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Lost in translation: or What helps children (and adults!) communicate in a new language?

Date posted: Saturday 9th February 2013

Scarlett Johansson Lost In TranslationOne of my favourite films is Lost In Translation, starring Bill Murray as a middle-aged actor in Tokyo, involved in making an advert for Japanese TV. Suffering from jet lag, boredom and culture shock, he befriends a very young Scarlett Johansson, playing a young American woman with time on her hands while her very inattentive photographer husband works away up country.

The film gets part of its title from a scene where the film director shouts directions for about 2 minutes at Bill Murray, in Japanese. Bill asks his interpreter, “What did he say?” and she replies, “Say it like James Bond”. Possibly not the funniest line in film comedy history, but it sums up just how difficult it can be to understand another language when you have no clues about what is being said, and the speaker makes no effort to help you.

I had a ‘Lost In Translation moment’ in the Czech Republic 15 years ago. I had taken a group of 12- year- old English boys and girls to a youth summer camp in the middle of the forests of Moravia. Only one of our hosts spoke English, and she wasn’t always available for translation. I had learned a few Czech phrases, including, ‘What’s your name? My name is Michael. /Where are the luggage carts? /A double room with a shower please’ (That’s right; I had been learning Czech by listening to a Berlitz Teach Yourself Czech CD). On our first day I was introducing myself to all the adults, and trying to remember their names, when the young female cook beckoned me over to the cook house. I said the only thing I could in the circumstances: “What’s your name? My name is Michael”. She smiled and said, “Umývej Nádobí”.

Well it was nice to meet Umývej, but I was a little puzzled. Why did she tell me her first name and surname? Maybe that was typical of cooks in this lovely country? Maybe I had been marked out as someone special in her affections? (When you have no idea of how to speak a language all sorts of wild ideas enter your head, as you try to make sense of what is going on.) She kept repeating her names. And I kept repeating mine. Then she dramatically slipped on a pair of rubber gloves. I took a step back in alarm.

sjThen the krona dropped, as she handed me the rubber gloves and pointed to the sink and a pile of dirty dishes. That’s when I realised that Romana, for that was her name, was teaching me a phrase I have remembered ever since. Umývej Nádobí is Czech for ‘washing up’. To this day, I think of Romana every time I don a pair of pink marigold gloves.

I was intrigued to find out how long it would take our children to learn Czech. What would their first Czech words be, and how would they learn them? As you can imagine, there was lots of vocabulary to do with toilets, football, food, tents, chocolate, colours, clothes, parts of the body, animals, numbers and phrases such as, ‘Hello/Goodbye‘, I like/I don’t like’, ‘What’s your name?’ and ‘How old are you?’ There were some phrases that you needed to know on a Czech camp: ‘Can I play with your knife?’ (Knives are very popular both as tools and playthings), camp fire, axe, and ‘Can I have another dumpling please?’ There were also some very surprising first words; e.g. brambory (potato) and prase (pig).

Why potato? Why pig? Every day children took turns to sit in groups and peel potatoes (with their own knives, of course). And as they peeled they sang songs. The children and adults seemed to sing together at every possible opportunity, and there was even a poll to find ‘the top ten favourite camp songs’. Number one was a song that told the story of The Three Little Pigs, with the chorus ‘Wee wee wee wee wee wee/Wee wee wee wee wee’. We knew this because the Czech children and Pipec, the principal leader of the singing, took time to explain to us, as best they could, what each song was about, and taught us the chorus of every song. We all learned that particular chorus quickly and could join in with it, because it sounds just like a certain word in English.

But the most important Czech phrase that helped us to learn the language was ‘What’s that?’

These youngsters were learning a brand new language in exactly the same way as the very young children who are becoming bilingual in settings across the UK. They learn words from each other, as they join in with activities that they are familiar with in their home country: cooking, sand and water play, outdoor play on the bikes and play equipment. They are especially attracted to singing, and stories with repetitive chants; e.g. Brown Bear Brown Bear by Eric Carle. Instead of our dictionaries, little children benefit from sharing non-fiction books with photos of objects and actions, where they can practice saying ‘What’s that?’ If they share books featuring stories that they already know, including fairy stories, traditional tales, and those based on popular TV programmes and films, they soon begin to feel ‘at home’.

There is one last observation about our Czech hosts that is important for anyone who is learning a second language: some adults and children were easier to talk with than others. Some boys and girls had infinite patience, and these were usually, though not always, the children who were keen to learn English. The same applied to the adults. Some seemed to know instinctively how to help us as we struggled to make sense of what was being said to us. They anticipated what we wanted to say, politely correcting us or giving us the word we were searching for, and speaking slightly slower in Czech than they usually did. In other words they were good listeners and communicators. They also used lots of facial expression and gesture, praised us for trying and complimented us when we learned new words. Others, unfortunately, either assumed we were ignorant, or just talked to us as if we should understand what they were saying the first and only time they said something. Or they just repeated things louder and louder. The very best communicators were those who took the time to learn English as we learned Czech.

Today I was in Basingstoke, leading a training morning to celebrate the success of another year of Hampshire’s Let’s Keep Talking project, which extends the Every Child a Talker project (ECaT) to more settings throughout the county. I met Sonata Manning, a practitioner who is originally from Lithuania. I asked her to write down for me 10 key words in Lithuanian, that I can use when next I am chatting with Lithuanian children. These included, dog, cat, pig, cow, good boy/good girl… and washing up.

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