Can we translate from German?

There’s something I used to do in my classes. An early version of my vocabulary review was making up little strips of paper that had a sentence in German on it, using one of the words we’d covered in class.

The sentences were things like this (the underlined words are examples of the vocabulary):

  • The person on my left makes several questionable statements.
  • When I saw the person across from me today, I felt joy.

The result was not only that people got very good at vocabulary such as ‘on my left’ and ‘across from,’ but that it was often surprising (to me) which phrases were difficult for my students to translate.

(Fun aside: for other reasons, I’ve missed these activities and am working on adding them to the worksheet generator.)

Why translate from L1?

In spite of the fact that I was taught to do all English, all the time in the classroom, I realized that I wasn’t serving my students well. I began to understand students who said to me “I do fine in the lesson, but when I have to talk to a customer I draw a blank.”

My students were hitting walls when they hit a spot in a conversation where in spite of being able to say what they want to say in English, they are stuck at a fixed phrase. These are things like “in Anbetracht der Tatsache…” which translates to “considering the fact,” but, while we covered ‘to consider’ in class nobody thought to connect it to that particular phrase.

Maybe this whole thing is about how I failed my students.

The point I want to make, however, is not that I failed. It’s that translating from German gave them the skills to start working around these roadblocks. (And, in the example above, it was generally fun to accuse the person next to you of being questionable.)

How I do it now.

The question that became the title of this blog came in a lesson where we’d used an emailing worksheet I made (it will eventually be available with my other business worksheets) and had to translate a ‘typical’ business email from German into English.

The whole goal of the exercise (really, of all the emailing worksheets) is to try and identify as many of the phrases my students use often in their emails and to help them find English formulations for them.

Then, the next week (yesterday’s lesson, in this case), a student came in and asked “could we translate from German more? That was much harder than translating from English.”

And, I realized, I need to get more of that back in the lesson.

Some of my classes (more elementary classes) get worksheets that include translation from German as one of the ‘steps’ that vocabulary goes through. But, there’s a limit to how much work a group can get, so not everyone gets it.

When I get some time for coding again (I’m working hard to get there!) I want to make review translations one of the review options provided. I’d like to have the option of occasionally making that homework, or cutting the sentences up into strips to play the same game again.

Until then, I’m really glad in retrospect that I opted to use emails in German in my worksheets.

 

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The absurd business worksheets

The worksheets

A while back, I mentioned that I was making business worksheets. The idea has been to find some sort of “business worksheet” that does the following thing:

  • Engage my students so that they don’t shut down and go into passive mode
  • Cover grammar in a “business context” so that I can say it is relevant
  • Include business vocabulary

I approached this the way I approach everything: as a chance to be a clown. The worksheets are a collection of prose ‘business stories’ (or emails) illustrating the grammar/point in question and exercises based on that grammar. The stories and emails, however, are completely absurd.

Besides my own personal love of absurdity, I value it for two reasons: it brings some levity to the classroom and, second, it allows me to admit that I don’t know anything about their work in a practical way. We always finish the story with me saying “this is how I imagine your job…”

The post linked above includes one example, but here’s another.

This is not so much typical, as one of my favorites (also from the worksheet series focused on the passive voice). It follows the adventures of a fictional Customer Service Representative named Fritzilinde:

“The ‘Grammatik der Liebe‘ album has to be delivered on Friday,” she said to her colleagues in the creative department. “The customer wants to know if we’ll make the deadline.”

Her colleague made a face. “It should be finished on time…”

Fritzilinde cut him off. “Should isn’t good enough. What do you need to get it finished?”

Another colleague stopped mixing ketchup into his vodka and said “What he means to say is that it will be finished, if the muse inspires us.” He looked at the bottle in front of him. “And this is our last bottle of muse. So, it could be delivered on time, if this is enough.”

Fritzilinde went to his desk, took the bottle and held it in front of his face. “Listen to me, it is going to be delivered on time. I know that, because, if it’s not, I’ll take this bottle and stick it so far up your behind that you’ll need your muse and a powerful flashlight to find it.”

