, in formats such as the one implemented in the teaching of European languages, especially "Romance", under the name "awakening to languages", like EURO 4. These pluralistic approaches (Candelier, 2008) were later articulated to the notion of plurilingual and pluricultural competence developed in the CEFR (Council of Europe, 2001) and the Guide for the Development of Language Education Policies in Europe (Beacco and Byram, 2007) to provide education for plurilingualism. Therefore, any didactic intervention is intended to provide the learner with the possibility of "leaning on his previous linguistic knowledge, in any language whatsoever" in a "pedagogical approach in which the learner works simultaneously on several languages" (Candelier, 2008)

On the other hand, in Algeria, where the plural dimension of languages and varieties is hardly recognized, the mobilization of other languages to learn the target language is hardly worthwhile. Admittedly, the recommendations promoting multilingualism are never absent from official and pedagogical discourses. Nonetheless the question of the not taking into account the plurilingual practices (Kara, 2010) complicates any attempt to introduce multilingualism in schools. To this end, Abbes-Kara rightly advises:

"Introducing the awakening to languages in the primary school and acting on the attitudes and representations of both teachers and learners, seems to us to be one of the ways of reconciliation of children and Algerians in general with their multilingualism, their plural culture, their national identity. "(Kara, 2010).

No one can claim that a French course is totally devoid of Arabic or Kabyle languages (Kabyle language is a Berber language spoken by the Kabyle people in the north and northeast of Algeria). On the contrary, and even if their speech remains extremely divided on the question, many teachers say that often they have no choice but to use dialectal Arabic (to speak only of our case here) if they wish to obtain a minimum of intercommunication and understanding in their class. Thus, the use of Arabic is made in an emergency context, randomly, at the mercy of blockages and misunderstandings. Moreover, nothing in the syllabuses or textbooks has been mentioned for such situations, which are fundamentally linguistic situations where the class is a social context. Therefore, it is quite obvious that languages, varieties, cultures and social differences intersect  and these parameters should be taken into account (Kara, 2010).

A thorny question arises, however, right from the outset: "How to integrate the languages already known by the student to the teaching of French? We believe that, beyond any theoretical discourse on the subject, this question is legitimate and worth to be asked and legitimate as it constitutes a real topical issue to teachers.

In Algeria, a number of studies have focused on understanding the delicate issue of teachers 'use of Arabic or Kabyle languages in students' repertoires to learn another language, mainly French. Some have highlighted the indisputable reality of the use of Arabic by French teachers with a backdrop, a distinction between those who do so in a manner posted and others who do so implicitly.

For teachers who admit the practice, they say that it is used in all kinds of activities when dealing with the four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) using various strategies such as reformulation, translation, contrastivity (Dabène, 1996). In contrast, the use of Arabic in French classes remains a "taboo" subject victim of the relatively shared representation in society, which Bensekat had not failed to note:  

It must be pointed out that in the French class in Algeria, the use of the mother tongue is generally not tolerated: the mixed productions of learners and sometimes even teachers continue to be evaluated negatively "(Bensekat, 120).


Translation experience

After several years of teaching, we tried to find solutions to the problems arising from the teacher/student relationship when the teacher expresses himself/herself exclusively in the target language, French. The use of the translation of which we speak is shifting from a statement (oral or written) expressed in a known language to a language in construction. "Teaching the target language in the target language" was for a long time erected in principle by the "direct paradigm" constantly decried by researchers such as Puren (1995). This paradigm has its origin in the model of the acquisition of the mother tongue, the "natural method", implemented by an instruction of 1863, which direct methodologists claim. In this model, the child learns to think and speak at the same time. All the methodologies up to the present day have followed this model which denies any recourse to L1 and thus to translation, either as a means of accessing forms or as a means of reusing these forms, or as a means of evaluating degree of mastery of these forms (Puren, 1988).


Translation, an interlingual mediation tool

By shifting from Arabic to French, we exploit the wealth of experiences of acquisition in Algerian Arabic and that of a first standard Arabic learning as a support on which will rest somehow learning French. Although both languages are far apart, genealogically, morphologically and culturally different, we nevertheless believe that translation can bridge the gap and bring them together, relying in particular on the semantic component of the translated utterance. We only wanted to put into practice what multitudinous approaches have been aiming for a few years now: a global rather than compartmentalized conception of language education, implementing, in different ways, several linguistic varieties and cultural (Candelier, 2009). Having recourse to other varieties of languages has been clearly highlighted by Depietro: “value all languages that may be relevant in the school context (2011).”

