Gustavo Gutierrez, Abby Minervini, Ryley Park, Ana Rios, and Santiago Valdez
One of the many myths in the field of bilingualism is that bilinguals are “born translators” due to their ability to switch and communicate in more than one language. Nonetheless, if you have ever witnessed a professional interpreter in action whether at a hospital, courtroom, or school, you may have noticed that interpreting and translating are no easy tasks. While we know that being bilingual does not automatically turn you into a professional interpreter/translator, it appears that language brokering, the task of translating and interpreting that many bilingual children take on to aid their parents or relatives, seems to benefit bilinguals’ ability to interpret and translate in settings where it is critical that communication is as accurate and smooth as possible, such as in the medical setting. The following study explores the relationship between language acquisition background and interpretation and translation abilities by examining the performance of two groups of bilinguals, namely Early Childhood Bilinguals and Second Language Learners, when asked to facilitate communication by translating and interpreting within a medical context. Keep on reading to find out the differing translation abilities and tendencies of these two groups of bilinguals!
In this research project we sought to compare the translation abilities of Spanish-English and Korean-English early childhood bilinguals (ECB) to second language learners (L2 learners) of Spanish and Korean. Early childhood bilinguals are those who acquire and develop their second language (L2) during early childhood (birth to 8 years old). Second language learners are those who learn their L2 at a more mature age, after already acquiring their first language (L1). We chose Spanish-English and Korean-English bilinguals due to the high population of Korean and Spanish speakers in Los Angeles, where this project was conducted (Data USA, 2019). For the purpose of this study we centered the context of translation/interpretation on a medical setting, due to the high-risk environment and necessity for accurate translations. Our participants included 7 ECBs of Spanish-English, 7 L2 learners of Spanish, 7 ECBs of Korean-English, and 3 L2 learners of Korean all of whom were 19-23 years old.
That being said, we attempted to answer the following questions:
- Do early childhood bilinguals have an advantage over second language learners when it comes to maintaining meaning when translating/interpreting?
- How does each group’s linguistic background affect their interpretation/translation skills?
Previous research in Second Language Acquisition has often categorized L2 Learners as being more aware of their L2’s structure and linguistic properties, mainly due to their formal instruction and relatively late learning onset (McLaughlin, 1981). While this type of linguistic awareness might prove useful in certain situations, it does not necessarily equate to a greater ability to express meaning and communicate effectively (Colina, 2002). Because of this and the fact that L2 Learners are likely to have less exposure to their L2 than ECBs, we imagine that L2 Learners are less skilled at accurately expressing meaning in translations and interpretations, because they might be more focused on correctly translating the structure of the language.
Similarly, literature on the area of Language Brokering differentiates child L2 Learners and adult L2 Learners by their priorities when producing in the L2. For example, one study found that children prioritize accurate meaning when producing in the L2, whereas adults are more likely to prioritize grammatical correctness and structural form (Fathman, 1975 as cited in McLaughlin, 1981). In another study, it was found that children with prior language brokering experience had higher levels of metalinguistic abilities and enhanced problem-solving skills (Lopez et al., 2019). Given these findings, we decided to have our study focus on bilinguals with differing language acquisition backgrounds to better understand their priorities and tendencies when translating and interpreting.
When analyzing translations, it is important to understand what must occur in order to produce an accurate translation. Schwieter and Ferreira (2018) define translation and interpretation as processes that involve the comprehension of the input in the source language, its deverbalization or mental decomposition, and, lastly, its re-expression as output into the target language. Because preserving meaning while attempting to construct a message with a sound structure is difficult, we believe that our study can contribute to the body of knowledge in the area and potentially lead to new approaches for interpretation and translation training. Ultimately, it is crucial that all patients, regardless of whether they can speak English, have access to professional interpreters and translators as something as important as their health and well-being is at stake (Tonkin, 2017).
