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February 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

The Present Teaching Situation of Consecutive Interpretation Courses for Undergraduate Translation Majors Exemplified by Taiyuan Normal University in Shanxi Province

Ji Lingzhu is an Associate Professor in Foreign Language Department, Taiyuan Normal University, Shanxi, P.R. China. Her research areas include English teaching methodology and cross-cultural communication. Email: margaretlingzhuji@aliyun.com

 

Acknowledgement

This paper is a phased achievement of the university-based research project named On Teaching Reform of Consecutive Interpretation Courses for Undergraduate Translation Majors, sponsored by Taiyuan Normal University from 2018 to 2019 (No. JGLX1836).

 

Abstract

This study focuses on the present teaching situation of consecutive interpretation courses for undergraduate translation majors in Taiyuan Normal University, Shanxi, P.R. China.  The bachelor’s program for translation majors of Taiyuan Normal University has already delivered three batches of graduates to the society since it was established in 2013. Reflecting on the seven years’  of teaching  and training, I have found many problems with the curriculum design, ways of teaching, teaching materials, the teaching support, and the difficulties the students have. Immediate measures should be taken to improve the present situation.

 

Introduction

Since the ongoing economic reform in China deepens, communication in various fields between China and other countries in the world become more and more frequent, there is an urgent need for qualified interpreters and translators. To satisfy this need, the Education Ministry of China approved the establishment of the translation undergraduate program in the year 2006. Since then, promoted by President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, more and more universities and colleges set up bachelor’s program for translation majors, most of them evolved and developed from the undergraduate program for foreign language majors, including first-tier, second-tier, even the third- tier universities and colleges.

Taiyuan Normal University is a second-tier local university (2A according to the Chinese grading system of the universities and colleges), which mainly trains teachers for the secondary schools.  Our Foreign language Department has a long history of over 50 years, and it has trained thousands of secondary and primary school teachers for Shanxi Province and the neighboring areas. In 2012, the Education Ministry Approved our application for holding bachelor’s program for translation.  In 2013, we had our first batch of translation majors. For the curriculum design, we adopted the Chinese national standardized one. For the first two years, the courses concentrate mainly on improving the students’ linguistic proficiency level both in English and Chinese, and the priority is on English, since Chinese is our students’ first language.  For the third and fourth years, the students have translation, interpretation and the related academic courses.

 

Research settings and methodology

The settings

The investigation targets included 10 course teachers, three language lab assistants, six teaching management staff and 300 course students who are chosen from the three batches of graduates and the senior students now.

The organization of a course includes aspects of the teacher, learners, teaching material and course surrounding factors (J. Schwab 1978, p. 287). With this concept in mind, the investigation was done from the following nine aspects:

  • The teachers who have involved in the teaching of the translation majors
  • the students ( those who already graduated and the present senior and junior students)
  • the textbooks used and the materials designed by the teachers,
  • course design,
  • technical support facilities,
  • the in-class teaching skills,
  • the students’ extracurricular learning,
  • teaching effect (mainly the students’ problems),
  • subject assessment.

 

The methodology

The interviews were very informal, and via we-chat and QQ were used with the teaching and the technical supporting staff. Questionnaire was designed and circulated for the investigated students. It consisted of questions on course teaching and learning. Face-to-face interviews were done to obtain information from some teachers and students when it was deemed necessary. The investigation did not aim at accurate statistical accounting, but finding out the major problems existing.

 

Course design

My investigation was done on two aspects: the teaching hours of the courses and their sequence among related courses, since the design of a course normally includes these two aspects:

 

Teaching hours

According to the Chinese National Standard of curriculum design for the undergraduate translation majors, there are altogether three courses of interpretation: Introduction to Interpretation, Consecutive Interpretation and Topic-based Interpretation.  All the three are in our curriculum, and all are conducted in the form of consecutive interpretation. The three courses are in three successive semesters: the 5th, the 6th and the 7th, with altogether 54 teaching hours.

As the teacher of courses Consecutive Interpretation and Topic-based Interpretation, I felt greatly stressed, and think that the priority of the teaching reform of these courses should be increasing teaching hours. 59 percent of the students (both the graduated and the present juniors and seniors) reported that the teaching hours were too short for them.

