Thursday, December 17, 2009

Translation & Interpreting

It's been awhile since I've posted anything about translation or interpreting, so I thought I'd take a break from foreign-language issues, step out of the world of the classroom and into the often invisible world of translation and interpreting, where people live, breathe and work, employing the highest level of language skills possible to the human mind.

If you think that viewing translation and interpreting as such is an exaggeration, consider what Martin Heidegger had to say about language: "Language is the highest and everywhere the foremost of thse assents which we human beings can never articulate solely out of our own means" (quoted in Steiner, G. After Babel, 3rd ed.: Oxford U. Press, 1998, just before chapter one). Heidegger's statement doesn't even begin to deal with the doubling of the mystery of language by introducing a second language, or a third, or a fourth...

First of all, for my general readers, there is a difference between translation and interpreting. I am almost never an interpreter. I am almost always a translator. As the link above explains, translators and interpreters are very different types of people. Being a simultaneous interpreter is like being a blind tightrope walker without a net, who has to run, juggling dishes. Being a translator is like being a hiker -- sometimes the road is steep, other times you have to jog or even run a bit. But the translator has the advantage of being able to take his bearings and if need be, backtrack. Interpreters don't have the advantage of being able to "backspace and delete."

The process of translation is both artful and technical. Our word for "technical" comes from Greek, "tekne," which encompasses both notions. Translation can be viewed as an exacting art or a creative science. Warning: Translating and interpreting are not careers people can suddenly decide to embark on after high school -- unless they are already exceedingly skilled in two languages. Note that I didn't say "bilingual," -- there is too much confusion about what being "bilingual" means.

Finally, I leave you with two articles. One deals with some of the problems of one of the two main branches of translation work: Literary translation. The other is about the alchemical experience of translation -- what translators experience as they work, whether they work in the other main branch -- technical -- or literary.

Your Spanish Grade: Midyear Checkpoint

It's that time between one quarter or semester and the next. You're waiting for your grades. You studied a foreign language this past term as a total beginner, or at least you started from the beginning (again) as an entering college freshman. Naturally, you want to know how you performed. You may have a gnawing feeling that you didn't do too well or you may feel you "aced" the final. However, if you began the term with vague or incorrect ideas about how progress in foreign-language study is measured -- and experienced -- you could be surprised no matter what the grade turns out to be.

The links in this blog will lead you to some interesting, and brief articles relating to this process. Some are written to students, others to teachers and professors, but they all contain valuable insights into the nature of the language learning process.

First, the bad news not many schools or teachers are comfortable talking about: The learning curve for language acquisition is much longer than the academic calendar. Unless you're a whiz and are enrolled in a program that (1) preselects students with a demonstrable talent for language acquisition, (2) is intensive, (3) is total immersion -- 24/7 and (4) lasts for about six months, it is tough to learn a foreign language in college. That's right. It's tough. Going to class isn't nearly enough. Studying a couple of hours every day from the book will probably get you the grade, but not the mastery of the skill.

Next, the good news: It's not impossible. It takes discipline and strategy.

Here are three articles that examine (1) what you should be able to do and (2) what success feels like in your first year of language study.

1. Milestones, Part I.
2. Milestones, Part II.
3. Milestones, Part III.

I encourage students to go abroad for as long as they can afford it -- provided they understand what it means to be in an immersion program. Just because you go abroad does not mean you will be immersed in a language. There are a lot of ways that students -- and even, inadvertently, programs themselves -- can subvert, undermine or undo the immersion process. Read what the differences are between study abroad and immersion.

Learning a foreign language makes a lot of sense, especially right now. There is an old adage that says that the best time to get education is when the job market is poor. It makes sense. You'll be poised for better salaries when the tide turns. Read how foreign-language study is especially good during hard economic times.

If you love the language, you have to love the process of becoming good, no... become excellent at speaking it!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Improve Your Spanish Pronunciation

This blog will point you to a dozen short articles I've written for students and teachers of Spanish. If you are studying Spanish, these one- or two-page articles will offer you practical, valuable tips to help you improve your pronunciation of Spanish. For teachers, it means a few new items in your bag of tricks as you help your students with accent reduction and make them sound more like native speakers of Spanish.

First, let's touch on a few themes that the articles explore more deeply. Some are myths, others are exagerations, some are facts that can be misunderstood...

Spanish is spoken faster than English. If you think about this just a little, it is totally undemonstrable. After all, considering how many millions of speakers there are and how many countries they live in, is it possible to say that there one given speed for English -- or even an average speed? The same is true of Spanish. One reason people have this impression is because of the ways in which English and Spanish are both compressed in colloquial speech.

