Working with ELLs can be challenging and exciting due to the differences in culture, language, and background. Another aspect that comes into play when working with ELLs is the differences in our ways of thinking. I’m not necessarily referring to cultural differences or indirect versus direct communication; I mean things such as differences is cognitive direction and phrases that are not translatable but are extremely functional to each respective language. This is where being able to describe the way we think of phrasings, sentence structure, the functionality of grammar, and word choice come into play.
I had a student from South Korea come in one day to work on his Economics paper. We came across mistakes that could be considered “common” amongst ELLs such as article usage and verb tenses, but there was a sentence where he had a phrase along the lines of “make in grander scale” rather than “to put on a grander scale.” For a moment, I hesitated and contemplated how to explain why this was incorrect rather than “that’s just how we say it.” I realized that, in my mind, when I think of “putting things on a grander scale,” physically or symbolically, I’m still thinking of physically putting something on a physical scale. When I explained this to the client, they understood, because they understood the way I thought as a native-English speaker. This way of thinking is likely not the same for all English speakers but discussing the way we personally think about things and how that translates to our written work has great potential in helping ELLs learn and improve their own English as they are continually learning.
I greatly empathize with the situation this client is in because I am a learner of a second language myself. I have been learning Japanese formally and informally for about 10 years now. With this, I learned that if I tried to translate everything directly from English to Japanese, I would often have more mistakes than I would if I just changed my cognitive mindset to what I know of native Japanese speakers. This means I need to continue learning more about how Japanese people think and how that translates to their language. For example, as a Japanese language learner, I often made the mistake of saying「覚えられない」(oboerarenai) instead of 「覚えない」(oboenai) when I couldn’t remember something because the first phrase translates directly as “I can’t remember” which we generally accept in the English-speaking world, but what it really means to Japanese speakers is “I am incapable of remembering” which, to be frank, just sounds weird. 「覚えない」(oboenai) is “I don’t remember” and would be the correct phrase to use in such situations.
Another thing I learned is that Japanese often likes to avoid implied meanings as much as possible except when referring to oneself. So when we use phrases in English such as “I’m going shopping” it is implied that we will be returning once we have finished shopping. In Japanese we would say something along the lines of 「ショッピングに行ってきます」(shoppingu ni ittekimasu) translated literally as “I’m going shopping and then I will return (come back).” This also demonstrates a difference in the level of detail languages deem necessary to include as well as how literal directions (to go or to come) can be thought of differently in other languages. Something that often confuses Japanese language learners is the difference between 「あげる」(ageru)、「くれる」(kureru)、and「もらう」(morau), translated as “to give,” “to receive,” and “to receive” respectively. Why are there two phrases for receiving? This is because the verb changes depending on the structure of the sentence which changes the direction, toward the subject or away from the subject, of the item or favor that was given or received.
There are also non-translatable phrases that represent ideas and are useful in Japanese such as 猫舌 (nekojita)、and お疲れ様 (otsukaresama). This means that in order to understand them, they require an understanding of the idea behind the phrase and not the strict translation. 猫舌(nekojita) literally translates to “cat tongue” and that seems a little odd doesn’t it? I am 猫舌(nekojita) and when I tell Japanese people this, they understand what I mean immediately. 猫舌(nekojita) is when you are incapable of consuming hot-temperature food and drink because your tongue is sensitive and burns easily, but there is no direct translation for this in English, at least not in simple terms. This may seem like one of those “oh just memorize the phrase” situations, but it is important to consider the context and situations in which such phrases are appropriate. Another such phrase is 「お疲れ様」(otsukaresama), which generally translates to “thank you for your hard work” in English. I think this phrase is interesting because 疲れ(tsukare) means “tired” in English, the preceding お(o) is only added to words when referring to others and it adds a respectful tone to the word or phrase as does 様(sama), which is a suffix generally used as a title when addressing someone above yourself in social stature. For example, 様 (sama) is added to the end of the word “guest,” along with お(o) being added to the beginning of the word, in Japanese and guests are referred to as 「お客様」(okyakusama). This phrase shows respect for another, often a coworker or classmate, who put forth effort for the continual success of others.
As you can see, there are distinct differences in the way individuals think about and convey their thoughts through native language. This rings true for individuals learning a second language who must learn to understand the way of thinking of native speakers before becoming truly fluent. Therefore, explaining our thought processes in regards to English to ELLs will be especially helpful because now that they are here in the U.S., they have been able to observe native speakers communicate with each other. Explaining the reasonings behind the way we communicate via word choice, sentence structure, and phrasing will help them connect back to what they’ve already observed and help them further their understanding of the English language.