As an experienced interpreter and the course teacher, frankly speaking,  I think only 20% of my students would be able to be interpreters for the “ordinary affairs in different fields”, and 50% of the students would be able to interpret on daily affairs from Chinese to English and English to Chinese. The comparable figures on the part of my students were 15% and 30% respectively. In addition, another 13% of the students said that they had nearly no improvement in interpretation competence after attending the three successive courses. The data acquired from my investigation shows that the majority of the students lacked confidence in reaching the course aims set by the National Standard for undergraduate translation majors.

The teacher who conducts the course Introduction to Interpretation and I discussed the results, and we agree that in our classes the training of interpretation skills are as important as improving the students’ linguistic competence. The promotion of language competence has been reluctantly taken as a task in class as well, since we have spent and are spending over a half of our class time on language teaching. Consequently, the time left for the interpretation skill training is far from enough. This could be the result of insufficient training from previously related courses, or the students’ inadequate learning abilities, since the college entrance examination marks of the translation students were not higher than those of the English majors, and neither were their TEM 4 (an examination of English proficiency level for the junior English majors after two years’ of university study) results satisfactory. Perhaps language courses could help them to remove language obstacles in the Interpretation courses study.

To solve this problem, we suggest two measures to be adopted. Firstly, more efforts on the teaching of related courses should be made to help students acquire better language skills before the interpreting skill-training courses. We found that some universities offered courses like Advanced Spoken English and Advanced English Listening, and yielded good results. It is suggested that these courses should be set up whilst possible to reinforce students’ related linguistic competence. Secondly, the Interpretation Language course can be set up in the same term or one term in advance of the Interpretation course. The course should aim at removing language obstacles in the Interpretation textbooks.

 

Sequence among related courses

The group of related courses for Interpretation includes Chinese for College Students (a public compulsory course), English Listening, Spoken English, English Reading and English Grammar which are basic language training courses. Courses like Public Speaking in English, English-Chinese and Chinese-English Translation, etc. are also included, as they contain the training of skills needed for Interpretation.

The related courses are numerous, which scatter around four academic years of undergraduate study. This suggests that interpretation course is better to be taught in the latter period, usually the fourth academic year, when students have been well equipped with related skills and linguistic and encyclopedic knowledge for the course. This idea is proven by the National Curriculum Standards for Undergraduate Translation Majors, which points out that the Oral Interpretation should be taught in the third and fourth academic years, or in both the second half of the third and the first term of the fourth year.

The layout of the courses in our university followed the guidance of the National Curriculum Standard. Our investigation reveals a slight difference between these two kinds of arrangements. Some of the teachers reported that they believed some courses in the fourth year were easier to teach than some in the second half of the third academic year. Maybe they were not familiar with the content of the textbooks, ways of teaching, and the necessary skills and knowledge students should have, since most teachers are limited by their own research and radius of knowledge.  From the part of the students, there are no complaints about the sequence of the courses. Half of them suggested that more teaching hours should be allocated to advanced speaking and listening skills before they have the interpretation courses.

 

Subject assessment

The theory for interpreting testing

According to Bachman (1990:81-110), communicative language ability includes language competence, strategic competence and psychophysiological mechanisms. Language competence is composed of organizational competence and pragmatic competence. Strategic competence refers to the mental capacity to use language to communicate in specific contexts, the ability to solve problems with what have been learned comprehensively. The strategic ability of language users enables them to combine their language ability with knowledge structure and contexts of situation in communication. Psychophysiological mechanism refers to the neural or physiological process in linguistic communication, for instance the audio-visual skill in the receptive use of language. Based on his definition and the unique characteristics of interpreting, scholars and interpreter trainers think that interpreting ability is composed of linguistic and extra-linguistic knowledge, interpreting skills and the ability to self-adjust the on-the-spot psychological state.

In interpretation examination, the three kinds of ability should be tested. There are two principles we should follow: 1. The examination questions should stress the communicative characteristics of interpreting, since interpreting is not simple switch between two languages, but dynamic interaction among contexts, language users and discourses. Interpreters comprehend the source information from specific micro and macro communicative contexts, and then reconstruct and transfer the corresponding target language to the designated audience, rather than mechanically switching between two languages. The interpreting process is built on two kinds of interactions: the interpreter and the context, as well as the information sender and information receiver.  Information exchange at three levels is involved: literal information, communicative intention and the relationship between communication parties. Therefore, we should not only test the student interpreters’ linguistic knowledge of the two languages, but also their communicative ability of the two languages in a particular context.