The Reception

When I made the worksheets, I had some specific groups in mind. The ones I like to laugh with. Originally, I thought that I’d rewrite the stories to match the tone of the more straight-laced groups. But, as things go, I “didn’t have time.”

So, all of my business groups (and several advanced evening groups) have had at least some of these worksheets.

And they were a resounding success.

I credit that to a few things.

First, I have learned that people genuinely enjoy the absurdity, if only to say “I know colleagues like that” or “is that what you think human resources does, Toby?” Everyone has some idea of the fact that their work is undervalued by people who don’t do it, so these sorts of jokes are great.

Second, there is a pretty boring component to the worksheets. I don’t make much of it here, because it’s not much to write about, but after each story introduces something, there are boring activities reinforcing what the story was supposed to introduce. Following the story above, there are activities matching modal verbs to probabilities as well as exercises with more ‘normal’ vocabulary. (“The product is going to be replaced by the more expensive SuperProduct 3000.”)

Third, they include brainstorm activities. Like worksheets downloaded from the internet, these are kept deliberately general. I’ve found that the ideal solution is to include some sort of brainstorming activity in which the students list their own vocabulary (for the passive, this is a table of tools they use and associated verbs).

Lastly, the trick is to combine the ‘generic’ worksheets with specific exercises. Using the vocabulary gained in the brainstorming, and in addition to the worksheets, I prepare a translation exercise using that vocabulary which, if I do it well, comes pretty close to language they would actually produce, or can imagine themselves producing. And that brings the exercise from a sense of abstract detachment (the absurd story) gradually to a feeling of hands-on practice (the customized exercises).

All of that, I think, has made for a series of successful worksheets.

The power of refinement

Something I’d like to tag on at the end here is that I think a value to using one set of worksheets for many different groups is that I take the time to go back and expand upon them, improving them as I realize what didn’t work.

An example is that I added a whole worksheet to the processes collection of worksheets to focus on the present perfect. (And, to be honest, it wouldn’t hurt to add at least two extra worksheets that focus only on negations and questions using the grammar covered, if I were to have unlimited time).

That means that my ‘generic’ worksheets have grown into a pretty decent tool which, coupled with my vocab worksheet generator for vocab review means that I’m only occasionally making really great, tailored activities, but maximizing my results.

The history game

This is part of me trying to share the things that work best in my lessons. Unfortunately, this one starts a little weird, as it’s probably not going to be great for you without some modification. My version is all the way at the bottom of the post.


The history game

You won’t believe this, but I didn’t have a single intermediate to advanced group that didn’t get into sorting historical events. The idea is that students are given events from different ‘timelines’ (their town, their country, the industrial revolution, basic American history, whatever) and have to sort them into order.

Sure, we all know that the Declaration of Independence was signed before George Washington became president, but was that before or after the local landmark church was built?

Gameplay

I generally ask the students something like, “who do you think knows more about history, you or the person on your left?” And we sort of all talk about the other people’s history knowledge, never our own. (Because that gets more talking done.)

Then, I say we have a history test, and we’ll see. (My students all know that the ‘tests’ aren’t real, and they still get wound up.) They all insist they’re not “good at history.”

I spread out a lot of events — without year — on individual strips of paper and I make one end of the table the future, and the other end the past, and say “The rules are simple:

  • You turn over a paper and read it out loud. Then, you just fit it into our timeline. I’ll start with (takes paper), “JFK is born. Hmm. I think that happened between the future and the past.”
  • The next person turns over a paper. And has to fit it into the timeline. “First steam engine invented.” That was clearly before JFK was born…
  • As the game continues, we can all discuss where an event fits, but only the person who turns it over gets to make the final call. That leads to a lot of “do you think Bismark had a chance to read ‘Das Kapital’?” conversations.
  • When we’re finished, we’ll check our results. Originally, I didn’t think this was an important step, but after so much energy is invested in it, it’s a hit.

