I teach the fourth grade in a public elementary school in the suburbs of a large U.S. city, and in my classroom I often have a child or two with very limited English skills. These kids are 8 or 9 years old and often here with parents who are stationed temporarily in the U.S. They get daily or weekly time with the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher, but other than that, they are fully integrated into normal American classrooms.
I use Google Translate with these children in a very focused, need-to-solve-a-problem basis. I have a specific question I need to ask, an instruction I need them to follow, or I need to get information from them. Things like, How are you going home today? Are you going to buy lunch in the cafeteria today or did you bring a lunch? You know, the kinds of daily activities in the life of a classroom.
When I was in the third grade my dad got posted in a foreign country for a year, so I actually know what it’s like for those kids. You’re just sitting there in a fog while everyone around you speaks Russian or some language you can’t grasp. Nowadays I have a tool I can use to help kids in a similar situation through the school day: Now we’re going to do this. This is what you need to do. Those kinds of things are important for their general feeling of well-being, that they can manage the school day.
I sometimes use it in other ways. During writing lessons, I might have a child write in their native language. Then I copy/paste that into Google Translate so I have an idea of what they’ve written. I figure at this stage, writing in your own language is better than trying to write in English. I’ve even tried translating larger blocks of text for a student to read so they can at least know what is being discussed in class.
The languages I’ve dealt with so far are French and Spanish. I had Latin in high school so I can recognize word derivations and root words and can be somewhat assured that what’s been translated is moderately close to what we’re talking about.
When you’re communicating this way, you have to read between the lines a bit. It’s usually so situation-specific that you can get the meaning, but once in a while it takes some back-and-forth questions and answers to narrow things down and get an understanding. Luckily if we hit a dead end, I usually have a backup: a school employee or another child who speaks the student’s language. If that method fails, we can always call the parents to sort things out. At least one of them usually speaks English.
As the kids learn more English, I find myself using machine translation more. I can tell that they are starting to understand me a bit and I want to communicate more. I first say something then I type it into Google Translate. They can see the connection between what I’m saying, what I’m typing, and then what it goes out to in their own language.
I feel like machine translation is a resource that I can use to move to the next step. It really feels like a bridge for understanding.
Whatever else happens, I want these kids to feel like they are understood.