Those of you familiar with Star Trek lore will undoubtedly have heard of one of its most auspicious pieces of technology: the Universal Translator. Whenever Kirk and his crew, or later Picard and his, encountered someone in their interplanetary travels whose language they did not speak, nary a beat was missed. The aptly-named universal translator would kick in, instantly changing the language the other person was speaking into a language understood by the crew. Usually English. As a die-hard trek fan myself, I always wanted to hear a little more Vulcan or Klingon than the show allowed. But the technology did its job, allowing seamless communication and enabling everyone to carry on exactly as they always had, exploring strange new worlds, boldly going to them in the process.
But why am I bringing up a science fiction show of my youth, in an education blog dedicated to pedagogical issues of today? Because the “universal translator” is becoming more of a reality in our world — and not always in a good way.
Don’t get me wrong. I am the first to marvel at the ways certain translation tools have opened up new possibilities for students and teachers alike. Students can strategically check the definitions of English words they need in learning curriculum and communicating with others. They can also do the same thing in reverse: if they know an English word but are unsure of what it is in their home language they can check that as well, the translation tool helping a bit to maintain and expand first language. Teachers can strategically use apps to translate simple definitions, vocabulary, short class assignments and even parts of worksheets, making content and goals more accessible to students learning English.
But the key descriptor in all of the above instances is “strategic”. And effective translation is just that: focused, planned, and intentional. I have seen educators deftly use strategic translation to facilitate the learning of curriculum as well as the language students need to negotiate it. Rather than a wholesale conversion of every word uttered or written in the school day (as folks on a certain science fiction show would have it), the key parts are illuminated for students, allowing growth, learning, and inclusion.
So when determining the most effective ways to use the translation tools at our disposal, I always think back to those Star Trek episodes, to the good old Universal Translator that allows things to just ‘carry on as usual’ and ask myself, “Is the way this tool works trying to change the student into someone who understands me, so I can carry on as usual? Or is the tool allowing me to change myself and my instruction, so students can learn language and curriculum?”
To elaborate on this statement, I offer the wise advice shared with me by ESL educators over the years, as I was learning effective (and not-so-effective) ways to use various tools: to avoid blanket-translation of lessons and interactions (such as running auto-generated first language subtitles under a lesson or conversation in real time with no other adaptations, or simply speaking into a voice-translation app to have a conversation with a student). First, these translation apps are not perfect, and errors abound in the accuracy and intelligibility of translation. Second, it is exhausting to read subtitles for the length of a lesson (or six!). Third, if absolutely everything is translated to first language, how are students learning English? How is the language of instruction being scaffolded for them? And finally, wholesale translation without other forms of scaffolding and language support is isolating. How can a student belong and contribute to class learning when they are desperately trying to read subtitles or are plugged into auto-translate headphones?
For a list of quick and effective strategies that can be used in combination with strategic translation, that scaffold English and enable MLLs to participate in curriculum tasks, I have summarized some of the critical ones in my blog entry Let that be a lesson for everyone. And although these strategies are intended for MLLs, they often enhance and amplify instruction for everyone.
A noble goal. And, as ever, I wish you all the best of luck in making it so.