Generally, we’re all impressed by some surprising things (the American wars against the Indians ended in 1924! Who would have guessed?) but impressed at how well we’ve done.

The prep

At the bottom of the post is the stuff that I use, but it’s pretty tuned to Dresden, Germany. The thing is, there are a lot of different timelines on Wikipedia, and I took events from different ones that I thought my students should know, and sorted them into one single timeline.

I took events from:

And I put them together. I’m not going to lie, I invested an hour or so in making this (which is why I’m sharing it). That’s more than I generally invest in a single lesson, but it was a winner across five different intermediate / advanced groups and I’ll be keeping it in my back pocket as an activity for when I fill in for a colleague or whatever.

My version

This is what I use. I copy the events twice, using the first list as the answer key and printing the second set larger and without the years in order to make the papers for the table.

7500 BC: Oldest known people in the area of Dresden

742: Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was born

800: Saxony was founded

962: Holy Roman Empire was founded

1434: The first record of the Striezelmarkt is made

1455: Gutenberg Bible was first printed

1492: Christopher Columbus lands in Puerto Rico and ‘discovers’ America

1517: The reformation started

1624: New York City (then, New Amsterdam) was founded

1670: August the strong was born

1681: Pennsylvania founded

1710: Production of Meißner Porzellan was started

1712: First steam engine was made

1743: The Church of our Lady was built

1749: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born

1776: The American Colonies declare independence

1787: The Constitution of the United States was signed

1788: The Abitur was introduced in Prussia

1789: George Washington became President

1814: The Great Garden was opened to the public

1815: Otto von Bismarck was born

1816: Steam locomotive that runs on rails patented

1818: Karl Marx was born

1820: Zugspitze climbed for the first time

1830: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) was founded

1839: Railway between Dresden and Leipzig opens

1848: The “Communist Manifesto” was published

1849: May uprising in Dresden

1870: Deutsche Bank was founded

1871: The German Empire was founded

1889: Adolf Hitler was born

1892: The diesel engine was invented

1893: Blue Wonder Bridge was constructed

1895: First Nobel Prize was awarded

1911: Ronald Reagan was born

1917: John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born

1918: King of Saxony abdicates (quits his job)

1924: The ‘wars’ against the American Indians (native Americans) ended.

1934: Udo Jürgens was born

1945: Dresden was bombed

1946: Donald Trump was born

1954: First German World Cup victory and Angela Merkel was born

1956: First Eurovision Song Contest

1959: Hawaii becomes a state

1961: Barack Obama was born and Berlin Wall was built

1976: Apple (the computer company) was founded

1990: Germany reunified

1991: First BRN was held

1992: Soviet forces were withdrawn from Dresden

2002: The 100-year flood happens

2014: Last (most recent) German World Cup victory

Oldest known people in the area of Dresden

Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was born

Saxony was founded

Holy Roman Empire was founded

The first record of the Striezelmarkt is made

Gutenberg Bible was first printed

Christopher Columbus lands in Puerto Rico and ‘discovers’ America

The reformation started

New York City (then, New Amsterdam) was founded

August the strong was born

Pennsylvania founded

Production of Meißner Porzellan was started

First steam engine was made

The Church of our Lady was built

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born

The American Colonies declare independence

The Constitution of the United States was signed

The Abitur was introduced in Prussia

George Washington became President

The Great Garden was opened to the public

Otto von Bismarck was born

Steam locomotive that runs on rails patented

Karl Marx was born

Zugspitze climbed for the first time

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) was founded

Railway between Dresden and Leipzig opens

The “Communist Manifesto” was published

May uprising in Dresden

Deutsche Bank was founded

The German Empire was founded

Adolf Hitler was born

The diesel engine was invented

Blue Wonder Bridge was constructed

First Nobel Prize was awarded

Ronald Reagan was born

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born

King of Saxony abdicates (quits his job)

The ‘wars’ against the American Indians (native Americans) ended.

