Saturday 31 May 2014

Translators and multilinguals

You speak so many languages! You should be a translator.” 
What do you mean you can’t translate this memo into English? You speak both languages, don’t you?”

I don’t speak your other language, I’m afraid. Can you translate what your child is saying, so I can assess her language development?”

Sounds familiar?

There seems to be this deeply ingrained conviction that the words multilingual and translator are synonymous. This is like assuming that those of us who intone ‘La donna è mobile’ while scrubbing our backs in the shower are professional singers, which is quite funny. Translators are indeed professionals, but being multilingual is not a job description.

The reasoning that multilinguals are translators because translators are multilinguals would be just laughable, too, but for the common practices which derive from it. Some of these may be rather harmless, like encouraging multilinguals to choose jobs because they are multilinguals, as in my first example above. Do monolinguals choose their careers because they use one language? The reasoning draws on two misconceptions, one about translators and one about multilinguals.

Translators aren’t people who can say the same things in different languages, and multilinguals aren’t multi-monolinguals who use their languages in order to be able to repeat themselves in them. Languages, whatever they may be, aren’t different containers into which the “same things” can be poured. If they were, we wouldn’t need borrowings, for example, and translators wouldn’t need dedicated training to do their job. Assuming that they don’t explains my second example. Chapters 1, 2 and 12 of my book The Language of Language have some more about why such misconceptions about multilingualism and translation came to be.

Multilinguals use different languages because those languages serve different purposes, but translations make one language serve the purposes of another. This is also why I don’t think that translation is a useful method of learning a new language.

Image © Tsunajima Kamekichi (Wikimedia Commons)

My objections relate to my persuasion that learning languages must mean learning to think in them (or we wouldn’t need to learn them), whereas translation teaches you to manage one language through another. I made this point in an online discussion on this topic, at the academic site ResearchGate. What I didn’t say there was that I’ve never forgotten the pleasure I felt when I first dared to buy monolingual dictionaries of the languages I was learning in school, and found that just reading those dictionaries as you might read a novel taught me more about how to use the languages than I had ever learned before.

Ability to translate demands a degree of awareness of each of the languages involved that multilinguals simply do not posses, as multilinguals. This applies to interpreters too, of course. The main differences between the two concern mode and timing: translators usually deal with printed texts and may be lucky enough to take time to enjoy a nice cuppa once in a while when inspiration lags, whereas interpreters, sometimes called simultaneous translators, usually translate speech or sign on the spot. I happen to have worked as both but, when off-duty, I’m quite like my fellow multilinguals in often having no idea even which language(s) I’m using at any one time.

My third example above illustrates an unfortunate practice in school and in clinic. Relatives (or friends, or neighbours) are co-opted to assist in assessment processes for which they obviously lack qualification, just because they know the language of the child under assessment. It’s like asking common mortals to take screwdrivers and soldering irons to the innards of their laptop, just because they use it every day. My example is actually mild, because children are also asked to translate for the sake of their elders. These two blog posts, authored by speech-language experts, say it all, concerning the effects of translation on assessment procedures and instruments: Brian A. Goldstein’s ‘Providing clinical services to bilingual children: Stop Doing That! and Elizabeth D. Peña’s aptly titled ‘Stupid translation’. It is true that little and big multilinguals do translate spontaneously, when they suspect that misunderstandings may arise among users of their languages. But this is much like 7-year-old big sister explaining to baby brother that mum came home in a rotten mood today and it is therefore advisable to tone down the usual level of mum-is-home mischief: we want people to understand what’s going on. Big sister is not a cognitive scientist for that.

