Saying it in your own words

Intralingual translation – Students vs Chat GBT

When we think of translation in language teaching, it is typically interlingual translation; that is to say, translation between students’ mother tongue and the foreign language they are learning. In France, where I teach English, this sort of translation is rarely used in a language lesson apart from vocabulary lists or prompts in tests. The study of interlingual translation tends to be reserved for higher education, even though recent Baccalauréat reform has seen it introduced for pre-university levels among secondary pupils who specialize in a foreign language.

In his short essay On linguistic aspects of translation, Roman Jakobson contrasts this “translation proper” with that of “rewording” which he calls “an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language”. Whether or not they have read Jakobson, language teachers use what he calls rewording or intralingual translation1 all the time, because rephrasing or reformulating meaning in other words is a natural way to explain or check understanding. It allows interaction to be maintained in the target language and focuses attention on getting to grips with meaning.

This post shares an example of 17-18 year-old secondary school students working collaboratively on meaning in order to rephrase existing texts. I will then compare and contrast student-produced intralingual translations with the treatment of the same text by Chat GBT. The objective is to present a 21st-century variation on developing the skills to be able to follow a classic classroom instruction which all teachers or exam papers use : Say it in your own words.

The rewards of rewording

But why should we be doing work on rewording in 2023? Because in these days of cut, copy and paste, when using research found on line, I can say to myself : “I’ll just lift this from the source and stick it as it is into the text I want to write, nobody will know“. Alternatively, with ChatGBT freely available, I can use AI to launder2 content in order to untraceably call it my own, by simply saying to myself : “I’ll feed the original to ChatGBT, then I’ll use the result“. It’s tempting to skip the hard work of trying to understand a text, filter what’s important, and then use that. You only risk being caught as a plagiarist – if you’re caught. Don’t you?

My experience of students whom I’ve caught using cut, copy and paste in personal work is that, once the difficult conversation about plagiarism is over, they go on to become more responsible meaning-makers. They tend to surf the web more carefully, select information better, quote sources, and use intralingual translation – even if they don’t call it that – to integrate new ideas.

As for those who count on Chat GBT to write whole sections of supposedly personal productions, they are surprised that the teacher noticed a change in style or tone, until you confront them with it. They can argue they didn’t use another author’s work, because they helped ChatGBT to write it. In that case, I tell them to mention the AI as co-author. They don’t like being told that, and they get the point. Ouch!

But do you have to be caught cheating in order to change? Of course not. Nevertheless, teachers know that, if you want to be an autonomous user of a language – and that’s the road we want people to take – you have to somehow learn to enjoy the experience of really trying to understand something for yourself. Proposing intralingual translation activities in class is way of showing how it can be done.

Student productions

Let me begin by giving you two student group productions on rephrasing the same text and see if you can spot the original :

You probably haven’t realize it yet, but I have heard you plan to cheat on me with an ex of yours. You know I love you more than he does, so I really didn’t expect you to do this to me.

Of course, a real man doesn’t cry, but I simply can’t hide my sadness. If you left me, I’d be desperate because you are everything to me. And I can’t understand why you did all this behind my back, without even telling me you’d fallen in love with another.

It is said we should only believe part of the things we see and nothing of what people tell us, but I feel like a victim of circumstances. Is what I hear true or not ? Are you going to return to him or stay with me ?


You must be asking yourself how I know that you want to make me sad by seeing that boy from your past again. I have always shown that I love you more than he does, so hearing about you and him together again was the last thing I expected.

I know that real men don’t cry, but this sadness is too powerful to be contained. I care so much about you that I would be totally devastated if were you to leave me. I would have preferred to have learnt all this from you, rather than from a rumour.

Everybody knows that we should believe nothing that we hear and only part of what we see because appearances can often be misleading. But I don’t know what’s wrong or what’s right any more. Please tell me : Is it true you intend to split up with me and go back to your ex ?

Group B

Song lyrics for intralingual translation

Did you recognize the original text? It’s the lyrics to the Marvin Gaye version of I Heard It Through The Grapevine by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong without the chorus.

Grapevine Photo de Rohit Tandon sur Unsplash

Song lyrics are an endless source of material for getting people to rework a text while trying to keep as much of the original meaning as possible. The original lyrics must match rhythm and melody if they are to work. This often means the result is cryptic in places because the author has to use compression, elision or simply make creative use of language in order to get everything to fit. So much the better for rewording.

Putting song lyrics into your own words involves thinking about meaning, unpacking it, then testing hypotheses for rephrasing without losing sight of the original. This is a mediation activity. You will find a detailed definition of the concept of mediation, along with ideas for its implementation in the classroom, all available free here on the Council of Europe website. Yes, the Council of Europe. The people who gave you the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages!

Here’s an extract from their definition of mediation :

“When learners/social agents engage in mediation activities they create the space and conditions for communicating and/or learning, (co)construct new meaning, collaborate to make sense of a text, or convey ideas and information to others. Mediation happens across languages or varieties (cross-linguistic mediation) or within the same language or variety.”

Rewording song lyrics puts Jakobson’s intralingual translation and the Council of Europe’s resources on mediation together. It’s also great fun. Let’s look at it how it works in practice.

Classroom procedure

Here is the classroom procedure used for the creation of student productions like the above from songs.

Write out the lyrics to a well-known song, with or without the chorus – without the chorus, some songs can go unrecognized during the rephrasing, leading to the surprise of discovery at the end. The verses alone will often describe a situation or tell a story. It’s a good idea to choose a song that will engage both teacher and students.

