I am a private piano teacher. I recently accepted a student who has only been living in the US for a couple weeks and does not know English. Her mother sits next to us during the lessons and translates. I struggle particularly with getting the student's input. Example exchange:

Me, to student: This notation is complicated. What do you think he wants you to do?

Mother, to me: Actually, I don't even understand what's going on here.

Me, to mother: Could you please ask her what she thinks? I'd like to see how she handles it.

Whereupon the mother translates, and the student plays the passage in question, giving me no way to know if she's being imprecise, or if she doesn't understand the notation.

What can I do to communicate effectively through the translator.

They are from China, if it makes a difference.

  • I'm not sure if this is an answer, so I'll post it as a comment and I'm also unsure how easy it might be to set up in a lesson of yours but, Skype translator offers English to Chinese real-time translation. Aug 27, 2017 at 13:38
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    Since this question is as much about English and music as about interpersonal communication, I have (in addition to my own common-sense answer) sought the expert advice of a senior member at English.SE who also has a strong background in music, and could therefore suggest a technically effective solution, @JETM. Aug 27, 2017 at 15:16
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    You didn't say whether the mother has any knowledge of western music terminology. (Knowledge of Chinese "traditional" music terminology might be irrelevant). If she doesn't, this is doomed to failure - you can't talk about music if you don't know the musical meaning of apparently simple English words like time, key, bar, rest, note, etc - and a word like "tone" has several different musical meanings which may be different words in a different language. That's quite apart from the more specialized vocabulary - much of it based on Italian not English!
    – alephzero
    Aug 27, 2017 at 16:05
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    For a funny example of how not to talk through a translator, there is this classic.
    – hlovdal
    Aug 27, 2017 at 16:10
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    @alephzero Her understanding is sufficient. Chinese scores also use Italian terms.
    – JETM
    Aug 27, 2017 at 16:10

5 Answers 5


It's important for the translator to not be part of the conversation.

I've used a translator many, many times -- for different languages and many circumstances. I've developed a kind of sense for when a translation is going good or not. If a translation is not going well, you might as well go home. I have had bad translators, and they pretty much waste everybody's time.

So here are some things I have picked up over the years.

  • This may be difficult from behind a keyboard. But in case you are able to move around, position yourself so you can face your interlocutor.
  • Neither one of you should be talking to the translator. Each of you should be looking, talking, and interactive with nonverbal cues to the other -- and not the translator. A common error is to talk to the translator and then have the translator talk to you.
  • Say only one sentence at a time. Give the translator time to do their job.
  • If the translator is pausing, you have a problem.
  • Have more than a one or two sentence dialog. If there is a translation problem, you will sense it.

You apparently are already having one or more of the concepts I outlined. To me that signals the use of a different translator, or some other solution.

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    +1 for a very strong answer coming from direct experience. What complicates this case is that it's not everyday language but music here. Do you think the specialised vocabulary of music could be effectively translated by a non-musical person using plain language? Aug 27, 2017 at 15:59
  • The concepts and jargon of a specific subject makes translation even more challenging. I tried to capture that idea in my bullet point of translator pausing rather than speaking immediately on cue. Your point is well taken in that, after a dialog session, one would have to talk tot he translator off-line and see where their talents are. In this case, if it's not music, then something should be done.
    – John
    Aug 27, 2017 at 17:18
  • Very true, @John, and thanks for the explanation. OP has indicated in a comment that the student's mother actually has a satisfactory understanding of musical terms, so it might well be possible for them to sort out areas of confusion in translation by some useful discussion, so as to make it a reasonably good arrangement till the student learns basic communicative English. Aug 27, 2017 at 17:21
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    I had a technical conversation (with some specialized terms) with someone through a sign-language interpreter once, and this answer matches what I was told to do (and it worked). Aug 27, 2017 at 18:42
  • @EnglishStudent Vocabulary should not be an issue. The student should be learning the new vocabulary, but the translator should handle all of the "plain language" speak. As an example, I learn Chinese martial arts. I could not speak Chinese to save my life, but I am still expected to build an understanding of chi, shen, and where my dantien resides. As for teaching the meaning behind these technical terms, that is the same challenge regardless of whether you speak the same language or different languages. In both cases, it is your nonverbal cues and your back-and-forth...
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 28, 2017 at 4:26

Disclaimer: I know nothing about playing, reading, or teaching music. But I have had to use translators in my work.

