Lost in Translation

Have you ever tried to learn a language other than your own? Coming from someone who has gone through it, it can be daunting and humbling at the same time. You see, when someone is talking to you in a different language, you can kind of pick up a bit of what they’re saying, maybe not the whole phrase, but a word here or there, like in the visual above. You can put together some understanding of what the speaker was intending, but there are a lot of variations that can be considered. In the visual above you can use many combinations of words that completely change the meaning of the sentence. If you don’t know what the speaker intended to say, then you are completely lost. The feeling of being ‘lost in translation’ happens to many, including some of our ELL (English Language Learners) at the Texas A&M UWC.
As a consultant at the Texas A&M UWC, I find that many consultants can tell when a client doesn't quite understand what they are saying, whether they explicitly say so or otherwise. Whenever I had a client who wasn’t fluent in English, I would try and explain concepts or ideas using analogies. For me, that’s an excellent way to connect preexisting knowledge to new information; however, I found that this strategy isn’t as appropriate for non-native speakers. This became apparent when trying to explain something to an ELL by making a Toy Story reference. In my mind, this was something that everyone could relate to, even if they are from another country, because they have it dubbed in other languages, but it wasn’t effective. I then understood that people from other countries might not have the same preexisting knowledge, even if that knowledge is a part of mainstream media in the U.S., which meant I had to change my approach to working with ELLs.
When thinking through new methods, I found it hard to imagine myself learning English again, because as an expert in something, it is hard to realize what concepts are difficult for a new learner. I put myself in a non-native mindset and thought about when I learned Spanish. Pictures or visuals were the easiest way for me to learn, so I decided to implement this during my consultations. By using markers and a white board, toys, different colored pens, or even looking up pictures online, I find that my explanations are much more efficient. For instance, when explaining prepositions, it might be easier to draw out different scenarios. One could also describe varying sentence structure by highlighting with different colors or physically writing an example out. You could even go as far as, when describing definitive articles, to use props to describe specificity. By using visual clues, hints, or distinguishers, your client might better understand concepts and connect new vocab to what they already know. Visuals are universal, while languages aren’t, which is why they’re the most useful tool when working with an ELL.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience and skills! The non-native mindset is an excellent way to approach EAL students.


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