Consider "Whatcha gunna do?" or "Where ya goin'?" As a quick rule of thumb, English crunches consonants together and nearly eliminates many vowels while Spanish joins contiguous vowels between words and can soften many consonants to the point that they are nearly inaudible. So it isn't a case of Spanish being faster; it's a case of the English-speaker's ear not being tuned to listen to where one word would start and another would begin if they were written down.

The best proof that they are spoken at about the same speed is that in broadcast journalism, for both languages, it takes about 1 minute to deliver 16 lines of text (10 point, with 1" margins). Here's a bit of interesting trivia: Once upon a time, in the 17th century, we know that Spanish was spoken faster than today -- on stage, at least. We know this because there are many written accounts of how long certain plays took to perform -- and they were shorter than the time it takes Spanish actors to perform the same plays today.

People from Spain speak with a lisp. This is simply false! This myth is based on a misunderstanding of a couple of facts. Fact 1: In Castilian (the dialect in question), the letter z is always pronounced as the th in the English word thin. Fact 2: The same is true of the letter c, but only when followed by an e or an i. Fact 3: However, the letter s is always an s. In Castilian, the s may sound a bit different than the English s, but it is not a lisp -- in many speakers, it is known as an apical s and sounds almost exactly like one of the sounds in Mandarin. By contrast, the Mexican pronunciation of the letter s is often sharper -- more sibilant -- than that of most US speakers of English.

So, having read a few interesting things about what many English speakers say about Spanish pronunciation, I invite you to take a closer look at more specific features of Spanish. Some of these articles are written to teachers, some to students, but they all have useful information for anyone who wants to understand the sounds of Spanish.

1. How to Practice Spanish Vowel Sounds.
2. Phrases for Practicing Spanish Vowels.
3. Sentences for Practicing Spanish Vowels. -- A little tougher!
4. How Spanish Vowels Join Between Words.
5. How to Get Rid of an American Accent When Pronouncing Spanish Consonants.
6. Teaching the Pronunciation of Spanish Consonants.
7. I can trick you into "trilling" your Rs!
8. Teaching the Spanish Alphabet.
9. Listen to the Sounds of Spanish.
10. Pronunciation and Accent Marks.
11. Using Dictation Improves Listening. Input helps eventual output...
12. Using Recorded Segments to Improve Pronunciation.

Teaching Across the Curriculum in Spanish Classes

Every teacher has heard about the importance of teaching across the curriculum; from K-12 teachers through doctoral dissertation directors, the subject can stir up debate and dissension. On the one hand, this phrase can be seen as just another fad in education, driven by sociopolitical forces by people who may have never taught.

For those who think this way, teaching across the curriculum is sometimes viewed as another way to dumb down the subject that should in focus at any given time. On the other hand, teaching across the curriculum is usually viewed in a positive light since it helps students see the interconnectedness of disciplines and appreciate the application of knowledge.

This posting isn't going to settle any debates. I'm not even sure the debate is genuine. It seems a bit manufactured to me, a bit like the so-called conflict between teaching facts or teaching reasoning skills. What I will do here is provide specific, practical suggestions about how to introduce relevant and useful content into the Spanish classroom that will transfer to other classes that students are taking. The methods I will present are best suited for intermediate (roughly speaking, second-year students). Of course, my suggestions will also work for other languages.

In a foreign-language classroom, teachers have always been involved in "integrating" disciplines or "teaching across the curriculum" even when we have not called it that or even been very aware of it. The reason is simple. When we teach a foreign language, we are teaching people how to re-map the world in terms of language. Often, this "rewiring" of a student's mind brings about new perspectives on thought, expression and even cultural or religious values. Bilingual people know this. Monolingual people do not, because they cannot. Monolingualism is a bit like color blindness.

I'd like to offer an idea to teachers who would like to approach teaching across the curriculum in an organized way and, at the same time, introduce information about the Spanish-speaking world. One way to do this is by assigning four students to work in a group to study, then present orally, four different aspects of one country of the Spanish-speaking world.

Since foreign-language classes tend to be too large to be pedagogically effective, most teachers have learned to work around this by dividing the class into small groups who work together, so the suggestions I have will be easy to implement. In addition, since there are so many Spanish-speaking countries and subgroups, you'll never run out of material. So, first, divide the class into as many groups of four as possible.

Next, assign each group a country. For resource material, I can think of no textbook that can beat the online database at LANIC. Next, each student can be assigned or volunteer to investigate one of the following aspects of that country; the links below will give you the details about how I have used this method successfully:

1. Geography
2. History
3. Economy or Politics
4. Arts & Culture

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

For Spanish Teachers and Academic Advisors

Having just posted my grades for the quarter, it seems appropriate to stop and reflect on what went right and what went wrong this past term. It's a time when teachers, like students, catch their breath and regroup.

So, in that spirit and submitted for your consideration, I have written a few articles on subjects that we often face, as teachers and as academic counselors, as we improve our own teaching and advise those who study a foreign language.

