by Wendy V. Ash

You will be hard pressed to find me doing direct translations in class. I liken this to some ESL methods. I go through gestures, facial expressions, try have it understood from context, virtually ANYTHING before I default to direct translation. Only when I am directly asked “What does [insert word] mean?” after all other tactics, will you catch me giving in.

Some adults argue “But… we HAVE to know what we are saying”. You may feel that you need to have it translated (which is not the case), but children, do not. We as adults are hardwired to think that is the logical way to learn a language as we were taught in our secondary education. Younger children tend not discriminate grammatically between words or languages. After all, they are just learning preliminary grammar rules about their own native language.

My mother related to me an amusing anecdote about my late father. He was American as American could be and in an effort to impress his Spanish mother-in-law, he decided to write her a letter. He headed to a Spanish dictionary to look up each word, in order, and wrote it down as he did so. After all, this was logical to him. Of course, while the gesture was appreciated, it was gibberish to my dear Abuelita when she attempted to make sense of it all.

This is one of the reasons why non-native speaking teachers who teach a Spanish curriculum, may cause more harm than good. I witnessed this first-hand with one teacher who was teaching a class “Me llamo [insert student name]”. This is a very common phrase when somebody asks for your name in Spanish (“¿Cómo te llamas?) and you respond “Me llamo…”.

The problem began when she started breaking the phrase down in direct translation repeating “Me llamo Jane. Your name is Jane.” to the child. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, what I feared may happen, did, when the child was asked “¿Cómo te llamas?” and she responded with:

“Me llamo ES Jane.”

If there was a record in my head, it would have skipped and stopped playing. I cringed. There it was. The seed had been planted with direct translation for this child to think:

ME llamo ES = MY name IS

Now it is embedded in this child’s memory banks that “llamo” = “name”. What’s worse, it can condition them to add an extra step in their thought process that native speakers do not have. Rarely do we think of a word in one language, think of the translation, and then speak it. It is this middle step that I try to diminish, and even possibly eliminate, when teaching our children.

For those who do not know Spanish, “Me llamo” literally means “I call myself”. Since modern-day conversation does not have us talking like The House of Tudor, it would make no sense to literally translate it. So why translate it at all? Well-meaning as we think we are being, it ultimately causes confusion.

Let’s give our children a little more credit. They (and we) are fully capable of understanding a concept of basic spoken words or phrases without literal translation. After all, isn’t that how we learned to speak anything in the first place?

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