Word for Word

There are language courses that warn their readers never to translate word for word. The reasoning is that since languages don’t always translate word for word, you would not be learning your new language properly. So, when an English-speaking student sees the Japanese sentence, “Watashi wa amerikajin desu,” he or she should translate it as, “I am an American.” After all, that is what it means.

Unfortunately, there are three reasons that make it absolutely necessary to learn a language word for word. First, we learn vocabulary within the contexts of phrases and sentences. That means we must know what each word or lexical unit in a sentence means if we are to use those same units in other contexts. If I don’t translate “Watashi wa amerikajin desu” word for word, I will assume that “Watashi” means “I,” “wa” means “am,” “amerikajin” means “an,” and “desu” means “American.” In fact, “Watashi” does mean “I,” but that’s the only one I got right. I need to know much more than the mere meaning of the sentence in my native language.

I need to know that “wa” is a topic marker that is not translated into English, but means something like “As for.” “Watashi wa” means “As for me” (literally: I/ as for). It’s pretty clear that “amerikajin” is the word here that refers to the English word “American,” but it actually refers to an American person, i.e. “an American.” “Amerika” means “America” and “jin” adds the meaning of person. “Desu” is the Japanese equivalent of “is,” “am,” or “are.” So our literal translation is: I / as for / an American / am. It would be translated: “As for me, I am an American.” The final, idiomatic translation would be: “I am an American,” “I am American,” or “I’m American.”

The second reason that we always need word for word translations is that they provide us with insight into how the native speakers of a language think about the world we share and how they express their ideas about it. When I speak any language other than my native English, I don’t first think of the English sentence, then translate. I think of the words in the order that a native speaker would use to construct the sentence. It’s even helpful to think of the words you would use in your native language in the word order of the language you’re learning. This will help you develop a feel for putting sentences together naturally and easily in your new language. Ultimately, I say what I have to say without recourse to my native language. In other words, I think in the other language. In fact, I develop a different speaking “personality” for each language so I can commit to speaking that language like a native speaker.

The third reason that word for word translation is essential is that it is simply impossible to actually acquire a language without it. Remember, when we say we “acquire” a language, we mean we gain the ability to speak it like a native. The native speaker of any language can tell you what virtually every word in his or her sentences means. This is not a coincidence. Word for word translation, i.e. knowing what every single word means, is an indispensable feature of the language acquisition process whether we are studying a second language, or learning our mother tongue.

by John DePonte

Language Mastery: The Pincer Maneuver

The term “pincer maneuver” is derived from tools that are used to grasp things from two sides. Tweezers and tongs are examples of pincers. The pincer maneuver is a military tactic that involves attacking the enemy from opposite sides. So, what on earth does the Pincer Maneuver have to do with language mastery? Well, I’ll tell you.

Once I have reached an advanced level in a new language, the most challenging part of the language acquisition process still lies ahead: becoming fluent. After achieving fluency, you still have to work to maintain the ability to speak the language. Use it or lose it. One of the most effective techniques I have found for these purposes is what I refer to as the Pincer Maneuver. It simply means practicing with two different books at the same time: one basic, the other advanced.

The Pincer Maneuver approaches the language from two opposite sides: beginner and advanced. Each side complements, supports, and improves the other. Most good language books will have readings, conversations, and grammar explanations. I prefer to work through the readings and conversations without referring to the grammar. After completing both books in this manner, I like to work through the examples in the grammar sections of both books. Occasionally, it helps to read through some of the grammar explanations too.

Start your Pincer Maneuver process with the two best books you can find: basic and advanced. Work through these books in the way I have described above several times. You can use these books as the basis of your language maintenance for the rest of your life. Other books can be added for constantly increasing your vocabulary, but your two “pincer” books will have already provided you with a formidable vocabulary along with most of the grammar you will ever need. Don’t worry. Most real-life conversations do not involve complex vocabulary or complicated sentence structures. Just think of the daily conversations you have in your native language.

You will find that the Pincer Maneuver is not only highly effective, but a heck of a lot of fun. The advanced material will make the basic and intermediate levels seem so simple that they become automatic. That is, you will start to become truly fluent. In addition, the advanced level will become clearer and clearer. Perhaps the most important result of using the Pincer Maneuver is that your confidence in using the language will rise to a level that will have you fearlessly conversing with native speakers.

by John DePonte

Literary English: Simile vs. Metaphor

High school and university students are often required to analyze literature by explaining the authors’ use of literary elements and techniques. English language learners are often daunted by this task for obvious reasons. How would you like to land in China today and be asked to analyze a work of Chinese literature tomorrow? Don’t laugh, this kind of thing happens several times a year in New York City high schools.

To combat this inequity in the New York State educational system, I would arm my students with a few literary elements and techniques that were sure to apply to whatever passage they might have tackle. Two these weapons are similes and metaphors. Both of these devices are comparisons.

A simile is a comparison that includes the word “as” or the word “like.”

Simile1: “Lenny is as strong as an ox.”

Simile2: “Lenny is like an ox.” or “Lenny is built like an ox.”