We had participants reply to a 3-part questionnaire that included sociodemographic questions, a translation task and an interpretation task. The translation task asked participants to translate three medical terms from English to Spanish/Korean and three medical terms from Spanish/Korean to English. The interpretation task asked participants to interpret 4 sets of dialogue between a doctor and patient. The first two asked them to interpret the doctor’s English lines and the last two asked them to interpret the patient’s Spanish/Korean lines. This was to emulate an appropriate context for using interpretive skills. For the translation task, we looked at the percentage of participants that had correct translations, and for the interpretation task we identified patterns and tendencies for each group’s translations.
For our Spanish speakers, we found that the ECBs performed better on five of the six single-word translations that are displayed in Figures 1 and 2. The ECBs were more likely to come up with the correct translation, except for the Spanish term “infección por estreptococos.”
We cannot fully understand why this happened, but we predict that the L2 Learners were better at making educated guesses for this term because they often used context clues when they did not know the exact translations. For example, when translating dolor de garganta into English, many of them said throat pain or pain of throat. However, this term actually means sore throat in Spanish. As individual words, dolor means pain and garganta means throat. Therefore, we predict that they made educated guesses based on their knowledge of these terms, but overall did not know the target translation. This distinction is important because throat pain and sore throats are very different medical ailments, which proves why specific medical translations are essential.
For our interpretation task, we knew that there would be more variability in responses, so we decided to analyze them by seeing if there were any patterns in how each group decided to translate. The responses from each group are displayed in Figures 3 and 4. When translating Is it difficult to breathe? we noticed that all of the L2 Learners had identical responses: Es difícil respirar?
They provided a very literal translation that coincides word-for-word with the English sentence. In contrast, the ECBs had more variety in their responses, using a broader vocabulary and more complex sentence structure. In general, the ECBs produced more complex interpretations that took the concept from English and conveyed it in a natural way in Spanish. Overall, the L2 Learners tended to maintain word choice and sentence structure across translation, while the ECBs demonstrated more flexibility in their responses.
Next, we noticed another difference in translation patterns for this sentence: Please point to the exact spot where it hurts. The ECBs provided very precise translations, whereas the L2 Learners were vaguer. As shown in Figure 3, five of the seven ECBs selected the Spanish verb apuntar as the translation equivalent of point. In contrast, none of the L2 Learners selected this word. In fact, all of them had unique responses. As shown in Figure 4, the L2 Learners use phrases like digame (‘tell me’), usar tu mano (‘use your hand’), señale con el dedo (‘point with your finger’) and toca el lugar (‘touch the place’) that have the intention of communicating pointing. It seems that they don’t know how to exactly express point, so they use these roundabout phrases instead. This is likely because the L2 Learners have weaker vocabularies.
Overall, the ECBs are mostly able to come up with a singular word to mean point, but the L2 Learners all used different phrases to try and communicate the same meaning.
While we noticed these differences when translating from English to Spanish, we did not identify many interesting patterns when the groups translated in the opposite direction. It seems like translating from Spanish to English was easier for both groups, because we had many more responses. Also, there was less variation in translations among groups and between groups, which led to very similar data.
For the Korean results, the ECBs also performed better on five of the six single-word translations. However, we significantly lacked data from the L2 Learners with only three participants. Most ECBs successfully translated the terms from English to Korean, whereas L2 learners appeared to struggle, averaging a 33% success rate.
When translating from Korean to English, we noticed that there were some over-translations among the ECBs. For example, our target word was 패혈성 인두염 (‘strep throat’), but they answered septic pharyngitis which is a more scientific term for strep throat.
Another term that was over-translated is 인후염 (sore throat) where we received the term laryngopharyngitis. In this case, sore throat should be pharyngitis rather than laryngopharyngitis which means a sore throat and an inflamed voice box. Since these terms are actually different, it is important to note since they may require different medical treatments.
In the interpretation portion for the Korean data, the participants translated, “Please point to the exact spot where it hurts.” from English to Korean. In the Korean language, there is no exact equivalent for the term, point, so this term is usually related to the phrase 가르켜주세요, which is directly translated to teach me. The closest direct translation for point is 짚어주세요. For this task, we saw that all of the ECBs answered using either 가르켜주세요 (teach me) and 짚어주세요 (point) when they interpreted for point. On the other hand the L2 Learners did not have correct answers as they completely neglected the term point since it is a more difficult term to translate and instead answered with 어디가 아파요? (Where does it hurt?) making their answers more concise and even changing the statement into a question.