Udo Jürgens was born

Dresden was bombed

Donald Trump was born

First German World Cup victory and Angela Merkel was born

First Eurovision Song Contest

Hawaii becomes a state

Barack Obama was born and Berlin Wall was built

Apple (the computer company) was founded

Germany was reunified

First BRN was held

Soviet forces were withdrawn from Dresden

The 100-year flood happens

Last (most recent) German World Cup victory

Branding, or how much material can you copy from the Internet?

I’m going to sit now in judgment on other English teachers. I think that most of them make one of two opposing mistakes:

  1. Everything comes from the Internet. Their students experience the lessons as a hodge-podge of formats and headers. The general impression that students have is ‘All Toby does is print stuff off from the Internet.’
  2. They make everything themselves. The people I have seen do this generally have pretty abysmal formatting, but they make great resources tailored to each group. The groups are impressed with the work they put into preparation and would happily recommend them to friends and colleagues, but the teacher is so swamped with preparation, that they don’t have time for more lessons.

As a guy who wants to make a resource to create worksheets on the Internet, I’m very aware of the risks of over-relying on downloaded (or photocopied) resources. Students do not value your talent in leading a conversation, introducing vocabulary, and explaining grammar. The best teachers make it seem so effortless, that most students won’t appreciate the effort you invest until they try to teach their own native language.

And, of course, going the other route and just doing everything yourself is great… for one group, but not for twenty or thirty. (Not if you also want to learn to code, have writing projects, make music… This post is basically aimed at me.) What’s more, when I create a resource for only one group, we always find typos, and there is no point correcting them because nobody will ever see it again. This means that everyone basically sees the first draft of everything. I make a pretty good first draft, but the second draft is always better.

The first pillar of my solution: I use stuff from the Internet. But I have also become very proactive about communicating in the I form what my plans are, and on what basis I’ve made them. And that I got some resources to help us with whatever. Here are some things that I have said in my lessons:

Steffen, Mary, and yes, sometimes you Bert, have been making the ‘He, she, it — s muss mit’ mistake and I know that you know it. But we’re going to drill it a bit more in the next lessons to help make it automatic.

Or:

Normally, I’m happiest when you don’t make mistakes, but I’m glad you made that one because it brings me to something I want to talk about: the passive voice!

I know you all love grammar, but it’s important to master this if you want to talk about processes…

The goal in these little chats is to explain that I am a professional who has a plan, and not just a guy who was lucky enough to grow up speaking the language they are paying to learn.

The second pillar of my solution: With my worksheet generator (mostly) finished, I’m focusing this year on creating worksheets that are highly reusable, and yet tailored to me. The goal is to make it clear that I made the resources and to make them so quirky that it feels tailor-made for my classes. (Which are, fortunately, all quirky.)

The way I’m approaching this goal is by using two kinds of text in the worksheets. There are the absurd texts that I write, illustrating the use of the structures to be practiced. (See this example.) And there are the ‘drill texts’ in which the students fill in the blank, or complete the sentence, or translate from German, or whatever… and these are (almost) entirely boring, could-be-copied-from-the-internet bland.

The goal is to make something that confronts students with the vocabulary and structures they need and is still uniquely me. Then, after one group finds a typo, I can correct it and use it with another group. Because I teach in three different schools, I make them without a header and just paste in the header I made for the appropriate school.

In summary: I’m only about two months in, on using the second pillar of the solution. Nonetheless, the first results are positive and, combined with using my dynamically generated worksheets (which are, being made by me, also quirky) with the appropriate header on them. (That’s automatic with my great website!)

Making business worksheets

Not long ago, I wrote about the “imposter syndrome” I feel when I try to teach Business English. Don’t worry, I certainly still feel that way.

However, my goal this year is to go from simply saying “it’s all English, master this grammar and then use it in a business context” to showing it. And, to that end, I’m actually making business worksheets focusing on a specific grammar and using ‘business texts.’

However, to avoid getting caught in the situation where I write about things I don’t know, these worksheets follow fictional companies in ridiculous industries (the collection I’m working in for emailing follows a business in the “world domination” sector).

