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Why I Teach an Introsem: Martin Kay

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Detail of pencil poised to mark a voting ballot with text in English, Chinese and Spanish. Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service.


We all know what universities are supposed to be about.  They are about teaching and learning to pass on knowledge to a new generation and research to produce new knowledge.  These are not separate enterprises because it is in carrying out research that much of the teaching and learning takes place. We naturally expect that, as a student progresses, learning through research will take on an increasingly important role until, in graduate school, it becomes dominant.  But you do not have to wait until graduate school, because learning through research is what seminars are all about.  The professor provides guidance and coordination, but also expects to do as much learning as teaching. That is why I love my freshman seminar.

My seminar is about translation, a subject about which people generally think they know quite a bit.  They may even have done some, with their Vietnamese grandmother in the grocery store or their Mexican father at the doctor's office. You have to find some words in the other language that mean the same as the ones you are given in this language and string them together in the right order.  Given two texts in a pair of languages that you know, you can tell right away if one is a translation of the other.  Yes, of course, it would be hard to translate Shakespeare, but we do not try to do that very often.

In my seminar, we look at things like this and we discover that the real situation is way more complicated.  We work in groups of two or three.  We discover that we had all been making assumptions about translation---different assumptions---that we did not realize we were making and as we learn about one another's experiences and challenge one another's assumptions, we uncover a far richer picture of language and translation than any of us ever expected to find. I have been over this territory many times but every year brings new revelations and the whole experience is exhilarating for all concerned.

Martin Kay

Professor of Linguistics

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