Serving up environmental studies (or history, or visual arts, or just about anything) with a side of language skills

Posted on July 12, 2021

As a professor working at the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation, I’m used to dishing up courses that are piled high with core language skills, seasoned with grammar tips and topped with a generous helping of bilingual vocabulary building. And the students almost always come back for seconds! That’s because students who sign up for a program or course in translation or language are actively seeking out this type of education. For these students, language is the main dish. But what about students who are studying in other disciplines? Could they benefit from a helping of language skills on the side? And what would be the best way to serve it?

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to participate in teaching a course that’s quite different from my usual fare. The course is part of the interdisciplinary program in the Faculty of Arts, and I had a chance to team up with a colleague from the School of Information Studies to design and offer a course called New Literacies for the Digital Age. Essentially, this course is built around helping students to develop skills in information literacy and digital literacy, and it’s open to students from any program in the Faculty of Arts. When I co-taught the course, 80 students from 13 different programs registered, and their disciplinary majors included environmental studies, history, philosophy, visual arts, music, and more. The challenge: introducing language-related skills that appeal to the palate of non-language majors.

On the menu

Even a little linguistic knowledge can go a long way when it comes to information and digital literacy. Some of the ways that language-related skills were incorporated into the New Literacies for the Digital Age course include:

Searching effectively

The search terms that you enter into search engines can have a big influence on the relevance of the information that’s retrieved. Even seemingly small factors, such as punctuation, spelling and capitalization, can have an impact on the results. Choosing search terms wisely, and understanding the syntax for correctly formulating a query, can help to ensure that you find information that’s relevant to your needs.

Evaluating information

Language quality isn’t the only indicator of high-quality information, but it’s definitely one factor worth considering. If a website or email is littered with spelling errors or grammar mistakes, then it’s worth probing more deeply to determine whether the information source is truly credible. Most trustworthy sources of information have a quality control process that includes language editing. Of course, it’s always possible for a couple of small errors to slip through, but if you receive an email that’s riddled with linguistic problems, it may be a spam or phishing message. Likewise, if you’re consulting a poorly written website, this might not be the most reliable resource to turn to when writing your essay.

Developing machine translation literacyNote *

In our increasingly globalized world, more and more people are using machine translation. Fast, convenient and free, online machine translation offers a great way to get a peek at content that has been produced in other languages. But this technology is far from perfect, so it’s best to be prepared to use it in an informed and critical way. The machine translation literacy module helps students who don’t have a background in translation to understand how machine translation works, where its strengths and weaknesses lie, what situations are more suitable or less suitable for relying on machine translation, and how to interact with this technology more effectively to improve the quality of the results.

Recipe for success

Language skills make a tasty and nutritious side dish for almost any main course. Do you have ideas for ways to serve up some helpful language-related tips and tricks to people who aren’t necessarily in the language professions? If so, please share your recipe with us in the comments.


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Lynne Bowker

Lynne Bowker

Lynne Bowker holds a PhD in language engineering from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, in England. She is a full professor at the School of Translation and Interpretation at the University of Ottawa and a certified French-English translator with the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario.

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