Monday, 25 June 2012

Translating Idioms-A Real Linguist's Challenge

Guest Post by Carmen Marra

Anybody with an understanding of the translation field and of what the translating process implies, is well aware of the difficulties which are to be faced when trying to translate idioms. Translating means not only reading and understanding the literal meaning of the words of the source language, but also trying to convey a meaningful message. Behind every national language and every single country, there is a different culture and that is the reason why most of the times it is impossible to translate word by word, especially when it comes to idioms.

Idioms are very complex expressions and this makes them especially difficult to translate into another language as they do not necessarily have an equivalent. Like metaphors, idioms are phrases which have cultural meaning independent of the words that make them up. There is nothing in the words per se that conveys the meaning, but instead it is based on a certain cultural knowledge shared by some people. As idioms are culture-bound, they are specific to a particular culture and background and their meaning is always more metaphorical than literal.  You therefore need to understand what idea the idiom carries in order to find the closest equivalent in the target language.
So, how do you translate idioms?
Unfortunately there is not a universal rule, but using a good dictionary, doing some research on internet or even better asking a native speaker could be helpful. I am an Italian translator who specialises in Italian Translations and I am going to provide you with some examples in both English and Italian.
Let’s take into consideration the English idiom “once in a blue moon”.  It describes the idea of something which happens very rarely.  Before taking into the account the possible Italian equivalent, let me explain shortly the origin of this expression. After conducting some research on Internet, I found that the “blue moon” expression with the ‘very rarely’ expression is old and it dates back to medieval England.
Actually, very occasionally the moon appears to be blue and this happens after a volcanic eruption, when the dust particles diffract the red light, making the moon appear bluish. If I translated the expression literally into Italian, people would probably look at me as if I was crazy. The closest Italian idiom to the English one with the same meaning is “ad ogni morte di papa” which makes reference to the death of the Pope. As Popes usually stay in power for a long time, their death is an event which occurs rarely.
Here are few more examples of English idioms and their closest equivalents in Italian. I will also provide a literal translation, just to show the differences as they are often amusing.

ENG:    To knock on woods                 Literal Translation         Bussare sul legno

IT:         Toccare ferro                           Literal Translation         To touch iron

ENG:    To drink like a fish                   Literal Translation         Bere come un pesce

IT:         Bere come una spugna          Literal translation          To Drink like a sponge

ENG:    To sleep like a log                    Literal Translation         Dormire come un tronco

IT:         Dormire come un ghiro         Literal translation          To sleep like a dormouse

As a conclusion, I would say that it is impossible to translate idioms accurately without a good knowledge of the cultural background they are linked to. It takes more than just to know words to be a real linguist…

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Cultural Awareness and The Olympics: Explore the Possibilities...

In this week’s Times Educational Supplement (TES),  I look at how traditional topics can link in with developing cultural awareness and the current Olympic theme.
The resources mentioned in the article can be accessed here with more links provided in my recent Olympic blog post 
Nobody really thinks too hard about their own culture until they find another to compare it to. A lot of my pupils think that everywhere is exactly the same - just like home.
Cultural awareness is often presented as an add-on to language classes. But you do not need to choose between culture and grammar. There are many opportunities to combine both. And with the Olympics approaching, what better time to explore different countries and their cultures?
A mixture of English and the target language can be used to teach the key facts as well as specific words related to a particular competitor, their sport or country. As English and French are the official languages of the Olympics, the official bilingual website will help pupils to do research by accessing authentic documents in French. Interviews with famous Olympians such as David Douillet, France's judo champion, or German tennis star Steffi Graf can then be written up and performed by pupils.
Use the topics you teach to show similarities and differences. Focusing on the similarities will help pupils to avoid stereotypes and consider the differences from a more equal footing.
The routine of school offers a fantastic opportunity to develop cultural awareness. Why not look at the different training regimes of French, Spanish or German athletes? You can go on to discuss children's school routines in those different countries.
Photographs can help to highlight similarities - and differences - and can make topics like clothes and uniforms more engaging. The opening and closing ceremonies of past Games feature many examples of national fashion and costumes that can be described by pupils.
A lesson on greetings in a foreign language can be transformed by using videos, pictures and websites. For instance, pupils can learn how people in France exchange kisses on each cheek to say hello and goodbye. In Spanish class, they could compare different styles of housing with homes in the UK.
I like to challenge stereotypes by showing videos of world music artists. In preparation for the Olympics, matching national anthems to the correct countries is also a good way to revise the names of the countries and reflect on national identity.
Last but not least, make best use of your native speakers. Whether they are foreign language assistants, link schools abroad, parents, visitors or native language teachers, they are living proof that people and cultures are not all the same.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Olympic Values: Promoting Languages through the Olympics

With London 2012 nearly upon us, the Olympics provide a fantastic opportunity to reflect on what makes Britain what it is through exploring cultural ‘otherness’. Being confronted with ‘otherness’ forces us to look at who we are and focus on our similarities with others just as much as we consider our differences.

