What to say

  • Translation is written and interpreting is spoken: they’re two different skills. Demonstrate the difference with a couple of basic exercises in the classroom (see ideas below).
  • Being bilingual isn’t enough to make you a translator or interpreter: you need additional training. Briefly discuss educational requirements and helpful life experiences. It’s also useful to emphasize the need for excellent English and foreign language grammar.
  • Translation is more than word-substitution. Illustrate the point by giving an example of a translation problem or culturally specific word that the children can understand.

How to say it

Make it personal.

Begin by introducing yourself and identifying the languages you use. As you talk about your work, use anecdotes from your own experience.


  • Describe how you became interested in languages and how you entered the profession. Use this as a springboard to mention the talents and character traits required for your work (good memory, good vocabulary, love of languages, etc.).
  • Sketch out your working conditions and tell the students what a typical day is like. Many students enjoy hearing about living abroad and about the travel and prestigious events involved in interpreting.
  • Discuss the tools of the trade: computers (PC, laptop), dictionaries, the Internet, email, fax, computer programs, etc.

Make it interactive.

Get the kids involved as quickly as possible: ask questions and encourage them to do the same. Asking questions about their exposure to other languages breaks the ice and simultaneously gives you a better feel for your audience.

Questions might include:

  • Who can point out the countries where my languages are spoken on the map?
  • Who speaks another language at home?
  • What language?
  • Can you point out the country or countries where it is spoken on the map?
  • Who has learned another language in school?
  • What do you call someone who speaks two languages very well (bilingual)?
  • Where have you used another language (e.g., travel, fun, talking to grandparents)?
  • Where have you seen a translator/interpreter?

Make it concrete.

Give specific, hands-on examples and use props and audiovisuals whenever you can.

  • Do translation and interpreting exercises in class to demonstrate the difference. Have the students do a simple translation by writing a basic word or sentence on the board in one language and asking for volunteers to come up and write the word in another language. Then take them through an interpreting exercise: say a common phrase in a language they know and ask for a volunteer to interpret for you in another language. (If the kids are all monolingual, tell the teacher in advance what you’ll be saying to the class, and have him or her repeat it in English.) Highlight the key point: translation is written; interpreting is spoken.
  • Display or hand out some very simple translations, ideally of things the children may be familiar with. Tell them their names in a foreign language; show them bilingual labels on the packaging for international foods; or show them photographs of signs in foreign countries.
  • Use maps. Ask the teacher in advance what kinds of maps are available in the classroom. If you’re focusing on a particular country, you may want to bring your own map or photocopies of the map for the students to keep. And time differences can really get attention: one group of fourth graders gasped audibly when told that 10:30 in the morning in their home town was 4:30 in the afternoon in Paris.
  • With older children, illustrate the problem of ambiguity by giving the students a simple word that has more than one meaning. This could be as simple as the word “grade,” which would often be translated as two different words in the two sentences, “I am in the third grade,” and “I got a good grade on my test.” Give (or ask the students to provide) translations for each of the meanings of this term and highlight the key point: you can’t possibly translate it accurately until you know what it means in context.
  • Highlight the difficulty of translating culturally specific words. Choose a culturally specific word in an appropriate language and ask the students to come up with the meaning of the word and all the associations it has. Highlight the key point: you can’t just replace one word with another.
  • Reinforce the message: write key points on the board as you go. As you make each point, review and ask questions: “Who can tell me what translation is?” “Who can tell me what interpreting is?”  At the end, give a short, multiple-choice “pop-quiz” designed to be easy and fun while reinforcing the key points of the talk. A sample question might be “Which of the following countries is not Spanish-speaking? a) Mexico; b) Venezuela; c) Uruguay; or d) Mesopotamia.” Have the students trade papers and correct them, and then go over the questions out loud.

Make it fun.

Use props and audiovisuals whenever you can. Some examples:

  • Bring translated material in source and target text. Try The Rainbow FishThe Cat in the Hat, any of the Harry Potter books, or any other material that is appropriate to the age group you’re addressing. (Some of these resources may be available from your local library.) Or bring dubbed and/or subtitled movies. You can also bring three versions—one in English, one with subtitles and one dubbed—and let the children see and hear the difference. Point out that all of them began in one language and had to be translated into another one.
  • Translate age-appropriate cartoons into English and copy source and target text on two different colors of paper. Tell the class you have some fun cartoons, and hand out the foreign-language version. Ask, “Don’t you like them? Why isn’t anyone laughing?” The kids will probably respond, “We can’t read it.” Ask, “What should we do about it? How can we read it?” (Possible funny responses: Ask mommy to read it, ask the teacher to read it, ask the principal to read it.) Explain that they can’t read the cartoons because they aren’t in English, so they’ll need to find a translator. “Fortunately,” you continue, “I just happen to be a translator! Do you want me to translate these cartoons for you?” The kids should yell, “Yes!” Spend a few seconds at the teacher’s desk “pretending” to translate the cartoons. Then pick up the translations and say, “All done! Who wants to read funny English cartoons?” Pass them out and enjoy!
  • Read or talk to the students in a foreign language
  • Do a brief interpreting demonstration. One mother does live interpreting demos with her sons in their school. Pretending that she only speaks French, she speaks to the class, and one of her sons interprets what she’s said to his classmates. If the kids have questions on interpreting and translating, they can also be interpreted back to her in French.
  • Bring in foreign currency. Put sample bills in a clear folder and pass it around the class (or assign a student to walk it around). If you have enough small change, you could even let the children keep a coin or give it away as a prize.
  • Put photographs, postcards, crafts, or other memorabilia in an album or a protective cover and pass it around the classroom. Crafts that children can touch are an excellent idea: one sixth-grade class enjoyed seeing and touching a hand-woven poncho from Peru.

Make it count.

Leaving something tangible behind will give you a better return on the time and energy you’ve invested in your presentation. Give the kids souvenirs or treats, such as novelty school supplies (a notepad in the shape of a globe; a pen that lights up), miniature foreign flags, stickers, brightly colored handouts, a food item from another culture, or maps. Even a flyer about your work or a brochure on your employer will help the students remember you and your talk. Give the teacher a resource handout with pointers to further information on translation and interpreting.

For extra credit

Spend some time with the teacher before or after your presentation.
This could be anything from a five-minute chat about the resource handout for this level to a cup of coffee or a lunch date. One seasoned presenter reports that teachers are very eager to learn more from her and that she finds the contact with them extremely rewarding.

Cultivate a relationship with your local school.
Make your child’s teacher (or the closest school) aware of your profession and offer to speak on foreign language-related subjects and at the school’s career-oriented events. One parent went to her daughter’s classroom twice a month for 15 minutes to teach a few words of the languages she learned as a child.

Help organize an “International Night” at your child’s school.
Begin with a “parade of nations” with the kids carrying flags of various countries. Afterwards parents and students can  share artifacts, information, food, dance, etc. from their countries of origin or interest.

Sample Slideshow

ATA has assembled a sample slideshow that you can download and adapt.
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More presentation materials

These sample presentations, tips, and exercises that can be adapted for your needs. If you do use any of these materials, please be sure to acknowledge the author’s contribution appropriately.

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