Lost in Translation: Web Site Enhances Instruction for Non-English Speakers


Sites like Babel Fish can help educators deal with the increasing ESL student population

Technology is a wonderful tool, and with advances constantly being made, teaching non-English-speaking students within the next decade could become much easier. However, some teachers currently have a hard time teaching non-English speakers.

Students with limited English skills are currently a major issue in education. Depending on your location, these students might be referred to as English as a second language (ESL) students, limited English proficient (LEP) students, or English language learners (ELL). Regardless, this article will refer to non-English speakers as ESL students.

Teaching ESL Students

Some states deal with ESL students more than others. But as a nation, America has been doing its fair share to prepare ESL students for life inside or outside of the United States. During the 1993-94 school year, the United States had 2.1 million ESL students in the public school system. Although the number of ESL students in that particular school year was rather high, the amount since then has almost doubled - reaching close to 3.8 million ESL students in American public schools in 2001-02. However, despite this growing rate of ESL students nationwide, in the 1993-94 school year only 29.5% of teachers were properly trained to teach these millions of ESL students (NCES 2003).

The purpose of this article is to inform educators of a free translation Web site, the Babel Fish Translation site (online at http://babelfish.altavista.com), which helps to enhance instruction and make teaching ESL students a more effective and efficient process.

I was lucky enough to have two Japanese students enroll in my high school social studies class this school year. At first, conversing with one of the students was difficult because I could not speak Japanese and her English-speaking skills were extremely limited. The student had an electronic-translation dictionary made by Sharp that could convert words from English to Japanese, and vice versa. While this gadget helped enormously, after a few minutes of a halfway discussion, I realized we both needed more comprehension and understanding to progress positively. I needed her to understand my assignments and what I expected of her. Conversely, she needed me to understand her needs, her strengths and her weaknesses, which would arm me with the proper information to help her advance academically and socially.

Bridging the Language Gap

What ultimately helped our communication was a Web site I remembered coming across that could translate languages. The Babel Fish Translation site, hosted by AltaVista, can translate English into eight languages: Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish. The site can also translate the above languages, as well as a few others, into English. But the best part about the site is that it's completely free. While the Internet has a lot of information on language translation, most programs are pricey - costing anywhere from $100-$500. These Web sites and programs have similar capabilities as Babel Fish, but also have a monetary attachment. And unfortunately for many educators, the free route is the only way we know.

The Babel Fish site can convert up to 150 words in one translation. It can also translate other Web pages in their entirety by simply typing in a URL and clicking the translate button. For example, my American history students did an Internet report on the Civil War. I navigated my Japanese students to Babel Fish and had them convert Web pages to Japanese, which ultimately allowed them to practice Internet research and learn important information about the war.

Although some translations were pretty rough, I found Babel Fish to be very useful. The site was most useful in translating small amounts of information, like individual words or short sentences, which helped prevent grammatical errors. Nevertheless, it is best to refrain from using slang words and words that have multiple meanings. While Babel Fish is not totally accurate, it d'es provide instructors with enough help to increase understanding and help bridge the language gap.

Being able to communicate with ESL students in both their dominant language and English allows them to translate and process information more efficiently and effectively. Tools like the Babel Fish Translation site give a glimpse of the importance technology holds in education. It also exposes uncharted land where education technology has not yet discovered technology innovations.


National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). "NCES Fast Facts: Bilingual Education/Limited English Proficient Students." Retrieved 5 Dec. 2003. Online: http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/ display.asp?id=96.

Additional Free Online Translation Resources

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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