Many language activities inspired by Olympic values will also naturally develop SEAL skills, as there are clear overlaps between the two. The Olympic and Paralympic values mentioned in all Olympic literature including The Olympic Charter are: Respect, Excellence, Friendship, Inspiration, Determination, Equality and Courage. From a linguistic point of view, these values will be easy to identify in teaching materials, as most of them are cognates in French. In order to understand Olympic-related texts, it is also useful to know the three levels described in the Olympic Charter as the steps to the Olympic Ideal, ‘a philosophy of Life which places sport at the service of humankind’.
The first level aims at encouraging effort (striving for excellence), preserving human dignity (demonstrating respect) and developing harmony (celebrating friendship), whereas the second level focuses on the education of young people through sport and the promotion of Olympic values. Finally, the third level articulates the vision of the Olympic Ideal as a ‘contribution to building a better world through sport’.

There are considerable overlaps between these aims and the mission statements and core purpose of schools. The Olympics can therefore be used quite naturally by teachers to raise the profile of school values through discussing Olympic values in different lessons.

Pierre de Coubertin said: ‘The most important thing […] is not to win but to take part […] in the same way that in life the most important thing is not to triumph but to put up a good fight’. One of the strongest Olympic messages is therefore that the endeavour can be more important than the final result, encouraging resilience and what Carol Dweck would call a ‘growth mindset’- a focus on self-improvement rather than on unfocused talent as a badge of honour.

The students will need to reflect on the Olympic values and develop their vocabulary in English to be able to discuss them. Once students are confident about this vocabulary, they should be able to transfer it easily into foreign languages such as French or Spanish.

A key element in making good use of these opportunities is the need for a creative approach. There are many symbols linked with the Olympics and depending on how creative and open-ended the activities are, the student outcomes will range from illustrating to analysing and integrating Olympic values. For instance, looking at the Olympic rings can be used as an introduction to teaching about countries as well as looking at continents and colours. Flags can then be used as a resource to discuss the people and history of the countries, with students finally looking at Olympic symbolism to design their own flag or badge.

The Olympic motto ‘plus vite, plus haut, plus fort’ is a fantastic opportunity to look at adjectives and comparatives, while the many Olympic mascots provide a real-life context to apply dates, word order, adjectival agreement and to revise parts of the body. Describing and analysing official posters also makes students reflect on the image conveyed by high-profile sporting events such as the Olympics and on Olympic values such as friendship or excellence. Olympic values can also be promoted by looking at the topic of daily routine and exploring issues like fair trade linked with the actual goods produced for the Olympic games.
As regards overall planning, Olympic values can be promoted through themed activities or activities embedded in the existing curriculum. A mix of both approaches with a one-off event to make it memorable will probably be the most effective. A series of lessons on the Olympic theme is likely to provide a motivating new context for the introduction or the consolidation of numbers, countries, colours, foods and healthy living routines. In addition, the Olympic values will need to be embedded in the schemes of work and highlighted to students on a regular basis for them to be able to make the link.

Respect is a value that is being promoted in all schools, whether it be self-respect, respect for others or respect for our environment. The respect agenda in school has been tied in very closely with the quest for improving students’ behaviour and academic standards in general, as highlighted in schemes like the Rights Respecting Schools programme  supported by UNICEF.

The Olympics can also be used as a way to present respect as a means of combating racism. Respecting differences is key for students to derive maximum benefit from the language curriculum and it is also essential for them not to feel that differences are a threat to their own identity.

Throughout the year, a number of opportunities can be provided by looking at differences in names, style of handwriting, food, clothes, houses, school curriculum and rules, music and traditions in general. When looking at differences similarities will need to be highlighted in order to encourage students to be positive about differences and not to dismiss them as strange idiosyncrasies.

Names are a great resource  for developing students’ cultural awareness. They are linked with geography and religion, and looking at the most popular names  from different countries  can provide clues about their history and culture. Students can look at names of athletes from different countries as well as focus on trends from specific countries like French or Spanish-speaking countries.

This can be reinforced through music. For instance, the song by the French singer Zazie, Tout le monde il est beau, presents a wide range of names of people all linked by their French nationality. A simple activity is to get students to match up the names with their country of origin.

 The topic of Food can be approached in different ways, such as looking at the typical diet of an athlete or considering the foods and food habits of different countries. The idea is for students to challenge their own ideas about what ‘foreign’ food is like and to accept differences without being judgmental. They can be given pictures and names of foods to research or be asked to search for items of food on the internet with the aim of finding the ingredients contained in the different dishes.