The materials used should be authentic, and the examination situation should be as authentic as possible. Teachers can simulate a real world scenario, and give the students the relevant information in advance so that the students can be well-prepared. To ensure the objectivity and accuracy of the evaluation, the scoring should be done at the scene shortly after the student finishes interpreting.

 

Problems with the present testing methods used in the universities in China

Investigation shows, problems existing with its methods, the level of difficulties, the standard for scoring and the reliability in many universities. Some are often seen in examinations of other subjects, while the others are related to the Interpretation courses specifically.

 

a. Methods

In some universities, students are examined orally and as well as in written form, and some choose to use an oral exam only. The written examination questions show that it is used to test interpretation theories and language points in textbooks, as the course has a task of improving students’ language competence and subject knowledge. Some teachers think that the transmission of oral interpretation skills is the essential part of interpretation course.

In my case, written examination was used once for the first group of students, Class 2013. In that examination, students were asked to write on the paper based on the listening comprehension of the corresponding test requirement and content, including number comprehension and translation, short passage translation from Chinese to English and English to Chinese etc. The time interval between questions was just a half of that for normal listening comprehension, with the purpose of testing the learners’ quick response to the source information. 56 out of 57 students passed the examination.  After the examination, some students reported that they had no time to polish their target language. The result was consistent with what I predicted when designing the questions. Students were not expected to write down well-polished target language, they only had time to catch the information contained. I only paid attention to whether the information was correct or not instead of language perfection. The examination results also correlated with the students’ daily performance in class.

Written examination can help to reinforce students’ learning of language points, because the present teaching hours are insufficient, and students should be motivated to handle the language related tasks themselves more actively after class.

I also used a combination of different exam methods, such as a final interpreting exam in live recording plus students’ daily performance since I believe diversity in examination methods may lead to variations in teaching contents and methods, which may be different from the standardization of the course teaching. But it satisfies another demand of the National Curriculum Standard.

For the class of 2016, formative evaluation method was used. Each student was asked to give speeches twice on topics chosen by themselves at least, interpret their classmates’ speeches twice, give live comments on their classmates’ speeches twice, and interpret others’ comments twice. They got a mark for every task completed.  All these tasks were very authentic and communicative.   

 

b.  Level of difficulties

Of course all examinations of interpretation can be carried out in the forms of phrase interpretation, sentence interpretation and paragraph interpretation. The use of these forms in examination should depend on the students’ mastery of related skills.

So far as we know, in most universities in China, the choice of examination method and forms is in the hands of course teachers, since the  exams for interpreting courses were organized by themselves and were not unified. There is a much worrying   fact that, in some cases, teachers of different classes of the same year within the same university used different test forms.  This may lead to complaints of inequality from the students, since students of the same university are supposed to be of the similar level of intelligence and learning competence.

It is lucky for us to have the same teacher to teach all the four classes, and so far I have not received any complaints about the equality of marking, since their marks have been given by the same teacher.  But they complained about the opportunities to speak in class, since everyone was eager to have a chance, but the class time is limited. There are 40 to 42 students in one class. The class hour lasts for 100 minutes. The average time for each student is only a little longer than two minutes even if all the class time is allocated to students’ activity. 

 

c. Standard for scoring

For linguistic ability rating, there are two kinds of scales: holistic and analytical rating scales. I have used holistic rating for four years for either final exam or daily performance. I have tried analytical scoring for some students to diagnose their specific learning problems, and it worked very well. However, it was very too time-consuming if I use it with 42 students every week.

Many interpreting teachers and researchers admit that the evaluation of interpretation competence is a new field of research, very challenging for both the teachers and researchers. The element of evaluators’ personal orientation cannot be avoided completely in the evaluation process.  The unification of scoring standards is maybe a good way to improve the general evaluating standard, which can not only help to unify the components of scoring, but to give a description of the examinee’s performance and its ranking as well. It is suggested that a comparatively fixed scoring standard should be developed through discussion and negotiation if the students of the same university at the same year are taught by different teachers.

