I often find my students using translators in class. When students are low level, this can be a boon. Instead of asking the teacher constantly for the definition, this is the next best step. But as students move into more advanced ESL and onward to mainstream classes, it is vital that they understand the fractal power of learning word definitions in English. Here are 3 major reasons why:
Words do not always have a 1 to 1 correspondence from one language to another.
English in particular has many ways to say one thing, and while many translators give the student peace of mind there are many things to consider when learning words such as register, collocation, connotation v. denotation, frequency, etc (ESL teachers, do yourself a favor and read Word Knowledge).
Translators are security blankets that can hinder fluency.
Again, I have seen this over and over again in my classes: advanced students that cling to their translators (bonus points if Google Translate). Besides the lack of complete accuracy, the overuse of translators can cripple a student’s confidence in themselves. This lack of confidence can cause students to miss out on practice because they feel that they are not up to the challenge. My goal as an educator is to move students towards independent learning. Thus, in this case, if I see that a student is advanced enough that they can learn English definitions in English, I heavily discourage the use of translators (students should only use translators in case they really don’t understand the definition of the word). Also, they lose out on the biggest benefit of using an English dictionary.
Learning English words’ definitions in English will increase your vocabulary dramatically.
I know vocabulary learning is frustrating. I experienced this when I was learning Italian. At first, it was easy to just translate word for word. But as I studied more, especially since my upper level grammar classes were all in Italian, I had to learn a lot of metalanguage words in Italian (like, grammar terms such as noun, passive voice, etc). I just gave up my translator and started just accepting the fact that I needed to read in Italian even though it took me forever. The thing is, I got a lot better with my vocabulary and a lot faster with my reading.
I like to tell my students about the fractal power of this approach. If I don’t know a word in English, I go to the dictionary and I find two more words that I don’t know the meaning of. I then have to go look those words up. What if I find words I don’t know then? You must persist, especially in the beginning. Keep going until you can unlock that chain of words that you don’t know. The reward outweighs the time. Instead of learning one word, you may have learned 5 words. Now think what happens if you keep pursuing vocabulary in this manner. It creates a fractal, much like the plant pictured above. It grows from one stem and splits into many many more leaves and stems. Imagine your vocabulary like this plant.
The next step:
Now that you’ve moved on from translators, what dictionaries should students use?
I will answer that in another blog post.