16 November 2012

Just how do you prompt a student?

I'm a big fan of the courses recorded by Michel Thomas before his death, and I'm always happy to say so.  The biggest complaint I hear about the Thomas courses are that they "teach you to translate".  The argument goes that because the students are only ever prompted with their native language (English) then they never learn to "think in" their target language.  This bold assertion lacks any substantial evidence.  I would argue that translation is one of the best methods of prompting a student, and that avoiding it actually delays proficiency.

Last year I wrote a post entitled Translation: an unjustified scapegoat, in which I pointed out that translation is very very often blamed for errors that do not arise from native-language interference, and therefore cannot be translation errors.  What I neglected to say is that this is a real demotivator for learners.  To be told categorically that they're translating, when they don't really believe they are translating, and to be told to do something else without any instructions on how to do it... well, the teacher is essentially blaming the student.  That's not teaching, sorry.

Anyway, that's not the main point of this article, so time to put the train of thought back on the rails.

I am in favour of translation for three main reasons:

1: Translation allows simultaneous focus on meaning and form

If you perform a language class in the target language only, it is all too common for the answer to be mechanically reproducible from the question, without any real need to understand the meaning of either.

eg Do you have a flargrard? - No, I don't have a flargrard.

I've no idea what a "flargrard" is, so it's a reasonable bet I don't have one. (Note to non-native English-speaking readers: the word "flargrard" doesn't exist -- I made it up for this example.)

It gets worse if you include substitution drills:

House: I have a house - I have a house
Cat - I have a cat.
Dog - I have a dog.
Flargrard - I have a flargrard

Translation, on the other hand, gives the student a prompt that can be understood unambiguously.  The student cannot fail to understand the full meaning of the sentence, a meaning which will therefore be instrinsically linked to the target sentence.

2: The so-called "form focus" of many monolingual tasks is really no such thing.

If the task can be done mechanically, as in the "answer in questions" example above, or the substitution drill, then you never have to select the appropriate form.  You never have to recall it from memory.  If you don't have to recall it from memory, you cannot learn to recall it from memory.

In fact, it is pretty much impossible to devise a monolingual language task that will elicit the required grammar point/structure spontaneously.  You either supply them with the structure, or you end up involved in a metalinguistic discussion that leads to one or two of the class recalling the "rule", and if we end up talking about rules, we're not connecting with spontaneous language.

3: Target-language-only normally fails to be "naturalistic".

I've discussed the issues of expository vs naturalistic language before, and in this case, I'll refer you back to the question Do you have a flargrard?  The natural response is to say simply "No," or "No, I don't," but we're generally forced to answer in (unnatural) sentences in the monolingual classroom: "No, I don't have a flargrard."  I don't know about you, but I don't like "answering in sentences" -- my brain knows it's wrong and unnecessary.  I don't like telling students off for not answering in sentences because I see this as evidence that they're actually involved in language, rather than just juggling words.

So target-language-only is potentially devoid of practice of both meaning and form, which I'd say is a pretty big problem for language learning!

Is translation the panacea then?

Well, no, because it certainly has its pitfalls.

For example, if I ask you to translate "a brown bear", am I asking you to say "a bear of colour brown" or "a bear of the species brown bear, also known as grizzly"?  And even if both translate to the same thing in the target language, there's a point of assymetry when we hit "white bear", which is not ambiguous.  Prompts for translation must be very carefully selected, then.

This limits how far we can learn a language by translation, obviously.  We cannot learn every noun and idiom by direct translation, but we don't need to -- the trick is to use translation where it's (1) obvious and easy or (2) where conscious awareness of the difference helps overcome a specific difficulty.

(1) The "obvious and easy" would include my favourite example: conditional sentences in English vs Romance languages, which translate pretty much directly -- eg  "If I was/were you, I would...", "If I'd known you were coming I'd have baked a cake" etc.  This is "advanced" material in traditional classes, but translation makes it trivially easy (to the point where Michel Thomas would be teaching it on the second or third day of his courses).

(2) An example of a specific difficulty is the difference in idiom between "to be" an age in English and "to have" an age in the Romance languages.  Not a difficult rule, but even after loooots of practice, you'll often here a learner make the mistake one way or the other.  So the practice method the teacher uses gets the student to produce the desired answer, but it doesn't build any resistance to native-language interference, so in an uncontrolled setting the original error returns.  (And the teacher blames the student for translating, and the student is confused and disheartened etc.)

One of the biggest visible benefits of translation though, is simple:

Speed, volume and throughput of practice

Because translation starts with a readily-understood prompt, you don't have to waste too much time thinking about what the prompt means or what you're being asked to do.  This means you can get through a lot more questions.  A translation-based lesson that manages to present no more questions than a target-language-only lesson is a wasted opportunity.

In an attempt to teach myself Corsican, I've written a little program that conjugates, combines and declines words and presents them to me as translation tasks, checks my answers and tells me if I got them right or wrong.  I can batter through hundreds of examples in very little time.  Kind of exhausting, yes, but pretty effective.  A couple of hours using it, spread over a couple of weeks, has hammered in some of the basics pretty solidly.


Translation's biggest problem

Once you start whipping through the questions at speed, you really do start to work on autopilot, and you start to see patterns emerging in your errors.  And I noticed one specific type of mistake that I made frequently that I hadn't been too aware of before... I kept switching my "I" and my "you".

It makes perfect sense, now that I think about it, and I probably did it a lot with MT, even though I didn't pay it any mind at the time.  And heck, I've even heard the same thing from some of my students when I've asked them to translate short sentences.

Because when the computer says to me "you know it", that "you" refers to me.  It's "eio", "io", "je", "yo", "ich" or whatever.  That's what it means.  Literal direct translation is therefore something of a higher-order function, an abstraction.

And yet it seems to be quite effective.  So what do we do?

Well, personally I'll be attempting to stay away from first and second-person references as much as possible.  I'll be sticking to the minimum required to learn them individually as grammar points, but when the person is included only as part of the context for a sentence testing another grammar point, I'll favour "he/she/it/they" over "I/we/you".

But I'll certainly be paying more attention to what exactly happens when we translate.  I still think it's one of the best tools the learner has, but we've just got to work to eliminate the ambiguities....

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