Back when I used to ask for translation at the end of every test, I’d comb through that chapter’s vocabulary list to come up with sentences that would test the maximum number of words and target features. Like this gem:
I saw a turtle with two heads in the park with my tall friend and my short friend on Wednesday.
No, seriously, you’ve done this too, haven’t you?
To linguists, one of the most astonishing miracles of language acquisition is that as children acquire language they suddenly begin to utter phrases and sentences they have never heard before. It’s one of the ways we know this process is not like memorization. And it reveals that the process of acquisition is nothing like translation. Instead of asking for translation (a high-level skill our students aren’t terribly capable of anyway), just ask for language:
– What did you do last Wednesday? Where did you go? What did you see? With whom did you go?
Another way we ask for unnatural language is to constantly demand full sentences. This happens across disciplines. I’m not sure why – maybe a carryover from elementary days when we were trying to be sure kids knew what a sentence was? But get this: I just read a popular nonfiction memoir in which half the “sentences” are actually fragments.
I’m pretty sure our high school kids know what a sentence is by now. Next time your students ask “Do we have to answer in complete sentences?” (I’m betting you’ve heard this a thousand times too), tell them to simply answer like they would answer naturally. If you’re asking for narrative, you’ll get sentences when they’re appropriate. If you’re asking what color a panda is, you’ll get black and white. I beg of you, don’t take off points for the lack of a verb. You got your answer, and it’s natural, and it’s correct. Students will develop real proficiency when we stop asking for unnatural language and let them simply respond.
Foto: Gema Campos Hernando