To Translate or Not to Translate? On the Use of L1 in the Legal English Classroom.

As a non-lawyer Legal English teacher I do not only train students in this very specialist variety of English but I am also a constant Legal English learner. Every day I ask myself a question how I can improve my teacher’s workshop and provide more and more effective language training. As most ESP (English for Specific Purposes) teachers in Poland I have not been given any formal instruction in special languages or ESP methodology during my English studies at university. As most of Legal English teachers one day I unexpectedly found myself required to teach students with special needs.

The experience in my case was not only a shock but also a huge challenge, as I believe that to teach a very specialist variety one must know the discipline, at least to some extent. That will very much depend on the experience and knowledge of the very learners. After almost 10 years of ELP (English for Legal Purposes) teaching experience I consider myself a very efficient learner who habitually revises material covered, reads a lot both in English and in Polish. My practice tells me that translation in Legal English is crucial as it facilitates remembering, saves time for lengthy definitions of very abstract terms and teaches the learner both common and civil law terms.


In order to assess whether the use of L1 facilitates the process of learning Legal English an experiment was designed and conducted on a group of upper-intermediate Law students. At the time of the experiment the students had almost completed two years of their legal studies and two years of English for Law course. To the time of the experiment the students had attended English for Law classes twice a week and worked with Introduction to International Legal English along with The Lawyer’s English Language Coursebook (Part A). During classes L1, i.e. Polish, was used regularly for translation of specific Law terms. Such procedure seemed helpful especially at the beginning of the course when students have very little knowledge of the discipline they chose to study and of common law which is omnipresent in British coursebooks available on the market. The experimental group consisted of 18 students whose attendance in the classes varied as absenteeism does not influence the final grade which students are awarded according to new university regulations.  

Unit on Tort Law was selected for the experiment, since it was a completely new topic for the group, an area of law that is not typical of Polish legal system and comprises relatively wide scope of material.

After the period of instruction students wrote a regular test, in the format of TOLES Higher examination, and the results of it would be compared with the results of similar tests which the same group of students earlier this year after covering other chapters.

Students had to assess the below twelve statements (in Polish) using five-level Lickert-type scale with the following measures:

(1) Strongly agree, (2) Agree, (3) Neither agree nor disagree, (4) Disagree, (5) Strongly disagree.

  1. I enjoyed classes during which we used Polish more.
  2. I prepared in advance for classes during which I knew we would use only English.
  3. When we did not translate Legal English terms into Polish I used my dictionary more often.
  4. I often felt lost at classes during which we did not translate Legal Terms into Polish.
  5. I did not have to revise much after classes during which we used only English.
  6. It was easier to pass a test after classes during which we used only English.
  7. I felt greater sense of achievement at classes during which we used only English.
  8. I felt greater motivation to learn at classes during which we used only English.
  9. Classes during which we used only English were more interesting.
  10. Legal terms should be translated into Polish because they are too abstract.
  11. When we translated Legal Terms into Polish it was easier for me to master the material.
  12. Classes run in English were too difficult for me.


Over the half of the students did not enjoy classes during which Polish was used for translation more (statement 1). Even more students (62%) felt that classes that had been run completely in English had not been more interesting than classes during which Polish had been used for translation (statement 9). Students confessed that they had not prepared in advance for classes during which they had known they would use only English (statement 2). Almost the half of them confirmed that they had used a dictionary more often to translate legal terms into Polish (statement 3) but even more of them (54%) admitted that they had often felt lost at classes which were run wholly in English (statement 4). Two out of five students noticed that they had not had to revise much after classes during which they had used only English (statement 5) and almost half of them felt greater sense of achievement and their motivation to learn English rose (statements 7 and 8). Majority of the group (77%) agreed that legal terms should be translated into Polish because they are too abstract (statement 10) and it had been easier for them to master the material when legal terms had been translated into Polish (statement 11). However, only one student in four acknowledged that classes run in English had been too difficult for him/her (statement 12).

The grades which students scored after covering the chapter on Tort Law were the poorest (57%) compared to other tests which the same group wrote during the last academic year at which the students scored on average between 60% and 71%. At Tort Law test over the half of the students failed compared to other tests when only once the record 47% students failed while usually only 12%-23% had to retake the test. The answers provided by the students in the questionnaire after they wrote the test did not seem, however, to reflect the achieved results. Only four students out of ten perceived the difficulty of the task (statement 6).


Students who participated in the experiment did not observe any significant differences in the attractiveness of classes run totally in English and those during which Polish was used for translation of Law terms. Classes seemed to be more motivating and demanding for the students, generated more individual dictionary work, some students noticed that they learned more effectively during classes. Unfortunately, many of them felt lost when no Polish equivalents to specialist legal terms were provided. Definitely legal terms need to be translated into Polish because very often they are too abstract for professionally inexperienced students. Moreover, test results show that it was much more difficult to pass the test after the experiment with no use of L1 in the classroom.

The experiment showed how important translation is to the overall student achievement in the Legal English classroom. However, the above conclusions should not be an excuse for the overuse of L1 during English classes.

Students seem to enjoy classes conducted in the target language; they perceive them as challenging and motivating. However, most of them need feedback in their native language in order to achieve a sense of security. Meaningful and reliable information provided by the teacher assures them that the process of learning is effective and faster.

The use of L1 in the Legal English classroom should, therefore, be limited only to translation of the most difficult, most abstract and novel legal terms. Otherwise, students might be tempted to switch to their native language. Translation should be used to facilitate students’ memorisation processes. Once they understand the new term they should learn to paraphrase it, define, substitute with synonyms, simplify or formalize, i.e. speak just like lawyers do when they explain things to their clients.

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