We have undertaken to use translation not as an end but as a means; in other words, using translation as a tool to bring two languages, Arabic and French, into contact, Translation is in every teacher’s mind, but from a "practical" point of view extremely difficult on how to implement it as a teaching strategy. When translating inside the class, we broke two rules long established by the force of things: we raised a prohibition and we broke down a partition that separated the two languages formerly institutionally accepted. It is deplorable that in many cases separation is a reality that still persists.

Often used by learners when they express themselves in the spoken or the written form, translation invites by itself as soon as learners are not able to express themselves in the target language. Thus, translation acts as mediation between the language in construction and the known language, allowing them to say what they cannot say in the language they are learning. However, it is worthy to note that Lado (1957) discouraged the use of language transfer, regarding it as negative. Still, we had to experience translation in a particular context: Writing.

When assigned a writing activity, students tried to translate from Arabic to French. They tried to translate word by word into French, leaving a gap when they could not find the words, generating interferences. It was evident they had trouble finding in French what they thought in Arabic. As a result, the teacher’s role moved from that of assigning a task and evaluating students’ work to a contributor to the accomplishment of that task.

In the assigned writing activity, our learners were to use two languages, Arabic (dialect or standard) and French. In this research, we had to be aware of the plurilingual status of our students as the context is such that two languages are explicitly in permanent contact and their low proficiency they have been carrying from their early years of education. Consequently, it is the most disadvantaged students who feel the need to translate the most and who use translation the most as an individual learning strategy" (Puren, 1995).

V.John-Steiner, among other researchers, has pointed out learners’ tendency to translate either from target language into the mother tongue for comprehension or from the mother tongue into the target language to produce as a language production strategy. The researcher found that most students used translation during their first months of study. For example, to report on a presentation in English, learners write it first in their mother tongue and then translate it into English. "Some subjects have told us that this recourse to translation persists for a long time" (V.John-Steiner, 109).


Translation in writing

This research aimed to test the translation activity at a specific moment in the class: when students are assigned a writing task. What we had to confirm was the assumption that translation was an appreciable support to learners when they are set at writing, a binding activity, especially for the novice learner, who knows how to produce certain parts of his speech in his native language but unable to do so in the target. He produces a coherent discourse,subjectively and enunciatively but built in his head in an inter-linguistic alternation. Puren (1995) is adamant about this. He insists on a "translation rehabilitation (which)] ... [is precisely linked to what we can call the current" paradigmatic crisis ", and how the definition of a new translation status will require reference to a new paradigm "(1995, 4).

In our research, we therefore had to test the use of Arabic / French translation in written production. To do this, we used a method already tested in research in Canada and the United States. We asked twenty-one (21) first-year college students to write a paragraph of at least one hundred words. The participants were between 10 and 13 years old. They were heterogeneous because they did not follow the same path. Some came from two elementary schools where the level in French was surprisingly low. These institutions are located in a neighborhood that could be described as socially "disadvantaged". Others, however, came from schools where the level was fairly good, in a "better off" area. When moving from primary schools to middle schools, these learners – from both areas- get merged to make mixed ability classes. Some managed to cope with the standard; others kept on lagging behind, lost hope of improving their proficiency and ultimately built stereotypical representations of this language. Their writing task was assigned into two modes: The direct mode and the translation mode. In the direct mode, that is to say directly in French, learners were not supported by the teacher (no translation was provided). The teacher’s assistance was limited to what to do (instruction) in the target language, French. The drafting took place in the presence of a French teacher who did not receive any specific training in Arabic / French translation. In the translation mode, learners were assisted whenever there was a felt need. Words or expressions were given in Arabic each time there was a request. The teacher proposed translations that would be as close as possible to the level of the learners and the ideas they had formulated themselves. Although the writing task: “Write a story of at least 100 words in which you will tell what you did during Eid” was the same for both groups, we still noted differences in the drafting step.

The choice of a topic that is close to learners' culture was deliberate. The reason behind suggesting the same subject in both modes is that we were more concerned by objectivity. Indeed, if we had proposed a second subject for the second mode, regardless of the results obtained, we would have taken into account the variable "knowledge of the subject / lack of knowledge of the subject" which would probably have "skewed" the interpretation of the results. The first part of the analysis made it possible to evaluate the overall quality of both modes by comparing them. We evaluated learners’ paragraphs according to three components: vocabulary, syntax and coherence.

