Lost in Translation: Dissonance in Language Evaluation

One of the challenges inherent to being a teacher is remembering what it was like to be a student. When I see one of my students staring off into space instead of paying attention, or doodling in the margins instead of taking notes, it frustrates me, but it also reminds me of myself at that age.

I took Spanish from 6th through 11th grade and was, especially in retrospect, a pretty lousy student. My grades were never bad, but they were seldom really good, and they certainly could have been, because Spanish is not all that difficult as languages go. I did enough to keep my grades respectable, but because I didn’t particularly like studying Spanish, I had no qualms about focusing most of my energy on other subjects.

As laughable as it seems today, I never took Spanish seriously as a teenager because it never struck me as all that important. This wasn’t due to a lack of awareness: teachers often showed us maps of South America to demonstrate the expansiveness of the Spanish-speaking world. From time to time, we would have native Spanish speakers in as guests to tell us about their country and culture. Strange as it is, I think if you had asked me to make a case for the relevance of Spanish in a Social Studies classroom, I’d have done so without difficulty. But the very next period, you’d still have found me in Spanish class going through the motions.

Today, I am chagrined at the opportunities I squandered, but at the time, I was happy to chalk my ambivalence up to two things:

1) That I just wasn’t good at it.

2) That Spanish, while maybe possibly important, wasn’t important for me.

Number one is a familiar refrain for any student who has ever explained mediocre grades to a parent or teacher. While I don’t mean to minimize the reality that people are naturally inclined towards one subject or another, in general, “I’m not good at it” is just the most flexible, all-purpose, boilerplate excuse there is. I was by no means a Spanish prodigy, but neither did I find the material hopelessly baffling. I was content to punch my weight, and as an excuse, “I’m not good at it” was an easier sell than “I don’t like it.” If you’re just not good at something, nobody holds it against you, but if you cop to merely disliking it, you invite inquiries into effort that excuses are designed to avoid.

Because I wasn’t a natural at Spanish, I would have had to put in a strong effort to do really well in my courses. And even then, my grades might have lagged behind the subjects that did come easily to me. To an extent, this was a self-fulfilling prophecy: I liked the courses I did well in; I worked harder in the courses I liked; and I did well in the courses where I worked the hardest. When effort is a finite resource, as of course it is, it’s easy to rationalize that excelling in your favorite subjects yields a stronger return than investing yourself in courses you don’t care much about.

At the time, though, I didn’t espouse the view that I “wasn’t good” at Spanish simply so I could slack off. I see now that I did it in part because I had some misconceptions about what learning a foreign language involves.

Human beings possess an innate capacity for language. Cognitive scientists recognize the existence of inbred linguistic software that allows infants to grasp the fundamental principles of language with amazing alacrity. None of us remember to learning to speak because it happens so early in life. But even if you could somehow recall your first fledgling attempts at speech, you wouldn’t confuse them with memories of learning to play the cello, because learning your native language is effectively effortless. Like learning to walk, it just sort of happens, because humans are hardwired to talk.

In fact, we have no memory of this process. Instead, by the time we begin forming memories and exhibiting self-awareness, our linguistic toolbox is already stocked, giving us the impression that language is something that springs from the mind fully-formed, like Athena from the skull of Zeus.

As with many blessings, the ease with which we internalize our mother tongue is also a curse, because it makes learning a second language seem like an especially cruel process. With the exception of those infants lucky enough to be swaddled in multiple languages, learning a second language is not an osmotic process, but one that requires patience and dedication. We may forgive children for believing otherwise, since their only basis for comparison suggests that language is something you learn without trying.

At 11-years-old, this was basically my attitude towards Spanish. Though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, what I thought was, “Man, why is this so hard? How come it’s taking so long?” Of course, what I said was, “I’m not good at it.”

It’s easy to fixate on the ease with which babies take to language and overlook the many, many mistakes they make in the process. But infants, in their infinite wisdom, do not recognize their mistakes as such, and this works wonderfully to their benefit. Parents may offer corrections to a babbling toddler, but even as the child’s brain makes the necessary adjustments, it doesn’t register having made the mistake. Now, this means the mistake will be made over and over as the adjustments take root, but so much the better, as mistakes are the currency of language development. The more mistakes you are willing to make, the faster you learn to avoid them.

