I can think of better approaches

In a certain way it’s difficult to use the “wrong” method in second language acquisition (SLA). I’ve seen very motivated students succeed with methods that some would say are the worst that SLA has to offer.

With this in mind, consider the language-teaching pamphlet or newsletter: plagiarize bits and pieces to show some of the target language; do a few translations; dig into a word or two — all without knowing anything about your learner’s level, motivations, goals, etc. It’s the blunderbuss approach to second language acquisition. It might not be my first choice in methodology, but, per the “no-method-guarantees-failure” logic, I won’t try to say that it has no value to anyone anywhere.

Still, when your pamphlet’s method is term-for-term translation and you screw up the translation, it might be fair to say that your value starts to approach zero.

Below we have the pamphlet my daughter brought home from her second grade English class (note name: 21st Century Teens). In it, “can think of” is translated into jìde / 记得, which means “remember”. In the editors’ defense, they also offer 想起 xiǎngqǐ, which would be less bad, plausible in some situations. But the most normal term — 想到 xiǎngdào, which pretty closely matches up with “think of” — they don’t even mention.

Maybe someone else can remember think of some redeeming qualities…

click for larger picture

4 responses to “I can think of better approaches”

  1. It reminds me of the comics in any of my textbooks growing up. No one laughed and no one left the room any better informed.

  2. Zev Handel says:

    It seems to me that the best way to translate Charlie Brown’s “I can think of several good ways” is a more complicated problem than it may first appear. In fact, I’m not sure xiǎngdào is appropriate at all here — it really means “to realize, to turn one’s thoughts to something”. In this context it strikes me as a bit odd.

    What do we think Charlie Brown is saying here? Is he saying that he can come up with — invent — some methods for staying cool? If so, a more appropriate translation would probably be xiǎngdechūlái, which is commonly used with bànfǎ and fāngfǎ: “think up a method”.

    Or is he saying that he is able to call to mind — recall — methods that he’s used in the past? If so, jìde and xiǎngqǐ are not so far off the mark after all.

    What I think this little pamphlet illustrates is how messy, complicated, and polysemantic many of the most common and familiar words and phrases in our language are. Translating a comic strip is often much harder than translating, say, a scientific article.

  3. Syz says:

    Zev, good points all. Co-blogger Sima was taking me to task offline for making it sound too simple. That’s not really what I meant to do, and I agree that “think of” could be xiǎngqǐ in some situations.

    If I was going to say it again, I’d probably keep it as just a reaction against one-word translations (to be memorized) without further explanation. There’s too much of that in the academic water here, and a lot of time it works even more poorly than in the “think of” case.

  4. Zev Handel says:

    Syz, I agree with your main point completely. The one-word translation practice you decry encourages a mechanistic view of language use that is unrealistic and often harmful to effective language learning.

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