The vocabulary criterion was evaluated according to the accuracy of the choice of lexical units (Boogard) used in the productions. The grammar category was concerned with syntax and morphology skills (the disposition of the constituent elements of the sentence, use of anaphorics, chords, etc.) The coherence category would ensure the presence of continuity and progression.

During the classroom observation, we found out that the number of words in the direct mode shifts from an average of 1676 words  to an average of 2294 words in translation mode with a consequent increase of 618 words. Overall, 19 out of 21 students wrote more words in the second mode. This number clearly means that in the direct mode, learners were terribly lacking in "editorial material", a linguistic input they badly needed to say. The results highlighted the differences between the two modes of writing, direct and translation in terms of vocabulary, grammar and coherence. It was obvious that in the light of the results obtained, it was the vocabulary component that benefited most from the translation followed by coherence then grammar. For vocabulary, the scores go from 81 points in direct mode to 94 points in translation mode with a difference of 13 points. Therefore, vocabulary poses problems to learners when it comes to writing. The fact that vocabulary is the component that has benefited the most from translation deserves to be noted. This finding confirms the results  found in a similar study conducted by Uzawa (1996) that "a text written directly in L2 can lead to a slightly lower level of vocabulary because learners use lexis and expressions that are immediately accessible to them."



The translation experience with students in writing has highlighted its advantages and limitations. The translation given by the teacher to learners during the writing draft helps them enrich their writing lexically, amplifying their vocabulary repertoire. As such, the use of translation is a valuable aid for learners who are starting to learn a language, French as is our case. However, translation has not been of much assistance as regards to coherence and syntax. We believe that once the stage of language mastery has been crossed, learners, through time, can gradually learn to do without it (translation). As we are about to finish this paper, we are left with the feeling that with more people leaving their countries either for financial reasons or socio- political turmoil, there is a need to do further research as regards to translation to ease the pain of learning a new language with the presence of L1.



Abbes-Kara, Y-A. « La variation dans le contexte algérien. Enjeux linguistique, socioculturel et didactique», Cahiers de sociolinguistique 1/2010 (n° 15) , p. 77-86
consulté le 25/10/2016

Bloem, I., van den Boogaard, S., & LaHeij, W. (2004). Semantic facilitation and semantic interference in language production: Further evidence for the conceptual selection model of lexical access. Journal of Memory and Language, 51, 307-323.

Candelier, M. « Approches plurielles, didactiques du plurilinguisme : le même et l’autre », Les Cahiers de l'Acedle, 2008 Recherches en didactique des langues – L'Alsace au cœur du plurilinguisme,  vol. 5, n° 1 Page 66, décembre 2008.

Chachou I., 2011, Aspects des contacts des langues en contexte publicitaire algérien : analyse et enquête sociolinguistiques, thèse de doctorat en science du langage, université de Mostaganem.

Dabène, M. 1996. Pour une contrastivité "revisitée", ELA, 101, p. 393-400

Depietro, F.  « Valoriser toutes les langues à l’école…par des approches plurielles: le projet CARAP, Babylonia 01/11 | consulté le 30/06/2016.

Djaballah-Belkacem A., 2011, « Mobilité linguistique (français-arabe) dans la consommation de la presse écrite en Algérie, de l’indépendance à nos jours : Glissement naturel ou inversion forcée des tendances »,

John-Steiner, V. 1982, « vers la compétence linguistique en pays étranger » in « Acquisition et utilisation d’une langue étrangère, l’approche cognitive, paru dans « le français dans le monde, recherche et application »1982, coord. par D. Gaonac’h, pp 101-114.

Lado, R. 1957. Linguistics across Cultures. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of
Michigan Press.

Puren, C. 1988, « histoires des méthodologies dans l’enseignement des langues », pp382, clé international.

Puren, C. 1995c. « Pour un nouveau statut de la traduction en didactique des langues ». Les Langues Modernes n° 1, 1995, pp. 7-22. Paris : APLV.

Taleb-Ibrahimi, K. 1995. Les Algériens et leur (s) langue (s), Alger, Les Editions el Hikma.

Besekat, M. « Pour une promotion du plurilinguisme en classe de langue ? »  

In synergies Pays Riverains du Mékong n°4 – 2012, pp. 107-126.

Uzawa, K. (1996). Second language learners’ processes of L1 writing, L2 writing and translation from L1 into L2. Journal of Second Language Writing, 5, 271–294.


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