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Should I let my students translate?

Every language teacher understands that smartphone technology has made translating infinitely easier. Gone are the days of lugging around my language dictionary from class to class. While cell phones make life easier in this way, we are also keenly aware of their role as a nuisance. No matter what age we teach, cell phones have the power to take everyone off task.

If we ask the question of translating, we are also asking the question of cell phones.



1. We need to teach students about translating.

Telling students that translating is "bad" is not a strategy. Students will see through this statement. Telling students to stop using their cell phones is also not going to work. So, how can we work through this issue? Take the word "run" for example. Pull up the page in the dictionary for the word run. Show students how many uses there are for the word "run." Ask students to then think of all the uses of the word run in their first langauge. I doubt that students will get over 20 uses of the word run; however, in English there are over 20 uses. There are also many phrasal verbs with this word that confuse matters even further.

If we have a conversation about translating and the limitations of it, students will learn how to use it more effectively. Most likely students will not find 20 uses of the word "run" in their native language, so open the conversation about how translating is not a 1 for 1 correlation. Yes, words like eat, sleep, and walk are a 1 for 1 correlation, but these words can be used to have deeper meanings and connotations that are not clearly translatable.

2. We need to build an appreciation for our students' languages

Every year languages are dying across the globe. With the fading of language, we lose culture and knowledge. While most of my students do not come from a dying language, I think as educators we need to embrace learning our students' worlds. Yes, I am an English teacher, but I want students to value each other and where they come from.

Also, it is very difficult to "pick up" a language with no reference to your L1 (first language). Just find a few YouTube videos of Finnish (for example), you may not be able to pick anything up. Translating is the first step to building a foundation of language so th

I think asking for "English Only" in a classroom has well-meaning intentions, but I think teachers should consider the power dynamic it creates. Yes, students should not be leaving other students out by only speaking in their native language, but there is a way in which we can honor our students' languages instead of cutting them off immediately. Find videos about different languages here:

Anyone that has spent a significant time in a different culture understands the kind of toll it can take on a person. I encourage students to teach each other pieces of their language as a way to appreciate one another. I also make an effort to learn a bit of my students' languages as a way to more effectively teach them. I can't be fluent in everything, but I can make an effort to appreciate their language.

3. We need to let students translate, carefully.

Cell phones have changed everything. I remember spending hours using my Chinese dictionary looking up words by their radicals. This was very time consuming. Now, I can just use my finger to write the character into a field and Google will automatically search for me. This is an incredible time saver.

However, we need to discuss in our class the way memory works. Memory is aided by physically using our hand to write something down. Taking a photo of the board or a screenshot of the phone does not use as many neural connections as physically writing the word with my hand. Faster isn't always more efficient. Words are easily forgotten if they are not used. Students should be encouraged to use the word in many ways, so they can commit it to memory.


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