Form students into 2 or 3 groups. This makes a panel of opinions available in each group during the creative stage, while making the final sharing of proposals manageable. Give them enough time to read through the lyrics and decide together how to rewrite them in their own words, while making sure there are at least 30 minutes for the sharing phase at the end.

Decide on whether to make dictionaries available : monolingual dictionaries are a short cut to rephrasing which you may or may not wish students to use; if, like me, you teach English as a foreign language, bilingual dictionaries give a short cut to meaning of specific words, and leave students to decide how to reword in English. But using a dictionary takes time away from group discussion.

Decide on the degree of constraint for the rewriting : this may mean minimizing the reuse of words from the original; it may mean allowing groups total freedom in the way they reword the original, as long the final result is recognizably a reformulation of the text they started with. Whatever the set-up, the teacher should be available as a mediator during the creative process.

When time is up, the groups all share their results. Their rephrasings are put up on the board or on the screen. It is useful to put these in parallel displays, alternating proposals on the same sections, as this allows each group to see that their proposals are valid, even though they are different to what the other groups offer.

Once this is done, take a collective overview of easy and difficult passages, as well as solutions chosen. When we put things in our own words, the results can be different from person to person, but these differences are acceptable as long as we agree that they remain faithful to the original. This is what happens when we try to take charge of meaning, process it and pass it on to others during what we call mediation. Identifying this characteristic of rewording is a way of encouraging students to try it for themselves in other contexts.

Finally, listening to the song together at the end is both a reward and and an opportunity feel the release of tension.

AI performs the same task

I asked Chat GBT if it could help me rewrite the same text. “Of course, I’d be happy to help you rewrite a text. Please provide the text you’d like me to work on, and let me know if there are any specific changes or goals you have in mind for the rewrite.” Artificial Intelligence is so polite, it feels genuinely artificial. I fed in the lyrics to the Marvin Gaye version of Grapevine and this is what came back :

Certainly, I can help you rewrite this text. Here’s a rewritten version of the song:

I’m sure you’re wondering how I learned the truth, About your plan to make me feel so blue, With someone else, from your past, it’s true. Between us two, you know my love is true. It came as quite a shock, I must admit, When I heard it yesterday, that’s it. Don’t you see that…


I got the news through the grapevine, It won’t be long till you’re not mine. Oh, I got the news through the grapevine, I’m on the verge of losing my mind. Honey, oh, honey yeah.

I know a man isn’t supposed to weep, But these tears, they’re buried way too deep. Losing you would bring me to my knees, ‘Cause you mean the world to me, you see. You should’ve told me to my face, my dear, That someone else now holds you near. Instead…

(Chorus) I got the news through the grapevine, It won’t be long till you’re not mine. Oh, I got the news through the grapevine, I’m on the verge of losing my mind. Honey, honey, well…

People say, “Believe what you observe, And none of what you merely heard.” But I can’t help but be confused and pained, If it’s true, let me know, don’t leave me strained. Do you plan to leave me in the past, For the love that didn’t last? Don’t you know…

(Chorus) I got the news through the grapevine, It won’t be long till you’re not mine. Baby, I got the news through the grapevine, I’m on the verge of losing my mind. Honey, honey yeah.

Honey, honey, it’s clear, you’re letting me go, Said I got the news through the grapevine. Oh, I got the news through the grapevine.

CHATGBT’S Intralingual Translation

Comparing texts produced by the students and by ChatGBT

Chat GBT took less than a minute to come up with a text which is an effective intralingual translation of the original. The students took around 30 minutes, including a lot of discussion and checking with their classmates and teacher, to write theirs. In fact, both groups who produced the sample texts were still finalizing certain passages as they reported back with their proposals, and were occasionally influenced into changing slightly what they said when it was displayed beside the proposal from the other group.

At no point did the students ask whether they were to respect the rhyming scheme of the original in their new version. I didn’t insist. All they knew was that they were to say everything in their own words. Chat GBT identified the text as a song and wrote new lyrics, which rhyme, without me mentioning any of that. If you try singing it to the tune, you’ll see that it doesn’t quite match. I’m sure Chat GBT will do better next time.

Looking back, I realize that I was able to ask the robot “Can you help me rewrite a text?”, but was unable to write “Say this in your own words”. Why not? I don’t perceive ChatGBT as a speaker of the language or possessing it like a human user. I don’t see it as having its own words, but merely being capable of combining variations.

In the end, I felt that the class had really produced something they could be proud of. Their texts were their own, they were the authors, and had used their own words to produce tangible results. Listening to the song together at the end felt good after all our work on trying to fathom what the song was about. I don’t think we would have had the same pleasure from reading back the result of rewording an exam text after having corrected the results together. I guess that is because we had all experienced what it was like to be autonomous users of the language.

The students thought the AI lyrics were “clever” and even “cute“. However, they rapidly moved on, saying that the platform had produced a “scholarly” text, like “a good student”, but that the members of the class had identified with the narrator and tried to put themselves in his shoes. They didn’t think a robot could feel that empathy.

The exchange with Chat GBT has interesting possibilities for the future. I am sure other people have thoughts on this and I look forward to seeing them and hearing about them. Even though I Heard It Through The Grapevine is a clear alert concerning the validity of what we see and hear.

  1. A video posted by Butler Translation, a recent YouTube channel, gives a well-articulated explanation of intralingual translation. ↩︎
  2. Launder text like money illegally obtained. ↩︎

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1 Comment

  1. Phyllis

    It is easy to see the pleasure you took in teaching students how to navigate – and sail – the English language. Reading students’ productions is an exploration in itself rich with insights, let alone comparing them with Chat GPT. Thanks for sharing!!!


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