Friday, October 9, 2015

The Role of Translation in the CI Classroom

I do not think that any topic gets CI teachers more riled up than the topic of translating L2 into English. There are those who feel that it has NO place in the CI classroom, while others feel that it is a necessary part of the language acquisition process.

I do not claim to be an expert on this topic by any means, but this posting represents where I am on the matter at this moment in time - a few months from now, my views may have changed.

When I first began the switch over to a CI classroom, I was very greatly opposed to any type of translation into English, as I was reacting against the grammar-translation model which I had been implementing for years and under which I myself had learned Latin. In addition, I had just returned from my first Rusticatio, where only spoken Latin was allowed. Basd on my Rusticatio experience, to me, the thought of translating into English seemed to diminish the importance of L2. John Piazza, a fellow Latin CI teacher, however, shared an article by Susan Gross which addressed the need for translation in a CI classroom. In that article, "Reading is Essential in Second Language Class," Susan Gross (2009) writes the following about translation:
One reason for translation is to assure perfect comprehension. I have witnessed many language classes where students were able to answer Spanish questions about a Spanish reading, yet they did not exactly understand the reading! Since language is acquired only when the input is comprehensible, we are not promoting acquisition by simply asking questions in Spanish.  
A second reason for translation is to inform the teacher. While listening to a student translate a paragraph, the teacher will discover many interesting things, such as confusing “to” and “from” (this is surprisingly common) or a lack of attention to plurals. As the teacher notices which things tend to be incorrectly translated, the teacher then knows what to reinforce in the next few lessons.
This showed me that translation does indeed have its place in a CI classroom, but just not THE place as the end result. For those of us Latin teachers, translation is pretty much all we did in college. Our university classes were very predictable, as we each took turns around the table translating classical works aloud into English, with a smattering of grammar questions and discussion in English about what we were translating. In most traditional Latin classes, translation occurs, but that is where we stop; we may have students do some projects about what was read, but anything using the Latin itself rarely happens. 

When looking at Bloom's Taxonomy, you will see that translation ranks near the bottom (it is a demonstration of "Understanding"), as it is a low-level proficiency skill. Now some of you are scoffing, "But hey, translating requires much knowledge to accomplish." Granted, I will give you that, but when translating something from L2 into L1, although a great deal of skill is needed, in the end after translating, all which you have is the original L2 document but now in L1. Absolutely no new meaning has been created in L2, and the creation of new meaning is the ultimate end goal in Blooms Taxonomy. NOTE - we may do some consolidation, higher-level thinking projects in English regarding the reading, but our actual goal should be new meaning in L2. 

So why is translation important then? To me, for one purpose: it establishes meaningWhenever I lesson plan, as I use stories to teach the language, I always make sure that one of my early activities is for students to chorally translate the story aloud into English. This way, I can make sure that all students are on the same page when it comes to the meaning. It also shows me where some of the problems are. But as I said before, translation is not where it ends for me. Following translation, I focus now on working with the language itself in a number of ways with students so that by the end of the "unit" a few days later, students are able to create their own meaning in the target language.

A few caveats about asking students to do a translating a text/reading into English:
  1. it needs to be comprehensible and meaningful, i.e., students need to have acquired the majority of words and structures by the time of translating. It is okay to give glossed words ('icing" words), but if it is necessary to supply a large number of these words, then the text/reading is not comprehensible enough.
  2. it needs to compelling for students
  3. it needs to be a reasonable length for them. If you give students something too long, their affective filters will rise, even if the reading is comprehensible.
Every few months, unannounced I give students a "translation check-in," where they have to sight translate a very comprehensible story into English (about 1/2 page in length at the longest), but the story contains known vocabulary and structures. I call it a "check-in," because this is their way to "check-in" with me to demonstrate proficiency of concepts and of comprehension and also so that i can see which structures I need to review with them based on any errors. At the very end of the passage, I always ask students "I found this translation to be (choose one of the following): difficult, challenging yet doable, easy, very easy" and then I ask "Why?" Overwhelmingly, most students will respond "easy" or "very easy," with a few "challenging yet doable." I have yet to receive any "difficult." In responding to "why?" most students answer "Because it was a story, it was easy to understand what was happening" or "I knew all of the words." For anyone who wants an argument as to the importance of presenting vocabulary in a meaningful context, there it is! I am also amazed at how quickly they finish writing out their translations! In fact, a number of students write, "This was much easier to do than I thought. I thought it would take me a long time."

For me personally, in every CI/TPRS workshop which I have attended where a new language was being demonstrated, I have always been grateful for the times where we translated into English purely for the establishment of meaning. There have been a number of occasions at Rusticationes where I have been completely lost and felt frustrated/overwhelmed, because no meaning was established (or meaning was established through the use of incomprehensible L2).

Essentially, it is okay to translate into English for the purpose of establishing meaning or for checking comprehension, but when we solely focus on that English translation and not back on the original text in the target language, then we have missed the point.

Some more resources on the topic:

Reading is Essential in Second Language Class - article by Susan Gross quoted above

Translation: Evil or Essential? - a blog post by Terry Waltz, a CI Chinese teacher

Direct Translation: Lame...Not as Boring as You'd Think and Efffective - a blog post by Chris Stolz, a CI Spanish teacher.

Volleyball Translation - a post by Martina Bex, a CI Spanish teacher. The comments section especially has some great discussion about the role of translating.

When to Assess Reading Comprehension in English - another great post from Martina Bex. Because of this post, I now assess all of my reading comprehension on tests in English.

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