 

d. Reliability

The commonly used examination method for interpretation is face-to–face interview, but its reliability is questioned by both teachers and students. In most universities, the number of students in one class is usually 30 -40, and even over 50 in some extreme cases. The interview time for one student was too short. Some universities used group interview method; a group of four students was normally interviewed for 10-15 minutes, which means 2.5-3.5 minutes for one student. And in some extreme cases, only 1.5 minutes was given to an individual. Students’ performance in such a short period may not reveal their actual interpretation competence due to the shortage of time or other factors related to the shortage of time.

In our case, for the first three batches of graduates, there were about thirty students in one class; it was not too bad for me to organize face to face interpreting interview since the class time was short, but barely enough. For the present group, the number of students is as large as forty-two. It is impossible for the examination to be organized in face-to-face way. I used the recording system in the language lab for the examination. With the help of the labs, students were given the exactly same exam tasks, and their interpretation performance was recorded. In this way, it became possible for an individual student to complete more than one examination task, and teachers had more evaluating and marking time after the examination. In addition, the recorded tapes and teachers’ later evaluating notes can also be used for future references. However, there is one shortcoming with it. The language-lab recording method cannot reveal the students’ interpretation competence in authentic communicative context, in which the interpreters are working under the negative effects pressure of time and circumstances.

To avoid negative effects of lab-recording examination, I also used formative evaluation, recording the students’ everyday performance. 

From my teaching and evaluating experience, I strongly   suggest the promotion of the lab examination technique to all and a combined use of face to face interview or daily performance recording and lab recording technique.

 

Technical support facilities

Language labs available

It is very lucky for us to have a language lab specially for teaching consecutive and simultaneous interpretation courses. The teaching of interpretation course is of advanced and comprehensive trainings, demanding ordinary functions of the language labs for listening and speaking as well as special functions for different types of interpreting, which include abundant ready-to-use original language materials, simultaneous recording, man-machine conversation, errors recognition and so on. Undoubtedly, an internet multimedia language lab is the best choice for such demand. Yet, in our lab, the ordinary functions and some of the special functions are available. But we have no internet access.

During the first two academic years, the students had their speaking and listening classes in the ordinary language labs 

 

Teachers’ lab-using situation

The guaranteed use of language labs makes the course teaching easy and convenient, yet the prerequisite for the convenience is the course teacher’s competence of operating lab functions. If they are able to use them skillfully, the facilities can be fully used and the expected teaching aims can be realized.

When the students came to my class for the first time, they moved their chairs to form a group after hearing my direction for 5 minutes’ group discussion.  I was shocked by their actions. Then I had to tell them how to have group discussion via their earphones and microphones just at their own seats. Later during the break, some of them told me that during their first two year studies, their listening teachers had never used this basic function in the language lab, they also complained that they seldom had opportunities to open their mouths to speak English in class. I had to instruct them to use the lab as if they were freshmen.

I interviewed all our listening teachers, only a half of them claimed that they could operate the lab functions well and were able to use them according to different teaching materials and teaching aims. But the number of skillful lab-using teachers in the students’ eyes was much smaller, only about 15%. 30% of teachers believed they knew some of the functions provided by the facilities and only used the functions they knew in class teaching. The remaining said they only use the basic operations of the machines, and therefore operated those limited functions in classes no matter what kind of teaching materials they used. But the students said nearly all the teachers used the lab as if it was only a loud-speaker, and neither was there sufficient amount of interaction in English in the class. Here we do not have to make it clear whether the students or the teachers provided me the truth, consequently a conclusion can be made: the students were inadequately trained either in English listening and speaking or in lab-machine using.

As for lab assistants, only one of the three interviewed assistants, who was an experienced staff member, claimed that he fully understood the lab functions, but he did not know anything about language teaching techniques. He said he could help the teachers to use a certain function only if they asked him. Unfortunately most of the lab-using teachers never asked for functions other than recording playing.

My investigation shows that teaching facilities are not efficiently and adequately used in our university. If they had been used better, maybe the students would have had more opportunities to practice their listening and speaking in class, and their linguistic proficiency level would have been higher and their learning enthusiasm and motivation would have been better cultivated, and as a result they would have been better-prepared for the interpretation courses in English listening and speaking.