And there’s the rub. In addition to having soft, plastic, spongy brains, infants have the advantage of a bullet-proof psyche. When your mistakes don’t even occur to you, they are powerless to damage your confidence or stifle your creativity. Infants shamelessly babble on and on without giving a second thought to mistakes. Toddlers are incapable of interpreting corrections as criticisms, and are thus immune to their bite.

Ah, it’s so simple! How come I never saw it before? Language students need to think like babies! (This should not be confused with acting like babies, which I’d like to make very clear to some of my male middle school students.)

Alas, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Asking middle school students to embrace mistakes and forget awkwardness, shame, and embarrassment is like telling a butterfly to climb back into its cocoon: those days areĀ over. (The irony of this example is not lost on me.) But although insecurity is fundamental to the very nature of tweendom, if we truly want language students to welcome mistakes, there is yet a bigger hurdle to be cleared: the grading system.

Grades are necessary and important. An education system without them is not just unrealistic and impractical; it ignores the fact that students want grades. Whether or not we acknowledge it, feedback is important to everyone, and evaluation goes hand-in-hand with validation for children and adults alike.

But grades can’t be handed out arbitrarily–they have to mean something tangible. This goes for any subject, but it is especially true in language education: an “A” student should be able to do meaningful things with the language that a “B” student cannot. For instance:

At a restaurant where the “B” student orders the first meal he recognizes, the “A” student is able to ask the waiter for a recommendation, or inquire about one of the items on the menu he doesn’t understand. That’s a meaningful difference in ability that allows the “A” student to have a richer experience than the “B” student. Now, if both students order the first meal they recognize, but one does so in a complete sentence–well, who really cares? Does subject-verb agreement really enhance the “A” student’s experience here?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that grammar is unimportant or should be abandoned. (Who needs foreign language education when we can just point and grunt?) Rather, I believe that language students should be evaluated primarily on the basis of their fundamental goal: communication.

Communication is the goal of all language students and the stated purpose of the programs that cater to them. Of course it is! What else would it be? But in language education, grades–even to the extent that they accurately represent ability–are rarely calculated in a way that reflects an emphasis on communication. Errors in spelling, punctuation, and pronunciation must be addressed, but they should not obscure the more relevant question: did you get your point across? And were you able to understand mine? First and foremost, encounters with a foreign language should be approached and evaluated with these basic criteria in mind.

Let me be clear: this isn’t about leveling the playing field, or “tolerating” mistakes so that mediocre students appear to be better than they are. It’s about acknowledging that to use a language is to make mistakes in it, and that mistakes only matter when they interfere meaningfully with communication.

If we want our language students to think like babies: curious, adventurous, and creative, with unflagging confidence; if we want them to see their mistakes not as stumbles but as steps toward better communication; if we want our students to be bullet-proof, then we cannot continue to define success through vocabulary words and grammar translation. We have to redefine success in terms that reinforce the relevance of language.

For a language student, there are really three distinct benefits to immersion:

(1) increased exposure;

(2) apparent relevance;

(3) empirical definitions of success.

The first benefit is the most obvious: if you’re constantly surrounded by a language, you’re going to learn it faster. Nobody disputes this.

The second benefit is also pretty obvious, but it takes a backseat to the first when it really shouldn’t, because purpose makes all the difference in the world. When the application of a skill is waiting right outside your door, you never fail to see its worth. Attitude is a matter of motivation, and relevance is the simplest form of motivation.

The third benefit follows from the first two, but while it is less visible, it is no less important.

When I studied Spanish as a teenager, my apparent lack of progress was a huge source of frustration to me. I kept passing the courses, so I supposed I was getting better at it, but I never really felt that way. I turned in assignments, they came back marked up, and I thought, “I guess I’m just not good at it.” It was this attitude that caused me to drop Spanish as a high school senior. By the time I got to college, a year removed from the language, this logic was even easier to accept. Today, as I am relearning Spanish, I see how I came to adopt this attitude in the first place, and how misguided it was.

There’s a prevailing wisdom in a lot of language courses that you have to master A before you can get to B. Since language is cumulative, this logic isn’t baseless: the mistakes you make in A will carryover into B. If early mistakes aren’t corrected, they can snowball into bigger ones down the road.

