The Literal Translation Hypothesis in ESP Teaching/Learning Environments

Pedro A. Fuertes-Olivera, Carmen Piqué-Noguera


Research on the characteristics of specialized vocabulary usually replicates studies that deal with general words, e.g. they typically describe frequent terms and focus on their linguistic characteristics to aid in the learning and acquisition of the terms. We dispute this practise, as we believe that the basic characteristic of terms is that they are coined to restrict meaning, i.e. to be as precise and as specific as possible in a particular context. For instance, around 70% of English and Spanish accounting terms are multi-word terms, most of which contain more than three orthographic words that syntactically behave in a way that is very different from the syntactic behaviour of the node on which they are formed (Fuertes-Olivera and Tarp, forthcoming). This has prompted us to propose a research framework that investigates whether or not the literal translation hypothesis, which has been addressed in several areas of translation studies, can also be applied in ESP teaching/learning environments. If plausible, the assumptions on which this hypothesis is based can shed light on how learners disambiguate terms they encounter. Within this framework, this paper presents evidence that the literal translation hypothesis is possible in ESP; it offers the results of a pilot study that sheds light on how this hypothesis may work, and also discusses its usability in the context of ESP learning. In particular, this paper presents strategies for teaching multi-word terms that are different from those currently based on corpus data. We believe that exercises such as “cloze”, “fill in” and similar “guessing” exercises must be abandoned in ESP teaching/learning environments. Instead, we propose exercises that reproduce L1 teaching and learning activities, i.e., exercises that are typically used when acquiring specialised knowledge and skills in any domain, e.g. taking part in meetings and giving presentations in a business context.

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