The following three measures may help improve the present situation:

1. Teachers should be trained on lab operations in advance of the actual teaching;

2. In the training the lab technicians should work together with the teachers.

3. If more than one teacher conduct the same course, it is better for them to work together to prepare teaching materials needed for the course.

 

The students’ major problems

In my investigation, the students reported that their poor listening comprehension ability hindered them from accurate understanding of the source texts when interpreting from English to Chinese. Some even said that they were very nervous when listening in English.

1.  The students cannot activate what they already know in their long term memory due to the comprehension failure of the theme-related words or phrases. This problem not only exists with English, sometimes the interpreters have problems with the ever-changing new words in Chinese, hot words on the internet and special words in ancient Chinese passages.

2. Students’ may have comprehension deviation due to the lack of certain thematic knowledge. In my investigation, a half of my students said they needed a more extensive range of knowledge, and be familiar with different kinds of topics.  In interpretation, the interpreters have to face two kinds of difficulties: the knowledge and the language. Encyclopedic knowledge is more challenging for the interpreter, since it may include history, politics, literature, medicine, geography, religion, diplomacy, finance, culture and education, which takes the interpreters’ years of accumulation and experience. My students joked that they always had “perks” in consecutive interpreting class.

3. The skill training cannot be done effectively due to students' inadequate command of linguistic knowledge and extra-linguistic knowledge. The commonly-used interpreting skills are tested and very effective since they have been used and improved by generations of interpreters. However the successful application of the skills is based on the interpreters’ adequate command of the linguistic and encyclopedic knowledge. Some of my students complained that the skills did not always work with them. For instance, interpreting numbers has been difficult for many interpreters. If the students do not understand numbers in English, and don’t know the differences between English and Chinese numbers, it will be impossible for them to put English numbers into Chinese. If they don’t know the basic category of a concept, it is groundless for them to generalize or summarize.

 

Suggestions for future improvements

Based on my own teaching, my investigation with the other teachers, students, and lab assistants, I can find that it is an imperative task to take measures to reform the consecutive interpretation courses for our undergraduate translation majors. It is also hoped that my investigation can be of some assistance to the teachers and students in other universities in China, or at least to the local universities at the same tier as ours.

1. There is a conflict, at the moment, between the teaching hours of the course and the course goal set by the National Curriculum Standards. To solve this problem, it is advisable to reinforce the teaching of related courses, such as comprehensive reading, listening and speaking etc. in the first two years so that the students can be better prepared for the interpretation courses both in language and in encyclopedic knowledge. Secondly the teaching hours of the interpretation courses should be increased.

2.  As far as course examination is concerned, universities are supposed to unify the examination methods and its level of difficulties. They should also set a fixed standard of scoring and utilize language labs to maximize exam tasks so that both efficiency and reliability can be achieved. As for the technical support, language labs with better functions should be provided for the course teaching; trainings on lab operation are necessary for course teachers; lab assistants and teachers should be encouraged to cooperate to exploit more functions of lab facilities; and course teachers themselves should also work together to prepare multimedia teaching materials for the course.

3. For the students’ problems, the following methods are suggested.

a. Strengthening the students’ effective listening abilities, authentic materials should be used in class so that the students will be accustomed with the accents and speaking habits of different speakers, be able to catch the information in a noisy circumstance, and be psychologically prepared for different occasions. The teachers should encourage the students to have extra-class listening exercises which include a variety of authentic materials every day for at least one hour.

b. Guiding students to accumulate words, phrases and lexical chunks in both source language and target language. Adequate command of vocabulary will enable learners to listen more effectively, respond to the source language quickly, and produce the source language more accurately. Lexical chunks are the smallest units of human language communication, and form the basis of language, while maintain the content or meaning unchanged, into another language product, and recur the information of the original language by using the nearest natural equivalents from the semantic meaning to the style, or the transformation from one utterance to another. Most human language communication succeeds by means of lexical chunks not by word forms. Lexical chunk learning is more important than grammar learning, and moreover, the mastery of substantial chunks can help learners reach the native speakers in the choice of words.” In interpreting, either Chinese to English or English to Chinese, my students have serious problems with lexical chunks. They often try to make up chunks by themselves, which is either inaccurate or very time-consuming. Therefore in the future teaching, lexical chunks should be strengthened to improve students’ linguistic as well as interpreting abilities.  

