I Don’t Speak Russian, But…

My mother-in-law speaks three languages fluently — and none of them are English. Her speech dances between Arabic and French and Algerian, and I do my best mental gymnastics to keep up. My skills are pretty limited in all three of those languages, unless you want to have a lengthy conversation in present tense about zoo animals or food. Thankfully, my husband helps with some translation. (!ترجم من فضلك يا حبيبي)

However, if I want to hear all of the lurid gossip about family back in Algeria — and I do! — my mother-in-law and I use a translator app to converse.

We have learned a few important things about using translator apps.

  • It’s important to enunciate, even if that means employing a dull and listless tone.
  • Translator apps do not recognize North African names. It’s better to say the name once, and then use pronouns.
  • Idiomatic phrases translate to gibberish. Avoid them.
  • Passive sentences, and phrases with lots of indirect language, do not translate well, either. Use specific vocabulary.

So when a fourth grade teacher told me that she had a new student from Russia, and she’s not certain what he already knows about their current study of multiplication, I had an idea…

Meeting Alexei

“Alexei” looked at me shyly. He happened to be wearing a sweatshirt with the name of the university where both my father and my husband are employed. As we walked over to a quiet working spot, I asked him about the sweatshirt.

“What is your connection to the university?” I asked.

I checked the translation app. It seemed like it might work?

Alexei’s face remained still, but his eyes slanted downward in confusion.

I tried again, and the app jumbled the name of the university.

I sighed. “Where did you get your sweatshirt,” I said, slowly and deliberately.

Alexei picked up my phone, and pressed the microphone button to record.


Eagerly, I looked down at the screen to check the translation. The store.

We were not off to an auspicious start.

Starting the Clinical Interview

“We are going to talk about multiplication today,” I told him. “I am going to ask the same questions to every student in the class.” The classroom teacher and I had selected an interview protocol from Marilyn Burns’ Listening to Learn clinical interview series: Interview 6 – Foundations of Multiplication. We planned to interview every student in the class using this protocol after I met with Alexei.

Alexei nodded solemnly. I assume the translation worked okay.

“Do not worry if you are correct or incorrect,” I told him. Usually I would say “right or wrong,” but polysemantic words — words with several meanings — can be unpredictable when using the translation apps. “I want to tell me whatever you are thinking.”

Alexei nodded again.

And so we began.

6 times 5,” I stated crisply.

Alexei picked up my phone, and pressed the microphone button to record. He said a word, but the phone didn’t catch it. He looked down at the screen, and sighed in frustration. He tried again: “тридцать.”

My phone displayed this as 30. Okay! We were getting somewhere!

“How did you figure it out?” I asked. The Russian text appeared below it: Как ты понял ответ? I hoped that it had translated accurately. By the end of my time with Alexei, I would repeat this so many times that the phrase would be ringing in my ear. I attempted to say it myself, but who knows if I had heard it correctly, or if my accent were intelligible. There’s a chance Alexei was charitably offering an explanation based on my tone.

Alexei whispered something into the end of my phone, and I eagerly looked at the translation. “I’m five as many?” Well. It wasn’t perfect. We’d try the next question.

What multiplication problem means the same as 9+9+9?
How did you figure out the answer?

Alexei and I exchanged the phone back and forth, smoothly this time. Even though the translator app picked up on little catches in my voice — I swear I said “What multiplication problem means the same as…” not “that means the same as” — Alexei seemed to understand. He did not have as much to say about how he figured it out.

Multiplying nine by three

Getting into a Groove

Alexei and I continued with the interview. He answered the first few questions quickly, so I tried a few questions from another “Listening to Learn” interview — extending multiplication.

We started with 30 x 5.

What is 30x5
How did you figure it out?
First I multiplied 30 by two, and then I added 30 again

Alexei explained that he solved 30 x 5 by first doubling 30, doubling that again, and then adding another 30. At this point, I was hooked: while the process of using the translation app was anything but elegant, but was giving me immediate access to student thinking. (That’s how I knew how to translate the fifth grade work sample in this blog post, which included a word. in Mandarin.) I’ve used it before to ask about classwork, but this was my first time pairing it up with a more structured clinical interview, and it honestly felt electric.

I attempted to use it for some light conversation, as well. After a few more problems, I could tell that Alexei was reaching to respond. He pursed his lips, and shook his head as if to say “no” after a few difficult questions. I decided that I’d made a mistake, and that I should cycle back.

It seemed like the first few problems that we did were easy for you, so I wanted to try some harder ones. This is not math you would have learned yet in 4R. you are doing great Because everything in 4R is in English, it is helpful to hear you explain your thinking in Russian.
Let's go back and do a few more problems, and then we will return to class. I know you cannot see it because of my mask, but I am smiling.

What are we adding?

Alexei had accurately answered 30 x 5 by doubling 30 twice and then adding another group of 30, or doing (30 x 2) x 2 + (30 x 1). This showed some thinking about how to decompose factors.

Thankfully, a problem later in the interview would give me more insight about how Alexei thinks about multiplication as the combination of equal size groups.

The answer to 20 x 8 is 160. Use that information to figure out the answer to 21 x 8.
from Marilyn Burns’ Listening to Learn

Alexei paused, and touched his fingers to the card with the problem written on it. Eventually he whispered into my phone: 161.

How did you figure it out?
Because only one number was added to the problem, it's 20, and the are 21 left and you can add one unit to the answer.

The translation wasn’t crystal clear, but I got the gist of it.

Because 20 x 8 = 160, 21 x 8 = 161 because you added one, and so you add one to the answer. He interpreted this as adding one, not adding one group of 8.

Alexei and I concluded the interview with a quick conversation about his first month at our school.

Learning From Alexei

Alexei was the first non-English clinical interview that I conducted, but he wasn’t the last. A week later, four children arrived from a country in Latin America. I interviewed two of them using “Listening to Learn” that I translated into Spanish, partially using the app and partially using my own rusty college Spanish. These interviews were smoother because of my facility with the language, even though I’m grossly out of practice and tried to steer all conversation into present tense. I interviewed a new student from Brazil in Portuguese.

This process isn’t perfect. The EL director in my district has stated that there might be some ability to assess students in a home language using translators or pre-created assessments, and I’m curious to experiment with that in the future, too.

I was impressed with how well the questions seemed to translate. Marilyn Burns & team weren’t writing these question for use on a translator app, but they seemed to follow the suggestions I’d converged on with my mother-in-law: avoid passive voice and idiomatic phrases.

One thing I loved about this is that it could be spontaneous. I was able to ask Alexei the exact same questions I planned to ask every student in that fourth class, using Marilyn Burns’ Listening to Learn (Interview 6: Foundations of Multiplication). I was able to celebrate some of Alexei’s thinking about decomposing a factor, and it left me with questions about how we could leverage that to build from a helpful problem.

Some of this will be addressed in an upcoming unit in his class that involves “cluster problems” — helpful problems that students can use to solve larger multiplication problems. Here is an example from a lesson towards the end of Unit 3.

TERC’s Investigations (Grade 4, Unit 3, Session 3.5)

The classroom teacher and I had selected this particular interview for use with her entire class to determine support for students between multiplication units. In Unit 1 of Investigations, students work with multiplication and arrays. Alexei had actually arrived a few weeks into the school year, and missed most of that work. Unit 2 is about data and measurement, with a focus on line plots. Unit 3 returns to multiplication. We had planned to add in some number talks and problem strings to continue to nudge student thinking about multiplication while working on data and measurement.

After this interview, Alexei seems poised to begin unit 3.

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