TL;DR: Train the mother.

It's helpful to avoid asking as many open-ended questions as possible at first. (Open-ended questions are those that require more than a yes/no/single word response.) Asking closed-ended questions requires exact translation and will give you an idea of the mother's ability to translate your English precisely.

If the mother 1. answers for the child, 2. gives you an open-ended answer, or 3. Gives you a longer answer when her daughter's was short, or vs. versa, you know the mother is doing a sub-par job of translating.

If the answers seem to be correct, then this "trains" the mother to translate well.

E.g. Instead of,

This notation is complicated. What do you think he wants you to do?


This notation is complicated. Do you know what he wants you to do?

After she answers, (yes, no), give her options (I'm out of my league here, but, e.g.),

Do you think he wants you to play softly/louder/quickly/staccato/whatever?

These kinds of questions - especially as they get more difficult - make it pretty easy to assess 1. the mother's understanding of musical notation, and 2. how the mother is translating. Knowing this helps you to prepare for a less frustrating experience.

If Mom is doing a bad job, set a boundary. Appeal to the mother's values if you know them. For example,

In order to give her the best lessons possible, I must ask you to please translate my questions and directions exactly as I phrase them, or your daughter will not make good progress. I need to understand what your daughter thinks/feels/understands about the music.

As @English Student's excellent answer states, getting her to learn to speak English, even if you are doing so initially - This is "allegro". (have her repeat.) - it will help.

In the Emergency Room, we would routinely, especially during holidays, get foreigners coming in who spoke no English. There is a medical translation system in place, but it was very frustrating. I remember a Ukrainian couple who brought in their baby, who had a fever. I would ask, "Has she been vomiting?" The translator would ask something short. The mother would launch into a five-minute answer. Then the translator would answer, "No." How frustrating!

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    Hi. Thanks for all of the great tips here! I'm not sure I understand your first example, though. Are you saying I should say things twice?
    – JETM
    Aug 27, 2017 at 15:35
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    A strong answer coming from personal experience: I appreciate and upvote! These issues of linguistic confusion have been increasing in frequency here in South India, due to in-country immigration of laborers from North India for job purposes. As you might know, there are so many region-specific languages in India that we can easily have no language in common, but I was very impressed to see them learning the basics of our local languages very quickly and becoming very effective communicators with the local population. Aug 27, 2017 at 15:38
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    @EnglishStudent - Thanks. This is actually why I learned Spanish. Our inner-city hospital served a population of which about 25% were Puerto Rican. Many of the older patients didn't speak English, and the culture discourages younger people from asking personal health questions, so if I asked, e.g. "Is it possible that you're pregnant?", The young person would say, "I can't ask her that!" Lol! Aug 27, 2017 at 16:55
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    It is enough to drive a medical person 'up the wall' -- especially when serious health outcomes depend on the proper understanding of the question. It is obviously crucial to have perfect communication in a health care setting, @anongoodnurse. I especially appreciate people who are willing and able to learn a new language for interpersonal communication purposes because it is not my strong suit. I have 2 native languages and also learned English and Hindi at school, but never needed to learn a new language at short notice: therefore I respect those who are coming here & learning our languages! Aug 27, 2017 at 17:10
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    Yes/No questions are an obvious simplification of conversations in a western context, but can fail horribly when speaking with someone from a Chinese background. Chinese culture apparently disapproves strongly of answering "no", so out of politeness, the answer will always be "yes". Making the conversation simpler by going to simple yes/no questions actually makes the conversation more difficult! I experienced that first hand when trying to explain some maths concepts to a fellow uni student who was from China. I rarely found out which parts he already understood and which he did not.
    – ndim
    Aug 28, 2017 at 9:53

I appreciate your sporting willingness to teach the student the piano under these challenging circumstances. The success of such communication entirely through a translator in this situation depends very much on

(1) the mother's understanding of English being adequate for her to translate your statements/ questions accurately to the student and

(2) the mutual understanding of musical notation and technical terms across English and Chinese languages in particular, which is essential for the student to comprehend your question and provide appropriate feedback.

