Better acquisition by altering (not eliminating) translation
I think I’ve come to the end of the acquisition vs. learning distinction for the purposes of language learning in a classroom.
Rewind. When I first started investigating second language acquisition research, I was blown away by what I learned about how people really learn languages. It revolutionized my classroom. It brought me to incorporate comprehensible input instead of explanations of how language works. It led me to guide students through experiencing the language instead of dissecting it.
But then the more I read about how language for communication is always acquired and never “learned,” and how “learning” is conscious and “acquisition” is unconscious, a burning, itching, annoying question kept popping up in my head: but how can we know it’s unconscious? In particular, how can we know it’s unconscious when the sign over my door says SPANISH CLASS? I just can’t reconcile it. I can’t see how it makes sense to say I can tell whether it’s learning or acquisition. To go farther, I can’t see how it makes sense to say that it’s unconscious acquisition at all. (One exception that does make sense to me is in immersion classes, where, for example, a fourth-grader is learning science in Spanish and not knowingly learning the language.)
But it is acquisition, say you, because you can tell. Because the input is so compelling and compelling input causes acquisition. You know it’s acquisition because the input is compelling. And how do you know it’s compelling? Well I know it’s compelling, because they said “yay!” or they perked up or they said “I love Spanish class!.” (Hmm.) And because they’re acquiring the language. It’s obvious in the output, right? They’ve acquired it. And acquisition means the input was compelling. And compelling input means it’s acquisition.
It’s a totally circular argument, is it not?*
But what if it was learned? And is still useful for communication? If I can use the language, who cares whether it was learned or acquired?
Anyway, I digress. You came here to talk about translation. I started with acquisition vs. learning because I first want to establish that I’m normally using the two terms interchangeably, even in the title of this post. I do not believe I can be completely sure what I’m looking at is either acquisition or learning. I do know some things, though, that help me think more clearly about the issue of translation:
- Kids develop language skills faster when they comprehend what’s going on.
- Kids develop language skills faster and better when they interact with more target language over any given period of time.
- Memory gets stronger when learners encounter “desirable difficulties.”
- My learners do not have enough time for natural acquisition to happen in my classroom.
- I have lots of tools at my disposal to help me establish meaning and know that students have understood.
- YOUR LEARNERS DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH TIME FOR NATURAL ACQUISITION TO HAPPEN IN YOUR CLASSROOM. Even if we could present it that way, which is highly doubtful.
Now, as for translation, I know there are two positions:
- Translation is not useful for language acquisition because it connects the new word to the native-language word instead of connecting the new word to the concept in the brain. (I agree.)
- Translation is the fastest way to establish clear meaning for new structures, and establishing meaning is vital for acquisition. (I agree.)
When, as in this case, I agree with both poles of the field, I know that the answer for me is going to end up to be somewhere in the middle. So here I present a couple of ways I both eliminate translation and alter it without eliminating it.
1. Image. Check. Translate.
Image: My friend Carol tells about when she tried to establish the meaning of agua by holding up a water bottle, and sometime later found out that one or more of her students had understood the word as bottle. To me, this isn’t a reason for offering translation; it’s a reason to give more visual examples. If I talk about agua and I show a Dasani bottle, water coming from a tap, rain drops, a waterfall, and a puddle, students are far more likely to comprehend the meaning in a way that more effectively cements long-term memory. Bonus: This approach gives me many more repetitions of the target word/structure.
Check: After a few examples, I ask for a thumbs-up or X sign to check if students believe they comprehend the word or phrase.
Translate: If a few students are still unsure, I will ask someone to guess what it is. I don’t translate it myself unless I have to. Someone says “water?” and I nod, high five, thumbs-up, or some other affirmation and move on. If everyone’s sure they know what’s going on, and the concept wasn’t one I think they would have mixed up, I don’t translate it at all.
2. Example. Example. Example. Example. Check. Translate.
Example: The word is “magazine.” What’s a magazine, guys? Let’s see, an example of a magazine (“example” is a very early target for us because we use it so much), Seventeen is a magazine. GQ is a magazine. Rolling Stone is a magazine. Entertainment Weekly is a magazine.
Example: Hey, Amelia, what’s another example of a magazine? Great, yes, Lucky is a magazine.
Check: Who understands “magazine”? Thumbs up/X?
Translate: Hey, Jack, a couple of people are confused; tell us in English, what’s “magazine”?
And what if they do mix it up?
So what if that one kid did think that agua meant faucet and we don’t find out until two weeks later? So what? It happens all the time in language learning. In my own journey, I find it a desirable difficulty: remembering that I had it a little wonky, and what the real concept was, and what the word is for the thing I thought it was, helps me remember it better and longer, and I got two words for the price of one.
Is translation ever the first course of action?
For me, yes. If we’ve encountered something in a resource that’s not a target structure and students really want to know what it means, I quickly translate it. Especially if it will make them laugh. If it’s a complicated concept like to take advantage of and I know I’ll waste 10 minutes trying to get it across in the target language and half the class still won’t get it, I translate it. All my vocabulary lists until intermediate are translation-based, though they never see the light of day in class; they are only a pre-class resource.
When in doubt? There you have my go-to strategies for altering translation without eliminating it: lots of visual and verbal examples, and students doing the translating for me.
*I’m not trying to be trite or dismissive; I’m asking a real question and dying for someone to take up this conversation with me, and no one seems to be willing. The last time I asked it, no less than Bill Van Patten totally dismissed the question with, “Of course acquisition happens in a classroom.” Because he said so. So if you’re willing to engage in this conversation with me instead of dismissing it, to help me figure out the real problems here like how we can apply first language acquisition principles to a situation that looks almost nothing like first language learning, and how students can develop lasting proficiency when we don’t have the time they spent doing this the first time around, please! I want to explore this.