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She shrugged in a matter-of-fact way, not happy with what the sentence meant. She looked at me and gently took the iPad from my hands. She wrote down the line one more time on the open text box on her iPad.
For the sake of protecting her identity, let’s call her Mia.
Mia is an 8 year old girl from China whose family had just moved to the US.
She is writing a story as part of her class project.
She has to write it in English.
She is new to the language.
I work with elementary school students from time-to-time to help them with their writing assignments. Most of the times the discussion revolves around the following suggestions, as I nudge the students to expand their stories.
‘Can you try adding more sound words or action words?’
‘Can you look at adding more punctuation?’
‘Can you add more details?’
As I sat down on a chair next to Mia, I noticed she had an iPad along with her writing paper and pencil. Her teacher mentioned that she would be using Google Translator to work through the story-writing process. This was new to me. I couldn’t simply start at nudging her with the same questions as I usually do. I realized I was learning as well.
So this is how it went before we had a full sentence of any of Mia’s ideas on paper.
She would write down her ideas in Mandarin on the open text box on the app. The app would translate them into English. This helped me understand what she was trying to say. I would then read it aloud to her, changing the words here and there so that the sentence in English made sense. I would encourage her to add sound words or action words. All of this would be accompanied by a lot of hand-gestures. As I changed the English sentence the translator app would re-generate it in Mandarin. This helped Mia confirm whether it conveyed her idea correctly. We would go over this process, together, repeatedly, until we arrived at the correct English sentence. Mia would then copy this onto her writing paper.
For the most part Google Translator correctly converted the words from one language to another. But grammar and semantics don’t work in similar ways in different languages. So you can only imagine how frustrating this can get. In one of those exchanges, as we worked through finding the correct sentence to add to her story, I kept saying, ‘The translator is not doing a good job.’
She smiled gently at me, almost to say, ‘It’s okay it happens to me all the time.’ She put a hand on her chest to indicate, ‘I can fix this.’ She went on to add her words in Mandarin again, to start the process over.
Mia simply kept at it until she was satisfied.
I was very impressed by the Google Translator app. It did a good job of translating words and sentences. I had never used an app like that until then. I was happy about how technology is bridging languages, helping kids learn and opening a vast new world of possibilities.
Technology is certainly acting as a catalyst here but this isn’t a success story of any particular application.
This story is about Mia. The eight year old girl who uses this app to learn every lesson in her elementary school class. The little girl who is in a new place, far away from everything that is familiar to her and trying to put words in a language she doesn’t understand.
I had the privilege of listening to her finished story. It was beautiful.
That day I might have helped her finish a story but she taught me something much bigger. She taught me grit. She taught me patience. She taught me to stay strong and keep pushing.
Priyanka is the Founder and CEO of PopSmartKids, a company created to foster social-emotional learning in children by effective use of technology. A graduate from Purdue University she left her career as a tech exec in 2018 to start a movement of redefining screentime from a monitored time to a powerful tool for mentoring our future generation. She is a mom to two clever boys and a big advocate of digital citizenship for children.
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