Here’s one of my favorite example texts, from a worksheet focused on using the passive to describe processes.

Hits are made at the Ohmpah Express! Internationally famous groups such as the Grammar Junkies and the Homework Heroes were discovered by the talent scouts of The Ohmpah Express and their unique sounds were developed in weeks of workshops with our ‘rock doctors.’

At The Ohmpah Express, we don’t wait for music to happen. Here, music is made. The musical demands of next summer are predicted now, using complicated statistical models. Rhythms, lyrics and songs are carefully constructed using advanced aritifical intilligence (and some alcohol intelligence) and refined until they’re guaranteed to sell out stadium concerts the world over.

Then, these songs are delivered to the talent we have developed in-house and are turned into platinum-selling albums.

I’m happy to report that the worksheets have had the best resonance of any I’ve used for ‘Business English.’ Partly, that’s because my students know me and we all laugh at the absurdity of these businesses, and it’s partly because my texts still come across a lot of vocabulary that they find useful in a business context (‘proprietary algorithms,’ ‘generate reports from user data’)

If you’re struggling with adapting texts to your students, the lesson to me seems to be adapting the texts to you, and inviting your students along for the ride.

Having the same conversation seven times

I’ve been thinking about what I can say that is of value to people who are considering becoming EFL teachers. I have a niece who wants to live in Europe and thinks teaching EFL can be her ticket. I told her two things:

  1. Learn another job in the U.S., because the most in-demand teachers are the ones who have experience in something else, and can teach specialist vocabulary. Also, because…
  2. I don’t think my job will be around in the future. Machine translation will be a much more affordable way to do the communication that I teach most. Sure, it won’t help much in vacations, but the people who pay for my work, bosses don’t care about their employees’ vacation experience. For what they want, machine translation will be great.

However, I’m collecting a couple of tips that I think might help people who are thinking of teaching EFL or are starting off. Today’s tip is this:

Get good at having the same conversation fifteen times, but making the person you are talking to feel like you’re having it for the first time.

No joke, I think this is my greatest strength as a teacher. It saves me thinking of something to speak about for every lesson, and the students think I’m the fun teacher who always has a different, wacky idea.

Even more, after you have the conversation twice, when you go into the third group you’ll know better which questions to ask, you’ll be able to provoke conversation with “you know, I’ve heard…”

A go-to conversation topic for me.

An example I have is talking about when to say “Hello” in Germany. I think this sounds absurd to Germans and people who haven’t lived in Germany, but I can do a good job of moving from one point to the next in this conversation spontaneously, as though I’m asking this question for the first time. I should point out, my style is much more conversational than this, but here are the major points in the conversation:

  1. In the U.S., when I studied German, my professors taught us the words “Guten Tag,” and then emphasized that we should never greet strangers in German. “It’s the fastest way to let them know you’re not from Germany.” Do you think that’s true?
  2. Here’s the thing, I’ve been thinking about this, because my wife — who you know is German — absolutely hates one of our neighbors because “she can’t open her mouth to say hello.” Why would she hate her for not doing something she shouldn’t do?
  3. So I should say hello to my neighbors? Even if I see them downtown, shopping?
  4. If I see you guys when you’re shopping, should I say hello?
    1. From what distance? I mean, I have no problem yelling across the street “Hey, Marcus, it’s me, the English teacher” and waving, but I don’t see other people doing it…
  5. Now that I’m thinking about it, people say “Hello” when they walk into the Doctor’s office. What’s up with that?
    1. Are there other places I should say hello?
  6. My mother-in-law greets every hiker we pass when we’re hiking. Is that normal?
    1. Should bikers greet each other? What about joggers? What if I’m walking with a stroller, should I wave to other people with strollers?
  7. Okay, thanks… I think you’ve helped me in my goal to become a little more German. I really appreciate it.

The think about this conversation is that I’ve found people love being helpful. And so, I like to give them the chance. You can see in reading this that the conversation is based on an actual question that I once had.

My strength is in letting people help me again and again. I think it’s once you should develop, too.