A simile usually exaggerates the comparison. A simple comparison like, Debra is as smart as Ray,” is not a simile; it’s a simple comparison. “Debra is as smart as a computer,” is a simile. Debra is not really as smart as a computer. But, before you assume that the computer is smarter, remember there are many things that the human brain does better than the best computer. Learning the grammar of one’s mother tongue is one of them.

A metaphor is a more poetic comparison than a simile. It does not use the word “as” or the word “like.”

Metaphor: “Lenny is an ox.”

Because a metaphor usually does not express the quality being compared, e.g. strong, the reader has to infer the meaning. This metaphor could mean that Lenny is strong, stupid, big, slow, etc. The context of the metaphor is necessary to make the author’s intention clear. For ┬áthe same reason, a simile like “Lenny is like an ox” also needs context.

The best way for an English language learner to remember the difference between a simile and a metaphor is to memorize one of each. The more mnemonic cues in the examples, the easier they will be to remember. For instance, the simile can begin with a word that begins with the letter “S” and the metaphor can begin with the letter “M.”

Simile: “Similes are as simple as Simon Says.”

Metaphor: “Metaphors are monsters.”

The simile speaks for itself. The metaphor, “Metaphors are monsters,” could mean that metaphors are scary or difficult, or both.

by John DePonte

Shanghai in New York

I landed in Shanghai with very little Mandarin under my belt. I had studied on my own during the New York school year as I concluded teaching my high school ESL classes. No harm though. Almost everyone in the Shanghai town I stayed in didn’t speak Mandarin. They spoke Shanghainese. It’s considered a dialect but, like most Chinese dialects, it’s far, far from Mandarin.

For the first time, I was in the same position in which many of my New York students find themselves; I couldn’t understand the locals, nor make myself understood in many situations. If I spoke Mandarin, some appreciated the effort, others not so much. When I asked one shop worker for “cha” (tea), she pretended she didn’t understand and told me the correct word was “ta.” It isn’t

Of course it didn’t help that, at the time, China and Japan were experiencing a conflict over a fishing island in which the U.S. supported its ally, Japan. This didn’t earn me any points with my neighbors. At one deli, a woman asked where I was from. When I answered, Meiguo (America), she turned and walked away in disgust. Another women stuck her tongue out at me on line at a supermarket. This made my Chinese friends uncomfortable, but I took it as a tremendous learning experience.

When I caught a cab driver running up my fare, I said, “Shensheng, zhe ge tai gui” (Sir, this is too expensive). He flipped, started screaming, and turned off the meter. They are very afraid of being reported. I overpaid him anyway and did not report him. The tuition for a lesson well learned. This was also happening to my Chinese friends when the cabbies thought they were from out of town. Sound familiar New Yorkers?

The one word that most aptly describes the experience of not being able to communicate with anyone when you need to is “frustrating.” This may seem obvious, but it is not easily understood. I felt it most acutely when I had to leave all my purchases with a security guard in order to go buy a bag in which to carry them. When I couldn’t find my way back to the guard, I was utterly lost. I couldn’t ask anyone, I couldn’t mime, and even though I had seen the English word “Information” written on a sign hanging over the Information desk (somewhere in this gigantic store), no one could understand the spoken word. It took an eternity to find my way.

Fortunately for most immigrants in New York City, there’s a community that speaks their language. Nevertheless, I am now more keenly aware of how many people are experiencing Shanghai in New York. And heaven help the cabbie or shop worker I catch being “unhelpful” to someone who doesn’t understand English.

by John DePonte

Test Prep Replaces Language Learning

The purpose of learning English as a second language in New York State is to pass the NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test). The purpose for international students to learn English for study abroad in the United States is to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). To study abroad in other English speaking countries, future international students must pass similar tests: TOEIC, IELTS, TEFL, etc.

But, wait a minute. Isn’t that backward. Isn’t the purpose of these exams to test the students’ proficiency in their use of the English language? Certainly, that makes sense and is the purported intention. However, if this were the case, there would not be such a singular dedication to preparing students for the express purpose of passing these exams. These tests have become so important to the students’ future that there simply isn’t time for them to actually acquire the English language. If they try to do that, they risk falling short of the scores they need, when they need them, in order to proceed on their chosen educational trajectory.

ESL courses are now almost exclusively test preparation courses that leave the students to their own devices when it comes to actually developing proficiency in communicating in English. Governments and educational institutions have placed such importance on these artificial barometers of language skill that the teachers and their students can hardly be blamed. After all, it’s far easier for a functionary of a state government or university to look at test scores than it would be for them to accurately determine whether or not students will be capable of handling the workload in their new language.

So, what to do? First, let’s recognize that test prep as language learning is a problem. The language is not being acquired as a result of test preparation. Then let’s take the task of determining a student’s future abilities out of the hands of politicians and educational administrators and put it back where it belongs: in the capable hands of the teachers. It is the constant informal assessment of the students’ needs by the teacher and the students themselves, accompanied by correction and self-correction that lead to language proficiency. No test prep program, however comprehensive, can replace this eternal order of things.

By John DePonte