Q: Translating Words Into L1 Isn’t Always Helpful. Why?

When working on reading comprehension, teachers often translate difficult words into L1 for the students. Sometimes, despite simple translations, this does not help the deaf and hard of hearing students at all. Why is this so?

Epstein Family Photos

Epstein Family Photos

Learning a language when your hearing is impaired is a difficult task, especially due to the fact that visual input  (lip-reading) cannot take the place of auditory input. Thus, the pupils have “holes” in their command of their mother tongue. As the examples below endeavor to show, these gaps in the pupil’s knowledge of their L1, often interfere with their reading comprehension in L2.

 Scenario one – Who uses the word “ashtray”?

Article about an invention fair. One of the inventions mentioned is an ashtray that shouts “smoking is bad for you”. The teacher has translated the word ashtray into L1 yet the student continues to look at the teacher blankly. The L1 translation is every bit as unfamiliar as the English word “ashtray”. The student comes from a family who doesn’t smoke, so she wasn’t exposed repeatedly to the phrase “pass the ashtray”. In the school  curriculum the word “ashtray” hardly appears, if it all, (even when studying a unit on “the dangers of smoking” you might not come across this word). There was no repeated exposure to the word or direct instruction of it. The student has seen people use ashtrays, she knows “the concept” of what an ashtray is, but its something she knows without having a word for (or perhaps thinks of it as something called “cigarette bowl”).

 Scenario Two “Addicted to  Computers”

The teacher has written the title of the new story on the board: “Addicted to Computers” in English, and then in L1. When asked to predict what the story might be about the student looks puzzled and responds: “its about someone who gets drugs from the Internet”. The pupil DOES know the word addicted (at least in L1) but she is only familiar with one use of it “addicted to drugs”. This is something that is taught in school and discussed. But how can one be addicted to computers when they can’t be inhaled or injected? And thus the student tries to make sense of this contradiction by including the Internet which helps her original assumption  make sense.

Scenario Three: The “investors” and the “inventors”

 The teacher has translated difficult words for the new text that the class will begin studying on the board, including the word “investor”.  As students work individually in class the teacher discovers that the student with a hearing loss has translated the word “investors” as “inventors” despite what is clearly written on the board. As a result the student has misunderstood an important part of the reading passage. The previous year the class had done a unit and a mini project on “famous inventors”.  The student had been exposed to the word “inventors” many times in a meaningful way and remembers the word well. Since English classes often seem to be a situation of endlessly puzzling out words for the Deaf student, seeing the familiar letters on the board automatically brought to mind, with a sense of relief, the familiar word “inventor’ and the pupil literally did not see the different translation until it was pointed out to her.


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