04 July 2011

Translation: an unjustified scapegoat

I couldn't count the number of times that I've heard a teacher respond to an error by saying "that's because you're translating! You need to think in the language!"  This is all well and goo... no, there's nothing good about it.  I found it particularly frustrating when I found myself incapable of saying something specific in Gaelic, and my "friend" refused to let me simply say it in English.  I then said it wrong and he then let loose with the old "because you're translating" line (except in Gaelic, just for variety).

Well no, the problem wasn't that I "was translating", it was that I had never learned how to say it.  I hadn't learned it, I couldn't say it -- simple as that.

Translation has become something of a bogeyman.  If you make an error caused by native-language-interference, the witchfinder in front of you will cry "translation!" and insist you must "learn to think in the language".  Except that quite often these days, the witchfinder will be someone who doesn't actually speak your language and therefore blames translation when the converse is actually true.

My favourite example is the English and Spanish conditional constructions.  Spanish-speakers regularly get the English wrong, and teachers are wont to issue the usual battlecry of "think in English!" followed by a lecture on "2nd and 3rd conditionals" in abstract grammatical terms.  But in fact, Spanish conditionals translate almost verbatim into their English equivalents, so if the Spanish folk were simply encouraged to translate, they'd master the English forms in about half-an-hour.

I found a quote on-line the other day:
"Disillusionment regarding the relevance and usefulness of learning theory for educational practice has been responsible, in part, for the emergence of the theories of teaching that are avowedly independent of the theories of learning."
Ausubel, David. Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View, 1968
1968, but this still seems to hold today.  When we discuss learning, there's one word that is perhaps more important than any other: generalisation.   Sadly, there's very little discussion of this in teaching literature.  Our job is to teach, your job is to learn, so generalisation is dismissed as the student's responsibility.

The problems that are often blamed on translation are better blamed on generalisation.

Native-language interference is inappropriate generalisation of known patterns (the fact that they are in the native language is incidental).

On top of that, generalisation even accounts for errors such as the conditionals where native-language interference should provide correct results.  How so?  Well, many intermediate and advanced learners have a tendency to try to construct any new target language structure out of known language structures -- ie they assume the language they have been taught is the whole language and try to generalise the known structures to cover any new case, and they fail to innovate.

For a specific example of generalisation gone wrong regardless of medium, I have to go back a good few years to my first experience of the language classroom: high-school French.

We started off with phrases, albeit with translation.  It was all "what is your name?" "I am 12 years old" "I'm fine, and you?"

Now our teacher told us that "j'ai" was "I have" and that it only meant "I am" when discussing ages, but several of the class got themselves in a right guddle over this.  Some would say "j'ai" instead of "je", and some would say "j'ai" instead of "je suis".  And then they would try using "je suis" instead of "j'ai".

The problem here wasn't translation, because we weren't building up from grammar rules -- we were substituting words in fixed phrases in the hopes of learning "by induction from examples".

So the problem needs to be described in terms of generalisation.  Regardless of what the teacher said, certain pupils automatically generalised telling their age to "I am".  A change of medium of instruction couldn't have altered that.

So what could have changed that?
I think the main problem was that this was our first encounter of the verb "to have".  Quite quickly we moved onto how many brothers and sisters we had, but by this point the confusion had set in.

Ausubel proposed something called progressive differentiation.  Under this framework you teach a core, high-level overview of a concept, and then refine all the particulars and special variations after.  The core use of "avoir" in French is possession of a physical thing.  If that had been taught and thoroughly learned before a specialist idiomatic form was encountered, inappropriate generalisation would have been impossible.

This is how Michel Thomas does it.  In his French, Spanish and Italian courses, you play around with "I have it", "I don't have it", "I don't have it but I want it" etc before coming anywhere near idiomatic constructions such as "to have hunger" for "be hungry".  It is thus impossible to generalise "to have" incorrectly as "to be".  Yes, you can generalise incorrectly the other way, and talk about being hungry (and then get a bollocking off your teacher for translating) but this is a far smaller error.  Not only that, this is an error of "not having learned yet", rather than an error of "learning wrong".

So please, don't simply shout down translation indiscriminately -- it's not the nasty beast you think it is.


Owen Richardson said...

I love this post.

It's the kind of thing that's perfect for when you want to tell someone, "No, look, it doesn't work like that. Read this."

And then you can just link them to it, and, with any luck, they shall return enlightened. =]

I just noticed there was no feedback on the post saying at least, "Thanks for writing this!".

Owen Richardson said...

Same for "The inconsistency of prescriptivism", too. =]