But there’s a problem with this line of reasoning if you take it too much to heart. At a certain point, when I ceased to be an “A” student in Spanish, I took that as compelling evidence that I was no longer mastering the material. But time and syllabi wait for no man. So even as new content was introduced, some of my old mistakes persisted, occasionally compounding with new ones.

From a grading standpoint, the results were never disastrous, and I moved through the years as a middling Spanish student. But the impact on my attitude was more damaging. Having never “mastered” any of the courses, I felt ill-equipped to actually wield the language with any efficacy. I was a jack of all tenses, master of none. And what in the world could that be worth?

As a butcher of the Japanese language who has survived 18 months here, I want to scream back through the years, “A lot! Jesus, a lot! You know who I’d maim to get a little pluperfect around here?”

The point is, the opportunity to conduct tiny, falsifiable experiments in language is a tremendous psychological asset that immersion confers. Every time I do anything in Japanese, I am able to evaluate my progress in the language on the spot. While I make mistakes during virtually every interaction, I rarely fail these tests outright, and being able to accomplish your goals in spite of the mistakes you make helps keep them in perspective. Although my mistakes still irk me, I am able to reconcile them as part of the learning process, and this understanding fosters a healthy attitude towards language.

Now, my experience with Japanese is enviable, and one we certainly cannot expect to recreate for the average language student. While hugely beneficial, immersion is not a practical element of a normal language curriculum. But that shouldn’t stop us from applying the lessons of immersion to language curriculum and student evaluation.

Language is a living thing and the key to so many human experiences. There is a magic in expressing yourself in another language that even children can understand. Language is relevant because it allows us to share our ideas and ourselves with the world. But you wouldn’t know it from the way we evaluate language students. Instead, we grade them on the ability to memorize vocabulary lists, conjugate verbs, and translate sentences that demonstrate the grammar point du jour.


Because it’s easy. Because it’s so much easier to dock a point here for spelling and a point there for punctuation than it is to judge how well a student communicates. Because translation is objective and communication is subjective, and that makes us nervous. Because we aren’t sure exactly how else to do it, and best just not to think about it, right?

But in doing so, something is lost in translation: relevance. By defining success in such sterile, objective terms, we divorce the language classroom from the rest of the world, where language is actually used instead of studied. This dissonance–between what we know actually matters and how we define scholastic success–undermines our ability to foster communication, the fundamental goal we set out to achieve in the first place.

It’s why I thought Spanish was maybe possibly important, but not for me. It’s why my students doodle in the margins. And it won’t change until we do.

The Battle of the Bars

They can’t say they weren’t warned.

I begged them to reconsider. I told them, in no uncertain terms, that it was outside the scope of my expertise. They laughed. They didn’t listen.

As far as I know, this is a uniquely Japanese problem. In the United States, when someone tells you they can’t do something, we generally take such an admission at face value. In Japan, however, even if one is highly proficient at a skill, it is customary to downplay that ability for the sake of humility. Regardless of skill level, Japanese speakers of English routinely go out of the way to belittle their own competency, even though the conversation itself tells me everything I need to know about their degree of familiarity with the language. In an American, I might see this tendency as disingenuous, the affectation of one taken to fishing for compliments. But in Japan, it’s not false modesty as much as cultural programming: boastfulness is held in particularly low regard, even by those who have a reason to be so.

There’s usually nothing wrong with this–it makes for a society general devoid of blowhards–except when actual shortcomings are mistaken for culturally-codified modesty. I ran afoul of this miscommunication last year, when I got roped into an impromptu gymnastics lesson with an instructor who refused to believe I couldn’t do handstand. And it reared its head again two weeks ago, when the teachers at one of my elementary schools asked me to lead the students in a cooking class.

At first, I tried to explain that such was out of the question, but they insisted on the grounds that, “Well, you cook for yourself, don’t you?” Yes, I admitted, but that doesn’t make my food fit for public consumption. After all, I come from the land of the “Garbage Plate,” and most of the food that comes out of my kitchen is better suited to a trough than a plate. But in spite of disclaimers and caveat emptors, they weren’t taking no for an answer.

Fortunately, I had an ace up my sleeve: my mother, who in addition to being a strong cook is a genuinely world-class pastryist. After receiving her counsel, I picked a recipe that seemed idiot-proof: toffee bars.

