Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

“Translate” is not a dirty word…it’s just not a word we use in my class…


Please note prior to reading: It’s my choice in my classroom to be a teacher who uses different approaches in teaching. At times – often –  I am a “story-telling” teacher…but I am not a full-on-only-CI TPRS teacher. My choice. If you are a CI-TPRS exclusive teacher (and I count many as great colleagues) – awesome! I don’t denigrate, repudiate or value any less your choice in being so or your effectiveness as a teacher – as long as you respect my choice to be a more hybrid-technique teacher – and my effectiveness –  as well.

I mentioned in a tweet to Thomas Sauer recently that I have banned the word ‘translate’ in class. I don’t like the idea that we are ‘translating’ what is said. To me it implies ‘direct’, ‘word for word’ and does not result in natural communication of a meaning. Instead of asking what a phrase or statement is ‘translated’ into English I prefer to ask “What are they saying?”, “What is being communicated?” or, as Grant Boulanger suggested “What might that sound like in English?”. All of these get to meaning or more simply “what are they trying to say?”. To me it means that the overall ‘message’ is more important than the direct translation of the words.

What got lost in this on Twitter and then what emerged was an idea that I said that I don’t use or value the understanding of a word/phrase (and what it literally means).  Ironically, it seemed, that some reading my tweet looked to the individual words in the tweet…not the overall message I was trying to communicate.

To me understanding individual words is important and therefore meaning is important. I establish meaning. But what I want to stress with my students is how we use the words/structures we ‘know the meaning of’ to communicate an idea. How the words we choose communicate something beyond the literal words. How the choices in words/structures communicate something beyond literal meaning.  How the building blocks have led to the whole.

However what is also key to me is the building of independent language skills. I want my students to infer, to guess, to not confront every new word and run to the dictionary in a panic. I don’t want them to think that they must understand every word INITIALLY in something that they encounter. (please note the caps). I want to develop those independent learning/reading/language skills as well. So that they can have skills to ‘stretch’ their own language outside of class. So that they recognize that I am a ‘coach’ and not the only way they will encounter the language. That they won’t always be provided with ‘meaning’ before they attempt to understand. I want to build on that too.

A real life example of this idea in action is a book I’m working through right now. I am trying to keep my language up this summer and have been enjoying a great book called “Read Real Japanese” edited by Michael Emmerich. It’s great for me as I find my language has become perhaps a bit stale & limited by high school teaching. It’s stretching me. It gathers contemporary short stories and puts the English/Japanese side by side. Sometimes I am surprised by the ‘meaning’ of something – as it’s not what I thought was written. I am enjoying the discovery of my language strengths (and limitations). What is most interesting to me are the ‘translators’ notes offered at the back. Insight into not just the construction of particular phrases/sentences but the reason why something was both written in Japanese as it was and ‘translated’ into the English that it was. It is fascinating to read the ‘notes’ of someone who is helping someone understand what message is being communicated by the author.

As I look to going back into the classroom after a semester off I will once again bring the idea of ‘message being communicated’ to my students…and to do this requires that we/they understand the underlying meaning. Most often I will establish that prior/during their working in the language. Sometimes they will have to infer, guess or find that on their own. But..what you won’t hear in my class – or see written anywhere in what I hand out – is me asking my students to ‘translate’ something….nope …you won’t.



  1. > I don’t like the idea that we are ‘translating’ what is said. To me it
    > implies ‘direct’, ‘word for word’ and does not result in natural
    > communication of a meaning.

    Well … it’s a matter of taste, I’d say. I do use the word “translate”, but to my students it is entirely clear that *good* translation can never be a ‘word for word’ equation – because different languages have different ideas of syntax, the vocabulary only rarely works 1 : 1 (a “table” *can* be a horizontal plane to put plates and glasses on, but it can also be a set of figures, maybe in a spreadsheet, etc), and so on.

  2. Love your post, my friend! I think the last time I asked for a translation on an assessment was somewhere going on ten years ago. It’s not that I think asking kids to show comprehension using English is terrible, I think for me it’s wrapped up in what you pointed out: MEANING. So I like the question “What does it mean?” so much more. Kids often use English to answer that question, and so do I, but there are so many other ways to answer it. It’s a subtle difference, maybe, but “translate” only offers one way to answer. “What does it mean?” opens up lots of possibilities!

    I think the journey here for me started with reading research into models of vocabulary structure in the brain and continued through thinking about what translation is: it’s something that people ask highly proficient language users to do. Interpreters and translators inherently must have at least Advanced proficiency, I would think, because they have to be able to say not only what *they* want to say in a comprehensible way, but also what *other people* want to say. Maybe that’s where it hits for me: a learner in novice & intermediate needs to be focused on acquiring the skill of saying what *they* want to say.

  3. Thanks Peter. I do understand the word use…and appreciate it when students understand what ‘good translation’ is. My students – especially my 14 year olds – seem to get hung up on the idea that a language has to be ‘translate’ (eg “Sensei I’m just translating for him”) and I wanted to do what you emphasize – focus on what is being meant by what is said. I was gratified when a new student in my Yr3 class said something about ‘translating’ and one of my students said “Oh we don’t translate in here – we go for ‘meaning'”! Thanks for your comment! C

  4. Gracias amiga! I am even taking a step from your book in that instructions for practice will now be “How can we express that MrX is playing basketball with MsY?” instead of the old ‘what is this in Japanese’ or the even older (and I admit I’ve used it in the past) – “translate into Japanese”. I appreciate your novice/advanced insight as I move to implement these concepts in my classes this year (slowly and sanely!). And I will be asking that a lot – ‘what does it mean?’ to ensure that what we are saying fits my novice/intermediate kids’ natural L1 not stilted ‘translated’ L1! So thankful for your comments, C

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