Sisterly efforts to generate intelligibility by means of assorted translations must be a good thing: human beings have spent quite a lot of their time as human beings translating their languages for the benefit of fellow human beings. Sometimes, however, it’s not entirely clear whether the purported ability of multilinguals to translate makes them good guys or bad guys. If you can make sense of unfamiliar (linguistic) behaviour, then you must be privy to someone else’s secrets, which makes you not-really-one-of-us. Multilinguals who confess their inability (or unwillingness) to translate may, in addition, seem reluctant to share those secrets with “us”, as my second example illustrates. This may well be why multilinguals appear to have the status of permanent guests in all of their linguistic communities: I often get the uncanny impression that the Traduttore, tradittore quip, which is meant to apply to “disloyalty” to languages, keeps clinging to the multilingual users of those languages and applying to people.

How “disloyal” to whom, then, are those of us who insist that being multilingual means precisely that, being multilingual? The next post, by a guest with whom I’ve had the privilege of working before, argues that a lucid understanding of multilingualism has yet to impact decisions about language education policies.

© MCF 2014

Next post: =Guest post= Mother tongue education or flexible multilingual education?, by Jean-Jacques Weber. Saturday 28th June 2014.

Saturday 3 May 2014

Singing to learn pronunciation in a foreign language
=Guest post=

by Karen M. Ludke

When I started volunteering to teach English as a Second Language and literacy skills at the Aguilar branch of the New York Public Library in 2004, I soon began using songs in my lessons. In part, I wanted to enable my students to practice with authentic English language materials outside of class in an enjoyable way. But I also thought songs might help them better hear the pronunciation, rhythm and stress patterns of English, which they often struggled with when speaking. Based on my observations over time, singing English songs did seem to help. This experience inspired me to pursue this question further and in 2005 I went to the University of Edinburgh to conduct research on the effects of listening to songs and singing in foreign language learning.

Of course, many teachers believe that listening to songs in a new language can support a range of linguistic skills, but at present there isn’t a great deal of strong research evidence to support the many claims that have been put forward. A few reasons to include songs in the foreign language classroom include cognitive effects, such as improved long-term recognition and recall, which has been shown for verbal memory in the native language (Tillmann and Dowling, 2007; Calvert and Tart, 1993), as well as positive effects on mood (Schön et al., 2008) and potential overlaps in the neural processing of music and language (Patel, 2011).

What do we know about whether singing songs can improve pronunciation in a new language? Research has shown that musical training leads to better imitation of phrases in a new language (Christiner and Reiterer, 2013; Pastuszek-Lipinska, 2008) and that people who have stronger musical skills also tend to have more native-like pronunciation abilities in their non-native languages, as shown by Slevc and Miyake (2006) for learners of English.

Moving beyond studies showing correlations between musical skills and foreign language skills, how does hearing new words and phrases through songs affect the language learning process? One interesting conference paper (Fomina, 2000) reported the finding that adult English learners who were taught songs over a period of several weeks tended to transfer the melody of the song lyrics they had heard to their spoken intonation of the same phrases. My own recent paper with Fernanda Ferreira and Katie Overy showed that a “listen-and-repeat” singing method to learn Hungarian phrases was more effective than a “listen-and-repeat” speaking or rhythmic speaking method, particularly for performance on tasks that required learners to say entire phrases in the new language. Another study (Milovanov et al., 2010) investigated Finnish adults’ English pronunciation skills and found that those with musical training (choir members) had improved English phoneme production compared to a non-musical and an English specialist group, but perceptual discrimination abilities were similar for all three groups.

Although imitation is an important aspect of learning a new language, it can be difficult to directly transfer the sounds you hear in a listening comprehension task to your speaking skills. If you try to learn a spoken dialogue through a listen-and-repeat method and read the words at the same time as attempting to say them, it may change the way in which you listen to the pronunciation and imitate it. The reason is that, when reading, there’s a natural tendency to pronounce new sounds in a way similar to your native pronunciation, or to use an intermediate vowel or consonant sound that falls in between your native and non-native languages, which can lead to having a noticeable “accent” in the new language. For example, for the Spanish word le – even if you’re hearing /le/ spoken at the same time, reading the spelling of that word might result in an English speaker approximating the sound more like [leɪ] or [lε].

