George Lucas Educational Foundation

Translation Skills in Foreign Language Curriculum

Translation Skills in Foreign Language Curriculum

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In learning about Duolingo I came upon an article "Translating with Duolingo for Language Learning" that took a look at the role of translation in teaching a language. I know that CLT is the focus - however I have found that when we talk about how students will use language in real life - in their jobs - especially here in California - the ability to translate what is said onto a piece of paper (from English to Spanish and vice versa) or translate what is written (from English to Spanish and vice versa) from one document to another is a very common request by employers of their employees specifically because many employers are not bilingual. The employees are valued not only because of their ability to speak in the language and interpret the spoken word but also to translate. So - I am interested in thoughts about saying out loud that translation is ok because it is a skill future employees will most likely be requested to use.

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Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Hello Pam,

Thanks for posting this comment. Translation has been a provocative topic in our field, hasn't it! I appreciate that you posted the link to the article and enjoyed reading it for myself. In an effort to respond to your comments, I prefer not to write about Duolingo as much as about the notion of translation in particular.

I found 3 particular statements in the article that I would like to highlight, and upon which I would like to comment. Here is the first:

"The general consensus was that Duolingo would not be good for learning an entirely new language of which one has no knowledge; it is better for reviewing a language one has already started learning, or for learning a language that is closely related to one that you already know."

- Although the comment does mention Duolingo, I think the underlying concept to highlight is this: at what point does translation make sense? I have often found that my French students default to Google Translate as a tool, firstly because they have heard of it, but mostly because they think that French will work word for work just like their own language. For this reason, I ask students not to translate, but rather to take in the language we are studying first, so they can see how French works, how it is different in some ways, similar in others, but also so they come to understand that it has meaning independent of other languages. I do include comparisons of French to the languages of students in the class at times, in connection with our ACTFL standards of linguistic and cultural comparisons. This quick clarification is one thing. Translation is different I think.

The second comment is:

"... Duolingo is a tool that can supplement any curriculum. In particular, users meet the ACTFL Standard 1.2 (understanding and interpreting written and spoken language) and Standard 4.1 (understanding the nature of language by making comparisons between the TL and the L1)."

- Again, though the comment mentions Duolingo, the underlying issue is how once students have a level of comprehension of the target language, they can indeed benefit from extensive reading, at the i + 1 level (cf Krashen), to extend the students' deeper understanding of the way the target language works. I don't think there is a great problem with students comparing how a text reads in the target language with the students' home languages, but I do think that, especially at the early stages, students benefit more from comprehensible input +1 in the target language, in order to internalize the language they are learning, before they venture out into significant levels of translation.

The third comment is:

"... it is less cognitively demanding to translate from the TL to the L1, but Duolingo does not account for this and often asks users first to translate from L1 to TL."

- Yet again, the comment mentions Duolingo, but the point of greater importance for our purposes is this. Comprehension proceed production. Oral and written. Given this normal and intuitive aspect of language acquisition, I wonder if we really want to focus on translation, rather than summarization or interpretation as a comprehension check, for example?

Translation is a very specific skill, which requires deep knowledge of the target language of translation, and of the langue to which the message is to be translated. Personally, I prefer to avoid assigning work to my novice and intermediate proficient students which requires translation. I would much prefer that they acquire fluency in French. I am not preparing students to become professional translators, per se, though I certainly am preparing them to be global citizens who have some competency to comprehend others, and to interact with them, in all the languages they know. Some of them may indeed find that they can serve as liaisons to help others understand each other, professionally and personally, but really serious translation work needs to be done by those who have extensive training to do so. We can help them prepare for such professional undertakings, to be sure, by ensuring we offer multiple opportunities for cross-cultural and linguistic comparisons. It is a fine line, no doubt!

And as for Duolingo, I am going to check it out more thoroughly and see how I might encourage my students to read more! That would be a great objective in and of itself!

In tweeting out this comment, I wonder what others think about this discussion! Let us hear from you as well!

Best wishes,

Isabel Hill's picture

I couldn't agree more, Don! When working on translating a text with beginners, it sounds more like the grammar-translation method. Not only translating is a very sophisticated skill, but it requires a very good advanced level of competence/performance in both languages. It doesn't refer to just translating individual words and writing a sentence. It would involve many other skills such as the correct use of idioms, polysemic words, figurative language, culture competence, academic language vs. survival language, etc. This skills are usually acquired in later language learning/acquisition stages.
I would certainly discourage the use of this strategy at all as, in my opinion, actually goes against effective language acquisition / learning methods.
Isabel Hill

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