Translation Equivalents– are they?

So, I was talking to my sister the other day. She’s a school psychologist and is  interested in this issue of conceptual scoring that I discussed before. We talked about how single language scoring might underestimate what kids know. For this reason conceptual scoring might be a way to go. I think that conceptual scoring can be applied to other domains beyond vocabulary, such as math or science. The focus would be on knowledge rather than on the language that the knowledge is coded in.

But, what about in the area of vocabulary? Does counting total number of words across two languages over-estimate vocabulary knowledge? I’m not so sure. I think I alluded to this in my previous post but, let me explain. I did a quick experiment with my sister on the phone.

I asked her, “when you think of “pan” (the Spanish word– not the English word), what do you think of?”

“It’s bread,” she said.

“Yes, but what comes to mind, what to you picture in your head, what do you smell.” (I don’t think I actually said what do you smell, but the idea is what images and feelings does the word pan evoke).

“Oh, pink pan dulce.”  She said quickly.

“Okay, what about bread.”

“Oh, well that’s sliced white bread.”


So, what does this mean? Yes, we know that bread and pan are translation equivalents. But, they bring different experiences to mind depending on which word we use. In that sense they aren’t translation equivalents at all. Rather they are words in the same semantic field that share a core meaning but are used for a specific purpose. This would be semantic breadth.

I’m sure there are many more examples. One I can think of (that I’ve actually written about) is when my son was little– maybe about 2 years old. He knew the translation equivalents “water/agua.”  The way he used these however was different. He used the word agua to indicate water for drinking.  Likely, he learned this from his babysitter who only spoke Spanish to him. Water was reserved for when you take a bath. That was water, you played in it, made bubbles in it, it was warm and you didn’t drink it. To him these were different functions and he used different words for them.

So, it might be worth looking both at conceptual scores and total scores. Total scores could bring into consideration the contexts in which certain words were learned and whether they were used in different ways. I know it’s not an easy issue to explore, because it’s hard to get into a kid’s head. But, I do think these little thought experiments are worthwhile.

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