Similar activities can be done using national costumes, together with an understanding of when these costumes are actually worn. This free iphoneapp is great resource for this.

Whether with food or clothes, there is great potential for students to practise extended writing skills in the foreign language by describing what the items are and what they have learnt about the different items. There are also opportunities for students to discuss the work produced as well as evaluate their learning and the development of their SEAL skills through the activities.

In conclusion, I would encourage all colleagues to consider the whole range of educational opportunities provided by the Olympics and make a true effort towards embracing the Olympic Ideal as a philosophy of life.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Foreign Languages to be Compulsory From Age 7

There was quite a bit of trepidation amongst languages teachers this morning as both the BBC and The Telegraph websites announced that Foreign Languages were going to be made compulsory from age 7.

From 7 ? Does that mean up to the age of 16? Both article seemed to focus on Primary without much being mentioned about KS4 although I did welcome the idea of “a new focus on spelling and grammar”- But is this really a new focus? As always, KS4 was reduced to “GCSE”, which is definitely NOT the best way forward to ensure all students have a reliable practical knowledge of a foreign language.

The plans will be put out to public consultation later in the year-during the Summer holidays- ahead of a planned introduction in 2014. “Under Mr Gove's plans, primary schools could offer lessons in Mandarin, Latin and Greek, as well as French, German and Spanish from September 2014”. Well, there was nothing stopping primary schools from doing this before-apart from the available teaching expertise, so I guess again, there is really nothing new here.

I was alarmed at The Telegraph’s hint that “A system in which all primary children learn a foreign language from age seven will give pupils a much stronger foundation, which they can build on in secondary school to become fluent”. Fluent? With less than one hour a week at primary and one of the smallest time allocation of the EC at secondary? I could be also mistaken but even at GCSE, I did not think the aim was to be fluent but to show some ability to understand and produce some language independently-quite different…

The Telegraph goes on to state that “By the age of 11, pupils will be expected to speak the language in sentences with appropriate pronunciation, express simple ideas with clarity and write phrases and short sentences from memory” and that “They will also be expected to understand basic grammar and be acquainted with songs and poems in the language studied”.

This is a sensible target but very difficult to deliver for a non-specialist teacher without support. So, where is the support going to come from? I hope the answer is revealed very soon…

However, I was really pleased with the mention of the “Research [which] also suggests that being taught a foreign language can help to improve conversation skills and literacy in English, as well as benefit study in other subjects”.

After years of repeating that other languages do not confuse children but support the development of their literacy, it is nice to see the message is filtering through…

Let me guess… the next topic to be discussed will be transition and which language is really worth learning. And of course…the announcement this week, which will be consulted on over the summer, is not expected to include any additional funding to help schools provide language lessons.

Plus ça change …

Friday, 8 June 2012

Friday, 1 June 2012

Memory Joggers-Practising Speaking and Writing

This week in the Times Educational Supplement (TES), I reflect on different ways to encourage active language learning when students are able to go from their mother tongue to the target language and the other way around.

Anybody who has ever tried to learn a foreign language will know that receptive skills such as listening and reading always develop first. You may be able to understand a conversation between native speakers, but you will find it a lot more difficult to take part.

Using cognates and near-cognates helps students to develop their confidence and builds up their vocabulary. In addition, they are easier to understand and commit to memory.

Introduce students to the concept of "word families" and get them to look at the most commonly used prefixes and suffixes. Getting students to "invent" words by playing around with prefixes and suffixes is also a fun way to get them to understand how words are formed. The "invented" words can then be checked in the dictionary and points can be awarded to the team that "created" the most correct words.

Simple visuals can be associated with key sentence starters to scaffold extended oral or written answers. For instance, a "V" is a great prompt to encourage students to use the near future in French (Je "vais"). And visuals created by students can be used as mnemonics to help them remember key language structures.

Tools that can support the development of both writing and speaking skills include: Spell with Flickr, a source of pictures of individual letters; Memorize Now, which takes letters or words out of a text; and Mindomo, a mind-mapping site.

Students are more likely to try to speak if they are given some privacy to experiment with the phonic system of the new language. Opportunities to record themselves with Audacity or use Text-to-Speech can really help.

CuePrompter, an online autocue, or the LineLearner mobile application, which can easily produce gapped recordings, can encourage students to practise larger chunks of language.

Students often assume that if they understand a word or a phrase in the language they are learning, they will be able to use it. But when they are searching for a word, it doesn't always come to them because they are thinking first in English. To cement it in their minds, try using the read/cover/write/check approach used to teach young pupils how to spell. It's simple, but effective.

Later, you can use a simple translation test of short sentences from English to see if they can actively use the language.