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Transliteration in the ESL Classroom

In my seven years employed as an ESL instructor, while volunteering to teach ESL on weekends for refugees, I’ve learned a valuable asset often and endemically ignored within the region of the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Kurdistan/Iraq). An article in Sooper Articles reminded me of the preceding observation. The author, Charlene Lacandazo , struck a resonating chord in my heart and mind when she stated, “People often misunderstand the importance of transliteration in any given language.”

A plethora of language centers and institutes I’ve worked for in the Middle East aggrandize Lacandazo’s assertion as strong undeniable premises. During my seven years I observed that transliteration was I completely ignored, often unappreciated and hardly ever taught to eager students. Nevertheless, my application of such a neglected pedagogical instrument has at times provided a positive conduit for successful language learning and performance by pupils. I don’t know why it is not applied or appreciated enough today in the Middle East. Perhaps the christening of the communicative approach and the movement away from translation may be the culprit. Perhaps the omnipresence of grammar courses at various institutes and language centers in the Levant that neglect conversation courses is the determinant. Regardless of the reason, I do know that it is a loss to both teachers and students, and consequently the institution of language instruction.

Of course, there are pros and cons to transliteration. It can initiate a dependency for the pupil to use his or her own alphabetic sounds and thus atrophy learning for the actual phonetics attached to letters of the alphabet for the targeted language. This is counterproductive in that certain letters of the targeted language’s alphabet are absent in the student’s native diction and without practice of the second language’s phonetics, the accuracy when speaking the targeted language is impeded. For example, Arabic learners have to become accustomed to the ‘kh’ or ‘gh’ sounds in Arabic, which cannot be efficiently ascertained with transliteration. Nevertheless, the pros are more rewarding. Students grasp pronunciation of the targeted language quicker, experience the emotional thrill and consequent confidence with expeditiously singing songs in the second language and they learn to converse faster although accuracy in pronunciation may be stymied.

As examples, I have attached some videos to this publication. In the first, after one month, children between ages ten and sixteen at the LAV Language Institute in Duhok, Kurdistan / Iraq, at the Starters level of the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), which is below the lowest level of generative language in the preceding heuristic level of A1, sang one of the different versions of translations for the “Ey Reqib” national anthem for Kurdistan, in English. I was personally able to witness how much more confident the children became in speaking and how happy they were with their extraordinary accomplishment. In a second situation, students from Schlumberger Oil Company in Amman Jordan, to whom I taught transliteration, sang Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” even though they were complete beginners. They as well, became lifetime avid learners of the English language, heralding such accomplishment as motivation to this day. Both preceding microcosms employed the Arabic Alphabet phonetics as transliteration to correctly pronounce the English

E.g. Children’s “Ey Reqib”
“Let no one say Kurdish are dead…”
لت نو ون سى كردش ار دد

E.g. Schlumberger Oil “My Heart Will Go On”
“My heart will go on…”
ماى حارت ول كو اون
I hope that transliteration does not become viewed as counter-productive or neglected in the future, as I have witnessed, in my experience within the Levant for seven years at various institutions. Regardless of criticisms, I believe that there is definitely a place for transliteration in the pedagogy of contemporary language fields and I hope we see some reintroduction in the future. I would be very interested in the views or experiences of other teachers in the future.

LAV Language Institute Duhok, Kurdistan / Iraq

Schlumberger Oil Company Amman, Jordan

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