For this reason, some music teachers and choir directors will teach a foreign language song using a call-and-response technique, rather than hand out the written words, until the group is able to sing it through with correct pronunciation. Otherwise, there’s a danger that the written words will be encoded into memory more like the group’s native language sounds, rather than as they should be sung in that language.

In the language classroom, songs can provide an excellent opportunity to practice pronunciation, intonation, and fluent, connected speech. Song lyrics generally present words at half the pace of spoken material (Murphey, 1990). Combining this slower pace with the fact that many song melodies follow the natural intonation pattern of the language, well chosen songs can teach foreign language prosody and pronunciation without any “repeat after me” drills.

For the purposes of pronunciation practice, I believe it’s important to choose songs which do not have a very difficult melody or rhythm and in which the lyrics aren’t presented too quickly. While it can be a fun challenge to sing a more complex or linguistically advanced song with certain groups of students, it’s important not to choose songs that are so difficult they cause frustration. Start with easy songs and build up to more challenging materials if the group is enthusiastic. Some students (especially younger learners) may enjoy moving and dancing to the song, and some teachers have found it helpful to coordinate movements and gestures with the words of a song or story. If learners are particularly keen, small groups can be asked to create a simple song-and-dance routine for homework, which they can present to the class or even teach to the rest of the students. In addition, Wendy Maxwell has created a method called AIM Language Learning, after she found that coordinating gestures with words in a song or story dramatically improved her students’ memory for the words and their ability to express themselves in the new language.

If you’re curious about this topic, these online resources and books have more information.

Online resources:


Karen M. Ludke is currently working at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, as a Postdoctoral Fellow on the Advancing Interdisciplinary Research in Singing collaboration led by Annabel J. Cohen. You can follow her on Twitter @KarenMLudke, to hear about other upcoming articles about singing and language learning, or visit her website for educational resources that are available for download.

Calvert, S., & Tart, M. (1993). Song versus verbal forms for very-long-term, long-term, and short-term verbatim recall. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 14 (2), 245-260 DOI: 10.1016/0193-3973(93)90035-T

Christiner, M., & Reiterer, S. (2013). Song and speech: examining the link between singing talent and speech imitation ability. Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00874

Ludke, K., Ferreira, F., & Overy, K. (2013). Singing can facilitate foreign language learning Memory & Cognition, 42 (1), 41-52 DOI: 10.3758/s13421-013-0342-5

Milovanov, R., Pietilä, P., Tervaniemi, M., & Esquef, P. (2010). Foreign language pronunciation skills and musical aptitude: A study of Finnish adults with higher education Learning and Individual Differences, 20 (1), 56-60 DOI: 10.1016/j.lindif.2009.11.003

Murphey, T. (1990). The song stuck in my head phenomenon: A melodic din in the lad? System, 18 (1), 53-64 DOI: 10.1016/0346-251X(90)90028-4

Pastuszek-Lipinska, B. (2008). Musicians Outperform Nonmusicians in Speech
Imitation. Lecture Notes in Computer Science DOI: 10.1007/978-3-540-85035-9_4

Patel, A. (2011). Why would Musical Training Benefit the Neural Encoding of Speech? The OPERA Hypothesis. Frontiers in Psychology, 2 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00142

Schön, D., Boyer, M., Moreno, S., Besson, M., Peretz, I., & Kolinsky, R. (2008). Songs as an aid for language acquisition. Cognition, 106 (2), 975-983 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.03.005

Slevc LR, & Miyake A (2006). Individual differences in second-language proficiency: does musical ability matter? Psychological science, 17 (8), 675-81 PMID: 16913949

Tillmann B, & Dowling WJ (2007). Memory decreases for prose, but not for poetry. Memory & cognition, 35 (4), 628-39 PMID: 17848021

© Karen M. Ludke 2014

Next post: Translators and multilinguals. Saturday 31st May 2014.


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