Now, I have no idea why these are called “toffee” bars. A cursory search for “toffee” reveals that it is made by caramelizing sugar, a step which is conspicuously absent from the recipe for toffee bars. But we’ll leave that for the big wigs at Toffee Magazine to understand–I can’t be bothered with such trifles. (Although from the looks of it, the people in charge of Toffee Magazine are probably more concerned with ironically wearing their over-sized wigs than they are with the finer points of what is and is not toffee.)

Toffee or not, though, there were hurdles to clear. For one thing, the school was paying for all the materials and ingredients, which while very generous of them meant that I had to prepare a list of said in Japanese. With help, I was able to do so, going so far as to include step-by-step baking instructions in Japanese. When I heard nothing further on the subject, I assumed that my directions had been understood, and that everything was in order.

Initially, my optimism seemed well-founded. Arriving at the school, I spoke with the teacher coordinating the class, who said nothing to suggest that anything was amiss. But when I arrived in the kitchen, it didn’t take long for problems to emerge.

One of the big differences between kitchens in Japan and those typical of the U.S. is the absence of an oven. Very few Japanese homes have ovens, instead relying on multifunction microwaves and rice cookers (???) for simple baking jobs. Anticipating this could be a problem, I had asked the teacher if the school’s kitchen had an oven, which I was told it did.

What I should have asked is, “How many ovens do you have?” Because when I walked into the kitchen, it was immediately apparent that all 30 students would be sharing the same (small) oven. Rather quickly, it became clear that the teacher with whom I had coordinated the class, while having read the recipe’s instructions and gone about purchasing the ingredients, hadn’t read them carefully enough to consider the logistics of what their execution would require, vis-a-vis the time-oven-space continuum. An inauspicious start. (To her credit, she is a terrific teacher, and has enough on her plate as it is.)

In adherence to the list of ingredients, we fared better, but as they are wont to do, the limitations of rural Japan imposed themselves. There was no cooking spray–only a jug of canola oil. Unable to get chocolate chips, the teacher had bought chocolate sprinkles, which are not the same. In lieu of dark or semi-sweet chocolate bars, she had bought milk chocolate. And, perhaps facing budgetary constraints, the total chocolate purchased amounted to just over 1/3 of what the recipe called for. The materials suffered likewise. Instead of real, non-stick baking pans, we had flimsy aluminum pans, the kind you usually see on picnic tables at family reunions loaded with mac and cheese.

But. But but but. Praise be to Ron Popeil, god of kitchen implements, for we had hand-mixers.

You see, while simple to make, toffee bars require a considerable measure of elbow grease in that they involve “creaming” butter and sugar. Not being a baker, I had to google “creaming” to see what it was, something I recommend doing with your SafeSearch filter on. Needless to say, it is taxing under the best circumstances, but truly arduous if done by hand. But with hand-mixers ready to deploy, the winds seemed to be rising at our backs.

Fool! Did you think it was going to be that easy?

Their brightly colored boxes and sweet racing stripes inspired a false sense of confidence in the horsepower of our mixers. Within minutes, one had broken, and two others were rapidly succumbing to their thick, buttery task. As I surveyed the kitchen, I saw students furiously pounding the batter by hand, hammering it with whisks, spatulas, and potato mashers. Sugar. Everywhere sugar.

Ron Popeil, why have you forsaken me?

The situation was becoming dire, and emergency measures had to be taken. From the staff room, troop reinforcements were sent up to help with the creaming. The two remaining, highly-functional hand-mixers began to be passed around double-time, while on the outskirts of the fray, students were mobilized to begin melting their inadequate chocolate supply ahead of schedule to save time.

There were casualties. I don’t like to talk about it. Of the five baking pans of finished batter, only two of them made it into and out of the oven by the end of the period. The other three were… left behind. And not a day goes by I don’t think of them and wonder what they might have tasted like.

In the end, though, toffee triumphed over adversity. Or, I dunno, I guess it isn’t actually toffee. Why the hell are they called toffee bars?! Whatever. Anyway, there was enough to go around, and all the students and teachers got to try some. Although pitifully lacking in chocolate, they still tasted more or less the way I remember, which is to say, damn good.

But today–a day which will live in infamy–I fly my oven mitt at half-mast, in memory of unbaked toffee, or whatever, taken before its time. And I make this solemn vow: