Hey, my language’s got that too!

I had a fun few moments with my Grade 6’s today. I was reviewing with them the pros and cons of using different strategies to look up words they don’t know. First, we brainstormed what strategies they use and came up with the following list:

  1. Look at the context
  2. Look up the word in a dictionary
  3. Use Google Translate
  4. Use Google Image search
  5. Ask someone.

It was a productive conversation and the students showed good awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, such as a dictionary being cumbersome and the definitions may contain even more unfamiliar words. That Google Translate doesn’t help if the students don’t know the word in their first language or if they’re nor literate in that language. Image searches only work well for nouns, so it’s important to identify from the context what kind of word it is by substituting an easier familiar word in it’s place, and so on.

To test their understanding, I wrote two sentences on the board:

  1. It is extravagant.
  2. It is a sasquatch*.

There was nothing particularly special about “extravagant” and “sasquatch” other than that I didn’t think my students would know them and that contextual clues could help them identify what types of words they were. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: So which of our five strategies might we use to figure out what “extravagant” and “sasquatch” mean? Let’s start with extravagant. I’m guessing you guys know what “it” an “is” means, right? Students groan.

Student: Use a dictionary.

Me: Ok, let’s see. Here we go, from dictionary.com:

  1. spending much more than is necessary or wise; wasteful:an extravagant shopper.
  2. excessively high:extravagant expenses; extravagant prices.
  3. exceeding the bounds of reason, as actions, demands, opinions, or passions.

Me: Got it? No, too complicated, right. What about another strategy.

Student: Google image search!

Me: Right, but just before we do that, how successful do you think we’ll be? Which of these two words will do better in Google Image search?

Student: The second one – sasquatch. It’s a noun.

Me: How do you know?

Student: Because if I change it with the word “apple”, the sentence still makes sense. “It is a apple.”

Me: What kind of word is “extravagant”, then?

Student: An adjective. “It is old” makes sense, and “old” is an adjective, so it’s probably an adjective.

Me: Great thinking. Let’s put “extravagant” into Google Images…So, what do you think it means?

Students: House? Hotel?

Me: So, you see what I mean. Google Images works better with nouns. Okay. Let’s try Google Translate now. Who wants their language first?

Japanese student: Me!

Me: Okay. Here we go…贅沢な  (Zeitakuna) How’s that?

There is some mild chatter and some slow nods.

Me: Let’s try Korean… 기발한 (gibalhan) Yeah?

Me: Who am I missing? Indonesian? boros

Italian student: What about me?

Me: Right, but I’m guessing it’s going to be something like “extravagante”! Let’s see… stravagante. Ahh, I was so close!

Me: Oh, I forgot Chinese… (Mí)

There are some puzzled exclamations from the Chinese students.

Me: What’s wrong guys? Not a good translation? K. Let’s feed in some more context. “It is extravagant.” 这是奢侈的。 (Zhè shì shēchǐ de) Better?

There are several groans when the students realize they already knew what the word means. Several of them point out that the second version with the whole sentence was a clearly superior translation.

Me: So see you, guys. Although it can be a bad habit to use Google Translate to translate whole sentences because the grammar is not always correct, sometimes Google Translate works better translating individual words when it has more information. Now, let’s try sasquatch in Google Images. Ready? Here.

Students: OHHHH.

Me: See how easy that was. Why did it work so easily?

Student: It’s a noun.

Japanese student: What’s that word in my language?

Me: Okay, here… サスクワッチ (Sasukuwatchi). What? I could have guessed that!

Me: Indonesian…sasquatch. Okay, the same. Korean…새 스콰 치 (sae seukwa chi). What! Again, the same.

Me: How about Italian… sasquatch.  Goodness! They’re all the same.

Chinese student: Chinese, Chinese!

Me: Okay, 野人 (Yěrén). There we go. That doesn’t look or sound like the English.

Japanese student: Hey, I know those characters.

Me: Can you say those characters in Japanese?

Japanese student: Yajin

Me: Isn’t that cool guys. It’s different from the Chinese, but you can still read it. Now, can you translate that back to English?

The Japanese students chat for a little before the same student speaks up again.

Japanese student: Uhh, the first word is like “natural”.

Me: Cool. And the Chinese means “wild”. I think that’s a pretty good translation. Isn’t it interesting how similar languages can be. Like English and Italian are? And Chinese and Japanese? I bet our Italian friend can understand Spanish and French if it’s spoken slowly? Am I right?

Italian student: Yes.

Me: Languages are cool that way. They’re like…

Student: Brothers!

Me: Yeah, and sometimes cousins.

And then the rest of the class devolved into delightful chaos as we tried out translating different words into multiple languages and noticed more patterns. After the bell rang, one of my Chinese students came to me and told me about how long ago the Japanese learned characters from the Chinese. A Japanese student told me about the three scripts used in Japanese: kanji, used to represent Chinese characters, hiragana, a phonetic script used for Japanese words, and katagana, used for foreign words à la “Sasukuwatchi”. Finally, my Italian student came to me and said, “Mr. Noble, that was a great lesson. We should do that more often!”

I agree!

*I inadvertently used a lower case s for Sasquatch when it should be capitalized as it’s a proper noun.


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