Invisible, insane: translating the untranslatable?
Simon Gill teaches at Olomouc University in the Czech Republic. Here he
suggests that teachers tap into and exploit the rich resource that all
students have of language specific to their culture.

Even by the standards of ELT, a discipline capable of adopting and discarding ideas at a speed a fashion designer would envy, translation is a skill which has had a very up-and-down time of' it in recent decades. Now, after going through a whole gamut of' statuses ranging from exalted to unmentionable, it seems to have become part of the accepted repertoire of Good Things, subject to the caveat that it should be used appropriately. Some authorities (eg. the Headway series and Rinvolucri & Davis) emphasise its value in sensitising learners to contrasts and comparison between the grammar of their own language and English, while others, such as Lewis, point out its usefulness in the field of lexis. In this article I would like to consider an aspect of the latter.

Lewis takes a broad view of lexis, which, he suggests, includes not only words but also a great number' of bigger 'chunks' of language. He argues that translation on a chunk-by-chunk rather than a word-by-word basis throws up many close parallels between languages. While this is a position that I would on the whole agree with, there are, in every language, numerous words and expressions that resist neat translation for the simple reason that they describe phenomena peculiar to the society in which that language has evolved,

In some cases, notably when learning in an English-speaking country, learners may wish to become familiar with aspects of English lexis that reflect life in that country. More often, though, they will want to use English to explain lexis peculiar to their own language. Imagine, say, a German meeting an Italian on holiday in Greece. What will their conversation in English be about? Britain? Possible but improbable. Far more likely topics are their surroundings, homes, jobs, families, interests, in short their own realities, and it is precisely in this sort of sphere that such culture-specific lexis crops up.

Despite this, though, and despite the currently growing emphasis on cultural learning, this kind of lexis is an area that tends to receive scant attention in textbooks, which are, by and large, designed to appeal to as wide a market as possible, and may well be neglected or even ignored by teachers, especially those who do not share the learners cultural and linguistic background. Yet potentially it represents both a rich source of subject matter for the classroom and a valuable vehicle for teaching descriptive language. The following are four of the more obvious areas in which a high density of culture-specific lexis can be found.

Food and drink. The most cursory look at a menu or the shelves of a shop is enough to reveal how much lexis in this area is internationalised. Croissant, pizza, vodka, kebab, goulash the list of loan-words in any language would be a long and impressive one, but it would almost certainly be eclipsed by the list of words and expressions that have not been exported and thus do not have equivalents in other languages.

Institutions. Despite the considerable overlap between the complex systems of organisation that have evolved in various societies, each has its own idiosyncrasies. Just think of something as seemingly simple as administrative districts; how could we translate into English the German Bundesland, French department, Swiss canton or Czech okres? The lexis pertaining to government, honorary titles, the educational system, the law, bureaucracy and a myriad other aspects of the system is vast.

Societal constructs. Under this heading we can include a wide variety of aspects of the everyday life of a country and those who live there, such as types of building, musical instruments and styles, furniture, tools, festivals, traditions, and more. This is an area in which connotational as well as denotational meanings may well play a significant part; for example, expressions such as go for a pint, the local comprehensive, trainspotter and typical Guardian reader carry overtones for many British people that may well mystify those from elsewhere.

Idiomatic language and slang.  There is, occasionally, a one-to-one correlation between languages in the rich field of idioms. Both English and Czech, for example, use the expression as poor as a church mouse. Rather more frequently there will be something semantically similar if linguistically rather different. The Slovak simile used to describe a person perspiring freely translates literally as to sweat like a donkey in a suitcase. At other times, though, we can search the target language in vain for anything even vaguely resembling the treasured and colourful L1 expression we would like to use. The title of this article is taken from an almost certainly apocryphal but still illustrative story of efforts to use computers to translate language; it represents what is said to have happened when the computer, having translated the aphorism out of sight, out of mind into Japanese, then attempted to reverse the process.

Classroom activities

In the classroom, this kind of culture-specific lexis can be used to teach and practise a variety of' structures and more mainstream lexis. To take the first category, food and drink, as an example, the vocabulary emphasis (depending on the learners' level) will be on nouns (ingredients and kitchen equipment), verbs of cooking (peel, chop, fry ...), and adjectives (sweet, delicious, fiery, healthy...), while the sort of structures likely to be needed include imperatives, sequencers, and what Lewis calls 'sentence frames' such as It looks/tastes/smells rather like... and It's made of/with/from .... Here are some activities that I have found to be useful for exploiting culture-specific lexis.


While initially these might be prepared by the teacher, learners should be encouraged to take on this role as it involves them in valuable language practice. Once prepared, the descriptions can be used in a variety of ways for both practice and revision. They can, for instance, be used in matching exercises, such as where a number of descriptions have to be matched to expressions from a list provided. They can also be the basis for a variety of guessing games, such as the 'Call My Bluff' described by Lamb in Modern English Teacher, in which three descriptions are prepared, two false and one correct, and then read aloud. The listeners decide which they think is the true one. Learner-produced crossword puzzles in which the descriptions function as the clues are another possibility.

Short talks

Learners can be asked to prepare a talk of a given length on a given topic and deliver it to their classmates. They can support it with illustrations, realia, demonstrations and so on. Examples from my students include demonstrations of origami (the Japanese art of paper folding); an exposition of traditional Catalan games and an introduction to Turkish food complete with samples. This approach works particularly well with multilingual (and multicultural) classes, but can he effective with monolingual ones too. It is pedagogically sound as it combines considerable linguistic value with genuine learner-centredness.

Project work

In many ways this is similar to the idea of short talks. The difference lies in the form of presentation, which can vary enormously. Very often the outcome of a project may be presented in written form, such as a contribution to a student magazine, a poster, a brochure, a menu for a restaurant serving the national cuisine to English-speaking diners, a mini-dictionary or phrasebook, or an advertisement. However, other possibilities exist. A group of Malaysians studying in Britain produced a full-blown cookery book which was sold on a commercial basis; a Slovak colleague who taught in a secondary school had one class prepare a promotional video in English on the district they lived in, and a class of mine, again in Britain, made a programme for the college radio station in which they talked about and played examples of the music they loved from their various homelands.

I make no claim for originality with the above activities, nor do I suggest that they represent anything more than a few of the possibilities that exist for exploiting our learners' culture-specific lexis in the language classroom. What I do wish to stress is that it represents a wonderful resource, and I hope that if you don't already use it in your classes, reading this article will have tempted you to think about how you might do so.


Lamb, M (1997) 'True friends, false friends, and fickle friends', MET 6/2
Lewis, M (1997) Implementing the Lexical Approach, LTP
Rinvolucri, M & Davis, P (1995) More Grammar Games, CUP

From Modern English Teacher Vol. 7  No. 3 (1998): 63-5