Parents, boost your whole bilingual journey, for years to come, in just a few hours!

Get your child speaking the minority language more actively right now!

How Translation Tasks Can Be Doubly Productive for Your Bilingual Kids

As my children get older (my daughter is now 15 and my son is 12), I’m trying to increase the amount of opportunities they have to engage in translation activities: in effect, stretching their ability in two languages simultaneously and deepening their grasp of the more subtle differences between them.

I wish we had more time for writing because this is now the area where more practice is needed, and I’ve found that translation tasks are very effective toward this end. But as I’ve moaned about before, with my kids leading busy lives in junior high school, and having even less time for English and Spanish (our two minority languages), squeezing in the amount of writing that I’d really like them to do just isn’t realistic. Still, short translation tasks can be a productive way to get them writing in brief bursts on a regular basis, and for me to pinpoint, in their written work, any shortcomings in their language ability.

Because our main minority language is English, with Spanish still at a lower and more passive level, these tasks generally involve having them translate a short passage of text from the original Japanese or Spanish into natural English. Such translation texts—along with other writing tasks in English—typically take them from 5 to 15 minutes to complete, depending on the length of the text. Again, this isn’t the sort of concentrated time for writing that I would prefer, but it’s nevertheless true that this time adds up over the months and years and helps advance their writing ability at a steady pace.

Roy’s translation work

Let me offer a concrete example of how a translation task can benefit a child’s development in two languages at once. Although I continue to have Lulu and Roy translate from Japanese to English, I now more often ask them to translate something from Spanish into English so that they will be working with both of their minority languages at the same time: they can practice reading in Spanish while they practice writing in English. In this sense, it’s truly doubly productive.

The Spanish textbook we use—with a Spanish teacher who visits us about twice a month and by ourselves at home around 4 or 5 times a week—is called “Basic Spanish.” Yesterday Roy translated the first part of a fairly long text from the “Basic Spanish” book, which I’ve divided into three parts, one per day, to make the work more manageable. (Lulu hasn’t begun this task yet because she’s been so busy this summer.)

Here is the Spanish text…

Original Spanish text

And here is Roy’s translation of Part 1, both his original writing and my typed version (exactly as he wrote it, with errors), which may be easier to read. (His handwriting is much neater when he’s doing schoolwork!)

Roy's translation of Part 1

Elvis Presley was an American singer who was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1995. (He had an identical twin named Jesse Garon Presley but Jesse did not live. Jesse was 35 minutes older than Elvis.) Elvis died on August 16, 1997. His mother’s name was Gladys and his father’s name was Vernon. When Elvis died, he was 42 years old and was an incredibly rich and popular man.

When he was born his family was desperately poor and when Elvis was three years old, his father had to go to prison for writing fake checks. His first public exhibition was in 1945 when Elvis was only 10 years old: It was a talent contest. Elvis didn’t win—but recieved second place and 5 dollars. When he was eleven years old, Elvis wanted a bicycle, but his mom got a guitar for Elvis.

When Elvis was thirteen years old he and his parents moved to Memphis, Tennessee. There, Elvis studied and eventualy, he graduated high school. Shortly after the graduation, Elvis went to a studio that’s called Sun Records and prepared a music disc “My happiness” and “That’s when the anguish begins.” The disc was a birthday present for his mom and it cost four dollars.

A few observations…

  • Of course, the Spanish text isn’t so sophisticated (after all, it’s from a “Basic Spanish” book), but it still provides a good workout for his budding translation skills and his writing ability in English.
  • Look closely and you’ll find a number of errors in his English translation—not so much with the meaning but with the mechanics. The truth is, he probably could catch many of these errors himself, if he would carefully proofread his work, but I’m afraid that’s a habit I haven’t yet been able to instill strongly enough in my kids. In any event, after he’s completed the entire translation, I’ll encourage him to find and correct his errors before I point them out.
  • Errors aside, I’m pretty pleased with the level of his writing. It’s generally smooth and natural and it demonstrates his ability to comprehend the Spanish text and express himself clearly and confidently in English. For a child of 12, who has only attended Japanese schools, I think he’s doing well.

Look for translation tasks

As your children grow, I encourage you to look for opportunities where you can exercise their writing ability by giving them short texts to translate from the majority language or another minority language. Translation tasks of this kind—using texts from picture books or textbooks, or even composing your own engaging passages—will not only stretch your children’s writing skill, it will enable you to better grasp areas of their language ability that may need further attention.

Moreover, these opportunities will give your children the chance to practice the really valuable, real-world skill of translating and interpreting from one language to another, a skill that can be of tremendous value to them, and to many others, throughout their bilingual or multilingual lives.

Want more posts about writing?

How about you? Could you engage your children in translation tasks on a regular basis, even from a fairly young age?

4 Responses

  1. Very interesting, Adam! :) And well-done, Roy! It’s amazing they can understand their second minority language well enough to translate from it, specially when so different from Japanese.

    It gives me ideas for the future with my son, he’s only 2 now :D, and my first thought is of trying translation tasks in both directions Spanish-English and English-Spanish, and I wonder what target language would feel more natural for him!

    1. Alba, it’s true, Japanese is very different from Spanish, but their ability in English has helped them pick up Spanish pretty quickly.

      I hope you and your son have productive fun with translation activities in the future! Keep up your good efforts, day by day, and you’ll get there before you know it!

  2. Dear Adam,

    I am curious, did you tell him to transform the translation into the past tense? Or is it something he did on his own? The text is kind of confusing as it is written with everything in the present, so it would sound silly in translation if it were done in the same tense.


    1. Christina, you’re right, it would sound odd if he hadn’t written the English text in the past tense. But no, I didn’t point this out when I asked him to translate it. He did this on his own, sensing the same thing, I think.

Comments, please!

Your email address will not be displayed. Required fields are marked *

Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

My Popular Books

Browse the Blog

Free Webinar