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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been re-evaluating the power of digital technologies. But not, as you might expect, AI tools like ChatGPT. Actually, I’ve been pondering Google Translate.
Ten or twelve years ago, I recall discussions among ESL and FYC colleagues in which Google Translate was censured as an impediment to both language acquisition and writing development. But within a few years, the tone had softened considerably, and many of us working with multilingual writers recognized the benefits of this Google tool for academic readers and writers trying to deal with unfamiliar vocabulary. There was a particular value in classes with students from many language backgrounds: students with shared linguistic resources could rely on each other, but others—such as speakers of Nepali or Korean or Lingala in the class—often felt left out. Google Translate was a resource for them, and it seemed to level the playing field. For translations of words and short sentences, this tool made sense.
Still, 1o years ago, I would not have encouraged a student to write a complete piece in a different language and produce the English version through Google Translate.
This spring, however, one of my students submitted the first draft of his literacy narrative in both Spanish and English. He had added an annotation: the English version came from Google Translate.
My first instinct was to invite the student to my office and make it clear that he should not do this again. But I hesitated. After all, it was not a final piece, and it was clear the student was engaged in the assignment. When I asked about his process, he explained that he just “felt more comfortable” beginning in Spanish.
So I let the process stand, and I provided feedback as I normally would, asking questions about the content, organization, word choice. The student began revising the English version. To my surprise, however, he did not delete the Spanish original on his working draft. It was a touchstone for him, a point of assessment and reflection. The student asked questions of his own, met with our writing fellows, and discussed the piece with classmates.
He has since completed two additional assignment drafts using the compose/translate/revise method. He recognizes the potential difficulties and risks inherent in this method, and he does not use it for every assignment. He knows he has to assess meaning, word choice, paragraph structure, and syntax.
I am not sure this process would be effective for all students, but for this student in particular, the use of Google Translate in the composing process engages him in metalinguistic and meta-rhetorical talk. As Myhill and Newman have suggested:
“Learners’ capacity to think metalinguistically about writing and to enact that thinking in the composing of text is enabled through high-quality classroom talk. . . . Potentially, classroom talk can be the cultural tool which supports the construction of shared declarative metalinguistic knowledge and the psychological tool which supports writers’ cognitive capacities to use that knowledge procedurally in the shaping of their own written texts.” (Myhill and Newman, 2016, p. 178).
My student is certainly developing “declarative metalinguistic knowledge” and using that knowledge to shape his own written texts.
In a sense, my student is deploying all the tools and resources (community, digital, and linguistic) available to him to compose, revise, and transform meaningful texts. His process, in fact, reminds me of my son’s artwork; my son uses a host of digital tools to transform photos into abstract works of art, as in the example below.
The initial inspiration is no longer recognizable or even recoverable: each choice my son makes takes the piece further from its original source. But those choices are thoughtful and purposeful, made according to his initial vision of the piece. We can even see the process of composition and transformation condensed in a time-lapse video of his work.
I would love to have a time-lapse video of my student’s composing process—from his freewriting and revision in Spanish, to the first iteration of an English translation, to the interactions and edits which will ultimately lead to an essay in his final portfolio. Through notes and annotations, he has already documented at least part of his process.
Ten years ago, I might have told this student that his extensive use of Google Translate wasn’t really “writing in English.” But like my student’s narrative or my son’s artwork, I have seen my teaching transformed through disciplinary communities, interactions with students and colleagues, and a host of digital, rhetorical, and linguistic resources. Such transformation is certainly a good thing.
Image credit: Murray Moore
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