Saturday, October 22, 2011

Not Lost in Translation

Chinese character for "Student"

As a teacher in Arizona, I've had plenty of opportunity to work with students whose first language is Spanish.  While I'm by no means fluent in Spanish, I know enough of the language and culture to communicate with these students fairly easily.

Then, in August 2010, a new freshman joined my class.  Shumin had lived his whole life in a rural area of China, but when his mother married an American he came to live in the United States.  I think he had been here about a week before school started.  "Good morning" was his entire grasp of the English language.

He gradually learned more useful phrases, like "See you later" and "I don't know," but most of his freshman year was spent watching me with a benign smile and a blank look on his face.  He was always cooperative and pleasant.  He just had no clue what was going on around him.  He used his little handheld translator and I used online translators, but changing English letters (which represent sounds) to Chinese characters (which represent ideas) was rather less than helpful to either of us!

Kong meets actress Ann Darrow on his island.

Shumin returned to my English class this August as a sophomore, and I was immediately impressed at the progress he'd made over the summer.  There are still many gaps in his knowledge of our language, of course, but he is now able to have meaningful conversations and, for the most part, follow directions and comprehend what I'm teaching.

It's when we do written assignments that I really see the vast differences between our two languages.  Unlike Spanish, in which the sentence structure is so similar to ours, the phraseology of Chinese is quite different from that of English. 

This week my class watched the most recent version of the film King Kong.  When we finished, I discussed how the tale takes place during the Great Depression and introduces us to starving young actress Ann Darrow.  I pointed out how a series of events set her on a path that completely changes her circumstances by the end of the movie.  For instance, when her seedy comedy theater closes unexpectedly without paying her the wages she is owed, she meets a shady director who only hires her because she fits the size 4 dress he'd acquired for his movie's main character. 

Chinese character for "Gorilla"

Following our discussion, I gave the students this writing prompt: "Describe the events that changed Ann Darrow's life."

I always look forward to reading Shumin's essays.  Not only is it fun to see how he translates his Chinese thoughts into English, but I also enjoy getting a glimpse of how he experiences the world around him without completely understanding everything he hears.  Here is the rough draft of Shumin's paper:

Chinese character for "Love" 

"The story start is the very difficult to live time.  People no money to use and they not have food to eat.  So they want to go something to make money.  So they decide to the island.  In the etc. they to go through and came at the island.  The island have very dangerous thing and animal because the island is very old island that it is have too much things.  Like strange animal they eat people.  So the people came in, you will be death.

"In the island Ann Darrow’s met King Kong and the story was afoot.  They came to the island and they meet the King Kong.  The people for famous and then they pick it to our work.  The King Kong want to find the girl named Darrow’s, and the people think it is a dangerous animal so they kill his.  So the girl can stop it. So King Kong is death.  That’s is very moving movie.  So that movie is tell us you need to like animal.  Animal is our friend."

Chinese character for "Girl"

I'm pretty sure he used his translator to find words like "etc." and "afoot."  And because the writing prompt has the "-'s" (apostrophe plus "s") at the end of "Darrow," Shumin obviously thought it was part of her actual name rather than a possessive form.  Also, I don't know how clearly he understood the prompt because he didn't stay on topic very well.

Nonetheless, I was touched by the theme he found in the movie and I gave him very high marks for his sincere effort.  It's true, sometimes we learn more from our students than anything we teach them. 

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