For the next interpretation task we analyzed 배 위에 난방 패드를 붙이면 기분이 좋아져요 (I feel better when I put a heating pad on my stomach). While all of the ECBs mentioned the phrase, feel better (기분이 좋아져요), the L2 learners simplified the phrase by saying helps instead and restructuring the sentence from the target answer. Overall, the answers provided by the ECBs were much more detailed and accurate whereas L2 learners provided more concise answers or none at all. While the ECB answers varied, they used words with the same meaning consistently throughout all the tasks.
An important finding in the translation task was that ECBs were better at translating medical terminology because they performed better in five out of six translation questions. This finding supports our hypothesis that the linguistic background of ECBs is advantageous to their translation abilities. For example, ECBs were more likely to give the actual translation for dolor de garganta (‘sore throat’), whereas L2 learners tended to make educated guesses based on their knowledge of what dolor (‘pain’) and garganta (‘throat’) mean, showing that they did not know the actual translation. This same finding was also true for Korean-English participants.
One important finding in the interpretation task was that ECBs had better lexicons and understanding of the language because they used specific Spanish words like apuntar (‘to point at’), whereas L2 learners had to find different ways to convey the English word point with words that they know such as, usar (‘use’), señale (‘show’), and toque (‘touch’). In addition to the frequency of ECBs acting as language brokers, our questionnaires also show that they acquired Spanish at the age of five or younger, and had more frequent exposure to the language compared to L2 speakers, which likely leads to improved vocabularies and understanding of the language. This same finding was also true for Korean-English participants.
The last finding in the interpretation task was that ECBs were more likely to be flexible and advanced in translating by using different structures. For example, they used Spanish phrases such as tiene dificultad para respirar? (‘Have difficulty breathing?’), se le hace difícil respirar? (‘Is it difficult for you to breathe?’), and others. From our questionnaire data, we saw that ECBs have more translation experience than the L2 learners, which likely prepared them to focus on translating meaning rather than the exact structure, because they know how a concept might be conveyed differently in each language. In contrast, L2 learners were likely to mimic the same structure of the first language, such as their word-for-word translation, es difícil respirar? (‘Is it difficult to breathe?’). This same finding was also true for Korean-English participants.
Based on the results of our study, we confirmed that ECBs were more likely to prioritize meaning, whereas L2 learners prioritized speech form and structure as expected from the studies we drew upon. Therefore, this further supports the notion that the L2 Learners’ awareness of language properties does not equate to the ability to accurately express meaning.
Our research can be particularly useful for the medical and healthcare industry, where professional translators and interpreters are needed to facilitate communication with patients. The findings of our study suggest that companies might prefer to hire ECBs because they are likely to have more experience with translating and interpreting than L2 learners. However, the slight variations in which ECBs expressed meaning also indicate that being bilingual does not necessarily mean you will be a perfect translator or interpreter, which is why it is important to have professionally trained experts. Our findings do show that there are benefits of learning a second language at an early age. Therefore, encouraging parents to consider bilingual education for their children at an early age can help develop their translating and interpreting skills, expand their lexicon, and allow them to comfortably use both languages, which could be seen with some of our participants.
Researchers should consider replicating this study on a much larger scale to ensure that there is enough data from each group. This study could also be improved upon by having pre-tests, such as cloze tests, that can accurately measure the fluency levels of the participants to compare the translation abilities of those that have similar proficiency levels. We didn’t measure the proficiency levels of participants other than by asking them to rate their own abilities in Korean and Spanish.
While the ECBs seemed to perform better than the L2 learners on a few different measures, ECBs still experienced their own struggles when translating certain medical terminology. This demonstrates that bilinguals are not born translators and being bilingual is not necessarily a sufficient requirement for professional translators and interpreters, especially in a medical setting.
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