c. Helping students to build up the habit of preparation before interpreting.  Usually, at the undergraduate stage, the textbook interpreting materials just include general topics, such as brief speeches from the leaders and key-note speeches of conferences etc. This kind of materials usually center on certain topics, or subjected to specific contexts. It is highly recommended that teachers give the students the context for the speech they are going to interpret (not the speech itself) so that they can read some relevant materials in advance. The more the interpreters know about the topic, the more accurate the target information they can produce. 

d. Training the students to split their attention in analyzing information stage: memorizing, note-taking and coordination between the two. Among them, memorization is the most important. Short-term memory (STM) plays a major role in interpreting. When we receive an input from the environment, it is transferred to our sensory registers where it remains for less than a second. The message is encoded either in the form of acoustic, visual, or semantic data and thereafter moves to our STM where it remains for less than thirty seconds. Some scholars believe that in interpreting this figure is less than ten seconds (Smith, 1985). After this stage, the message may move to our long term memory (LTM) where it will remain forever. This will depend upon whether or not the message is coded, retrieved, or rehearsed. If not, the message will be forgotten. Data in interpreters' LTM will help them to put the information they hear into context, but STM is of immediate assistance without which they will not be able to function properly. Instructors should train the students to improve their memory. There are three main possibilities of coding in short-term memory: acoustic coding, visual coding and semantic coding. in most interpreting contexts, interpreters will depend on acoustic and semantic coding. The following exercises are recommended:

For the beginners, retelling in the source language should be used. A text of about 200 words can be used either by teacher’s reading or by playing recording, and the students should retell in the same language without any note-taking.

After a period of time when the students are familiar with retelling , other tactics should be used: categorization, generalization, comparison, description, shadowing exercise etc.

4. Needs-analysis investigation should be done with undergraduate translation students from different levels of universities in order to meet the social needs in the job market.

From the needs- analysis-based survey of the curriculum design for undergraduate translation majors (Ding, 2014), 103 graduates from Qufu Normal University (a famous local university in Shandong) and 77 from Shandong University (a first-class university situated in Shandong Province) were chosen. From their working experiences, these graduates reflected on the curriculum design and the social needs, and they reported that they should have improved their command of both English and Chinese, therefore the language courses in current curriculum should be highlighted and strengthened. The teaching content of some courses should be updated, internship bases of translation and interpretation should be set up, there should be more practical translation courses such as engineering, machinery, chemical industry etc. to help them quickly adapt to the job requirements. Quite surprisingly, they asked for logic courses to improve their logical and analytical thinking abilities. (Ding, 2014)

Although the two universities investigated are at a higher level than ours, our graduates who had worked for two years also suggested   some of the same changes in our future curriculum design. Most of our students investigated regretted that they did not study hard to improve their own English language proficiency level: not remembering enough words, not learning the good passages in their intensive reading textbooks by heart etc., indicating their inadequate proficiency in English. They also complained sometimes they did not understand the Chinese source language thoroughly, which led to the wrong choice of words in English, the target language. This correlates with the results reported in Ding’s study, but at a worse degree.  One of my students said that she once worked as the interpreter for a company leader at the opening ceremony. She failed to interpret a classical allusion of Shanxi intangible cultural heritage used by the leader because she did not understand it. 60% of our graduates work in Shanxi area. The lack of Shanxi local cultural background knowledge has already become an obstacle in their work. None of my students mentioned their problem of logical and critical thinking in the interview, but from their errors in class recording and homework I can find this problem.

Therefore, there is an urgent need for a needs- analysis investigation   with the local and community universities. It is hoped that the local universities should be allowed more freedom to open up some courses fit for the local needs although the National Curriculum Standard is still the guideline for curriculum design. The course teachers and administrators in the local universities may regard the National  Standard as the overall requirrements of the programme instead of  specific instructions for the courses and the teaching content.

 

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  • The Present Teaching Situation of Consecutive Interpretation Courses for Undergraduate Translation Majors Exemplified by Taiyuan Normal University in Shanxi Province
    Ji Lingzhu, P.R. China