These articles are not long, so they're perfect for looking over with your morning coffee during the holidays. I invite your comments and especially encourage you to send me ideas for topics you'd like to see me cover in this blog.

1. Suggestion for a Daily Class Format
2. Working in Pairs: Dialogues!
3. Academic Advising: General Observations about Studying a Foreign Language
4. Academic Advising: What to Do with Your B.A. in a Foreign Language
5. Replicating ourselves: How to become a professor of a foreign language
6. Foreign-Language Teacher Preparation: Let's Start with Your Own Oral Proficiency!
7. How to teach when the lights go out: Let's use our brains more!
8. Suggestion for a Low-Tech, Intensive Grammar Review.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Spanish Dialects

Spanish teachers are often asked about the way Spanish is spoken in different countries. Often, their curiosity is piqued by something they have been told by someone they have met or know who is from a Spanish-speaking country. If that native informant is well travelled or has been otherwise exposed through movies, music, or even the internet, the information they receive generally is accurate, even if it is anecdotal.

Here is a wonderful -- in fact amazing -- short video by Isabel Arraiza, a very talented young woman who accurately imitates a number of Spanish dialects, as well as German, Russian, Hebrew, French and even various types of English!

Returning to Spanish... Spanish is spoken by about 450 million people as a first language, in 21 countries (plus the USA). While it is probably impossible to get all linguists or speakers of Spanish to agree, for argument's sake, it could be said as a starting point, that there are about six major dialect groups in the Spanish language. They are:

1. Castilian -- you know, the one that English speakers think has a lisp!
2. Mexican
3. Central American
4. Andean
5. Caribbean
6. Southern Cone

Which dialect students should decide to imitate is an important decision, but it is often one that is made for them by the dialect of their teacher or teachers, or by a study-abroad experience. It is risky to one's progress in the language try to imitate an accent that few speakers or learners around him or her are using.

Naturally, the most commonly heard dialect of Spanish in most of the USA is Mexican, although, as is well known, Cuban Spanish, a sub-dialect of the Caribbean, predominates in Florida. Likewise, Puerto Rican Spanish, another sub-dialect of the Caribbean, is more commonly heard in New York.

The Spanish Royal Academy recently published a grammar of the Spanish language that took 11 years to complete and which takes into account the varieties of this amazing language. This monumental task was a labor of love for their language in all its forms.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reviewing the Parts of Speech

A big part of language learning depends on knowing how words are classified according to their general functions. For instance, if a student doesn't know that words that "name" things, people, ideas and so forth are called nouns and that "action words" are called verbs, a lot of time will be wasted in using euphemisms or circumlocutions to explain them.

The same is true for the other ways that words can be classified. These classifications are known as the parts of speech. There really aren't many general classifications -- only nine in all:

1. Articles
2. Adjectives
3. Nouns
4. Pronouns
5. Verbs
6. Adverbs
7. Prepositions
8. Conjunctions
9. Interjections

When studying Spanish, you also have to be aware of what are known in English as phrasal verbs, because English takes verbs and radically changes their meaning by changing a following preposition. Just consider the verb get. Add prepositions to it, such as up, on, over, with... and you'll "get" the idea! These each translate into Spanish with a unique verb.

Another problem that English speakers have is managing Spanish's own prepositional usage. The best way is to memorize the preposition or prepositions that can or must follow each verb as you learn them, just as you should do when you learn nouns by preceeding them with the masculine or feminine articles. Sometimes it is easier to learn Spanish nouns when you understand how Latin became Spanish, even if you haven't studied Latin. Additionally, you might find it enlightening to know how the definite articles in Spanish developed from Latin. This is somewhat related to the often asked question of why we say el agua but las aguas.

If you have questions of any kind about learning Spanish, teaching or using Spanish, please post a comment!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Object Pronouns in Spanish

At this point in the school year, many first-year Spanish students, whether highschoolers or college students, are beginning to be introduced to object pronouns. There are a number of sticky widgets that need to be dealt with when learning about object pronouns -- or indeed, pronouns in general.

So, first, what is a pronoun? It's a word that stands in for a noun -- but does that really help most students nowadays?! That's why this link will be helpful.

Whether you're a student or a teacher, I have a handful of short but succinct articles about the different types of pronouns that will help you. First, let's deal with what subject pronouns are and how to teach or learn about them.

Next, let's get to the topic at hand: object pronouns. First, because most language texbooks teach them first, take a look at what direct objects are. Indirect objects are usually taught next, so take a look at this introduction to indirect object pronouns. And, don't forget those interesting reflexive object pronouns.

Finally, the stickiest question of all -- what are the placement rules for when you have double object pronouns?

You are also invited to visit my Spanish learning website. Enjoy the winter break and visit here often! It's going to get interesting in here.