Assuming that these conditions are satisfactory, accuracy is crucial in the translation.

So you can politely request the mother to please translate exactly what you said and precisely relay back to you the student's comments, even if the mother does not understand the musical background of your statements.

Meanwhile, as indicated by @NVZ in a comment, you should also kindly but firmly encourage the student to learn basic communicative English in order to then learn the standard musical vocabulary, but also to be able to communicate with you directly in the near future.


I work in a safety-critical position in inner London. Given the multiculturality around there, we quite often get children or sometimes entire families who speak no English and who we have to use a translator for.

Side note: this works just as well for non-verbal translators, such as sign language, as it does for verbal translators - though I tend to find that SL translators just translate while you talk as opposed to waiting for you to finish.

Ignore the translator. Okay, maybe not ignore, but the point is that you're interacting with the student, not the translator, and the translator is just there to facilitate that. This works better with professional translators than it does with family, because family will naturally want to get involved, but the aim is to get the translator to at least translate first and ask questions later.

Look for non-verbal cues. Body language and facial expression are great answers to yes/no (and a few other short-answer) questions; look for them. Those cues enable you to move faster by not having to work through the translator for everything; that ends up being less frustrating for you and the student.
You can also think about phrasing your questions to gear them more towards yes/no answers, but that may not always be helpful for teaching.


Suppose the student's name is Li.

Ask the mother to meet with you or speak with you on the phone outside the lesson. Start with some short positive remark about Li. Then ask her if she's familiar with "first person interpretation." If she isn't, then explain and give an example.

(Here's one possible example: Patient: My back pain started a year ago right after my mother died. Interpreter (in the target language): My back pain started a year ago right after my mother died. As opposed to "Her back pain started a year ago right after her mother died.")

Explain that first person interpretation will permit the student to progress the fastest. Explain that her daughter is so talented, you want to focus on her 100% during the lessons. "I need your help, to enable Li to take center stage during her lessons."

Establish a way for the mother to be able to communicate with you regularly outside the lesson time, for example, through email, or a short bi-weekly phone call.

Establish a boundary by having the student work with you for the first part of the lesson, without the mother being in the room. Explain this also outside the lesson. You could say, for example:

To help Li take center stage in her lessons, I'm going to ask you to wait to come into the studio until we are about 15 minutes into the lesson.

If she is still having trouble getting the hang of it, assert yourself, as follows:

Me: This notation is complicated. What do you think the Chopin wants you to do?

Mother: Actually, I don't even understand--

Me (interrupting, with brief eye contact to mother): Excuse me. (Then turning gently to student): This notation is complicated. What do you think the Chopin wants you to do?

Do you see? No explanation should be given to the mother at this time. You could think of this as gentle broken-record mode.

As soon as you see some progress in the mother, make sure to give brief but warm positive feedback.

It helps to keep your communication with the mother during lessons as nonverbal as possible.

There is a small trick you might need to use: when they are first coming in, you could cough a few times, and then hand an empty water bottle to the mother, asking her to fill it for you in the bathroom. Having her out of the room for two seconds right at the beginning can help to a surprising degree.

Alternatively, get a different interpreter.

  • Thanks a lot for contributing your unique insight in this answer. I upvote! Very few of us have your type of background in music which is why I requested you to take an 'expert look' at this question. I was particularly concerned whether the specialised vocabulary of music can be adequately translated across languages, especially by a non-musical person. You will find that Interpersonal.SE is your type of site and we look forward to your continued enthusiastic participation here, @aparente 001 Aug 28, 2017 at 7:39

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