"I was an expat wife: Finding the right word with technology"

Lehrer Werkstatt: Finding the right words with technology

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Kathleen Ralf shares her list of technology that offers language teachers and students an easy way to translate words and phrases.

A recent blog post led to some interesting questions and discussion from my friends on Facebook. Here is one example: "I thought you were going to pull in a technology element. Do you use Google translate or other online tools? Do you think it's beneficial in a classroom setting, or would you advise against it for some reason?"

What do my students typically use?

Surprisingly enough, my bilingual students don't use many tools to help them find the right words. They rely a lot on each other. Which is good, right? But I rarely see a kid with a hard copy dictionary. If they are desperate they will get out their phones and use whatever translator app they might have or use a site they are comfortable with. American kids prefer Google Translate, if they want to translate large chunks of things for an assignment. German kids typically use Leo; they are just trying to find one word.

My Japanese students who have just arrived with very little English will use an electronic translator. Unfortunately they rely too heavily on this tool. They get so caught up in translating a word that they lose half of what is happening in class. Those of us who have studied another language abroad know that even if you keep translating in your head, you will never hear the conversation.

So imagine a kid constantly typing in words yet never hearing instructions or key concepts. They get stuck, for example, on the phrase 'let's create a spectrum'. They type in 'spectrum' then scroll through the possibilities. Four minutes later they decide the third word listed on their device is the right word. Now my instructions are done, they have no idea what to do, and are too timid yet to ask for help.

Finding the right translation

When it comes to writing and finding the right words in German, I prefer Leo as well. This translator gives me many versions of the word, and takes into account context, and parts of speech. It is good for finding one word, not for translating gobs of text.

I use Google Translate when trying to see if my construction of a sentence/paragraph is correct. I will write out what I want to say. Then check Google to see how they would translate it. Then I refer back to my husband (the native German speaker) who will give the deciding opinion.

writing and finding the right words in German
Definition of neighbour on Leo

Those students who constantly translate large chunks of text, find it hard to make that jump to figuring it out for themselves. Students who write their assignments in their mother tongue first and then use a translator to get the English version to turn in, never fully get comfortable in a class that uses English as its language of instruction.

I can think of one student in particular who has been in our school since kindergarten. The student is now in 9th grade and still cannot write a coherent paragraph in English. This student, when given time at home to do writing, will always research in the mother tongue, write in the mother tongue, and then turn in the weirdest translated text. I would liken it to reading signs in Asia written in bad English, but instead of a few short, strangely worded sentences, you have three pages of confusing text.

Having a digital text helps

Last year we started using a digital textbook in some of our Humanities classes. This textbook by TCI can be a lifesaver for my emerging English speakers and bilingual students. This text will read to them in English. It will highlight the main points of the section. It will define key terms. It will quiz them at the end of the chapter. And when used in conjunction with an iPad, it even has a dictionary or web search function that will help them understand the words.

tools to help bilingual students find the right words
TCI text using dictionary function.

In my English Literature classes I encourage the students to buy a digital text for their tablet or e-book reader. Sure you can use your hard copy, underline things and erase before you hand it back in, put sticky notes here or there with important notes, use a dictionary for unfamiliar words – but why do that when it is right there, all in digital format?

Here is a typical scenario in an English class. At the end of unit the students write a literary analysis on the text Finding the right words in Germanthey have been studying. This analysis might be a word study, an analysis of style and language, or a study of symbolism or theme. They took some good notes during class, but now they can't find that perfect quote that they remember was there but they forgot to mark. If they had a digital text they could go to the search bar, type in a few words, and violá! There is the quote. They can also search through all of the quotes they highlighted and all of the notes they wrote in the text. Using a digital text is especially good for word studies. If a student is trying to figure out how Shakespeare uses the word 'night' in Macbeth, all they need to do is type in 'night' in the search bar. They then go through the list of quotes provided to analyse his usage of the word. Imagine searching Macbeth by hand, page by page, until you finally find 'night'. No wonder kids hate writing papers.

Words are important and technology is a tool we can use to find the right words. But I sure do enjoy the discussion in a class when they network with each other to discover the right word.


Reprinted with permission of Lehrer Werkstatt.

Lehrer Werkstatt: Kathleen RalfAfter teaching America's youth for over 12 years in public schools, Kathleen Ralf decided it was time to move to new pastures. With five suitcases, a small child and a very tall husband, she set up house in Germany. Her and her family spend their free time exploring their region for the best bier und wurst. Lehrer Werkstatt is a gemischt collection of her experiences in an international classroom, reflections on culture and place, and her triumphs and failures with living abroad.

Photo credits: pr_ip Primus Inter Pares (person using iPad), Lehrer Werkstatt (screenshots).

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2 Comments To This Article

  • Tony posted:

    on 5th March 2014, 15:25:47 - Reply

    Enjoyed the article. The typo "viola" was also misspellt by your reader newjustine! There should be a grave accent in "voil
  • newjustine posted:

    on 5th March 2014, 14:37:18 - Reply

    An interesting piece. As a language learner, I totally get the idea of not translating word-by-word, but by hearing the whole thing - I'm now at that stage. Writing in Dutch will never be a strong point for me, but writing in English is my job. That's why I'm almost embarrassed to point out that there's a mistake in your orchestration... violá!! I think you mean 'voila'...