Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Problem with Translating Programs

In a freshman English class that I teach, I asked the students to write a paragraph about a coincidence that happened to them. Over half of the students used a translating program to do the assignment and their writing was impossible to understand. I asked my English Teaching Methodologies 3 students in our Issues in EFL in Japan blog to explain why so many students felt that they had to use a translating program when they could have done a better job writing the short essay themselves. I received some very interesting comments. To read the post and the students' comments please click here.


1bloghopper said...

hi mr jh.

i found your blog while surfing for information on teaching english in japan.

i am an english language and literature degree holder, from malaysia. english is my second language that i have learnt since i was 7 years old and my native language is malay language. i am planning to teach and to learn english a lot more.

i find it is interesting as i've been through the same mode of english learning that you're emphasizing now, learning to write and read english by utilizing blog.

i went through this mode of learning for computer assisted language learning course and have found it is useful through and through, to improve my writing in english.

i do agree that translating programs can do more harm than helping the students as the output that comes out from the program are not semantically and grammatically synchronized, a different result will come out when the translation process is done manually; it makes more sense and has human touch on it as some of the phrases translated by the computer program doesn't make sense at all.

maybe you could do a demo on how a translation can change the whole meaning of a phrase technically and literally.

it would be a joy for me to be able to read the original rubayyat of umar khayyam rather than reading the so many translated version. its where the beauty of language lies in.

i have also found out that corpus and concordance programs could do wonders to find the usage of the words in sentence construction and in the context a word is usually used, but none is as good as taking up and practicing the language by speaking it.


JH said...

Dear 1bloghopper,
Thanks a lot for your comment, it was very inspiring. I especially liked your phrase about the beauty of language lying in people's original writing. I will show tell the learners in my English Teaching Methodologies class about your greas comment. By the way, in case you did not read it (but probably you did), I wrote what I told the students in the freshman English class here.

Marco Polo said...

Hi, JH, provocative post, meaning I just had to stop and think and write about this. So many issues, so many possible reasons. I read most of the comments to your original post at Issues in EFL in Japan blog.

This may not apply to your students, who may be better at English than my lot, but I suspect my students simply do not have the basics of English down. There are huge holes in what is supposed to be their foundational knowledge. They do not really have a foundation. I am required at one university I work at to use a book called "Let's Talk About It!" One activity in that book is a "here's the answer, what's the question?" activity. Another is a series of progressively more difficult questions about a picture or series of pictures. My students had a hard time answering the questions: they did not seem to be using the clues in the textbook (the lexicalitems, grammar, syntax etc, in the question or answer in the textbook); they seemed to be randomly guessing. I went over several questions in class, demonstrating how to use these clues: if the question is "How many people are there in your family?" you start the answer USING THE SAME SUBJECT AND VERB AS IN THE QUESTION. What are the subject and verb in the question?" OK, THAT took a while to sort out, but once they'd got the hang of it, the sentences they wrote were much more accurate and correct.

An elementary school teacher recently asked my wife to help him write a letter of invitation to a local foreigner. The teacher showed my wife his English draft: it was completely incomprehensible. My wife tactfully asked for an original Japanese version as well. She showed them to me. Again, my impression was that this teacher simply has no English language foundational knowledge.

I've recently been reading Jacques Barzun's "Begin Here", in which he talks about "scattershot education" and its (predictable) results (he's writing about education in general, not EFL). Scattershot education. Perhaps I'm confusing two different phenomena, but that was the impression I got of these people's English: they've been taught to answer multiple-choice test questions, and in the rush to get the right answers, they never received a proper education in the structure of English, how an English sentence is put together. Nor have they had much practice in writing English sentences of their own (thereby putting to the test their knowledge of English structure). Predictable results, really. They all seem to know what I mean by "subject, verb, object/complement", but are quite incapable of putting together a sentence with words in that order: they are just stabbing in the dark using their native language as their only guideline.

(By the way, I just read your more recent post on your gloomy thoughts about (English?) education in Japan, and recommend Barzun's "Begin Here" and Bob Leamson's "Thinking About Teaching and Learning: Developing Habits of Learning With First Year College and University Students"

JH said...

Marco Polo,
I will try to look at the books you recommended. I agree with you that a lot of students do not seem to understand the structure of an English sentence. I also think that your story about the textbook exercise is that many students do not use clues from the language to which they are exposed to produce language. I think that we have to demonstrate more to students how they can learn how to use language from observing how language is used.
I am surprised that so many students stuggle with grammar: Many Japanese researchers say it is because of the communicative approach and it is time to return to grammar, but I do not think schools are really adopting a "communicative approach".
Personally, I think any approach whether it be communicative or grammar translation is fine as long as the learners are using their brains and have some interest in what they are doing.