Gisting Exercises for Language Learning

When I was an Arabic translator, I frequently had to pump out gist translations.

Many times customers want something close to a word-for-word translation of a text. Of course, nothing ever translates exactly word for word, but without getting into the theory of translation too much, I’ll just say that you can come close.

Image Source

Image Source

Sometimes, though, a customer doesn’t want a literal translation. Instead they’ll ask for a “gist,” which is a brief summary of the source text using the translator’s own words.

Gists are shorter than full translations and usually take less time to produce. They are often asked for when:

  • Only the essential elements of information in the source text are needed.
  • There is a time constraint.
  • For some reason the product needs to be shorter than the source text.
  • The translator needs to provide additional contextual information to make the product useful, such as cultural notes or personal expertise on a subject.

As you can imagine, even though gisting doesn’t require the same kind of effort as a full translation, it’s a skill in its own right. You have to find what’s essential in a text and communicate only that.

Even if you’re not a translator and are simply learning a language, you can benefit from doing gisting exercises. Gisting forces you to understand a text extremely well, so that you can provide a useful, accurate summary. Below are six exercises you can try.

Oh, and by the way, the source texts you use can be written, spoken (as in news broadcasts), or both spoken and written (as in news broadcasts with transcripts).

And feel free to use any dictionaries or translation aids necessary. Professional translators use those tools. Why shouldn’t you as a language learner do the same? These exercises are ways to engage with a text and improve over time, not vocab tests.

1. Writing Topic Sentences

This is one of the easier ways to ease into gisting, so I recommend giving this a try to start.

When I was learning how to write in school, teachers taught us a concept called “the topic sentence.” Basically, it’s one sentence (or two sentences) in a paragraph that lists the paragraph’s main idea or central claim. This concept seems to have fallen out of fashion in education circles, but with a lot of texts, you can still write a topic sentence to summarize each paragraph.

So just go through a text in the language you’re learning, identify the main idea of each paragraph, and then write your own topic sentence in your native language. Here’s an example, using John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech (and gisting from English to English for illustrative purposes):

“All [these problem solving measures] will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will [they] be finished in the first one thousand days; nor in the life of this Administration; nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,”² a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

If you wrote a topic sentence for each paragraph, you might say something like:

  1. Even though these problems will not be solved any time soon, we must start now.
  2. The nation’s success depends on Americans citizens and their commitment to the cause.
  3. We must battle not just with weapons, but against our true enemies: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

2. Writing Headlines

News articles are written using a journalistic style, so their paragraphs are often only one or two sentences long. Kind of hard to squeeze a topic sentence out of that.

Instead, find short news blurbs (100 words or fewer) and write your own headline for the whole article. You don’t necessarily have to imitate headline style, but you could if you wanted to.

3. 10% Gists

Count the number of words in the original text and then produce a gist that’s 10% as long. For example, take a 500-word text and write a summary using only 50 words.

By forcing yourself to work within a strict limit, you’ll have to tailor your gist accordingly and really pay attention to what’s important to mention and what can be left out.

An easy way to count words is to copy and paste the text into a Microsoft Word document. At the bottom left of the Word document, the number of words displays.

4. Gisting and Commenting

Use any of the gisting strategies above and then add some commentary or clarifying information. This might seem like you’re just adding work for yourself, but it’s useful in that it ensures you’re really engaging with the text.

So if your gist of a news article about Justin Bieber says, “Justin Bieber is rumored to be dating a 58-year-old sea monster with tentacles and a gambling addiction,” you could add some additional text: “Justin Bieber is a Canadian pop superstar. The sea monster must have a kind heart to overlook his flaws and date him.”

5. Interlingual Gisting

With the drills above, I’m recommending that you gist from the language you’re learning into your native language. So if you’re learning Spanish and speak English, then you would take a Spanish text and produce an English gist.

But if you’re looking for a real challenge, take a text from the language you’re learning and gist into the same language–for instance, taking a Spanish text and producing a Spanish gist.

I’ve tried this with some German texts and it’s really challenging. I had known that gisting requires some linguistic sophistication and taxes your writing skills, but not until I tried out interlingual gisting did I realize just how much. It’s surprisingly tough.

Wrapping Up

Ease into the process and focus on engaging with the texts and creating final products that are as accurate and well written as possible. After a while, you’ll see an improvement in your ability to scan texts for their most important parts, and your overall comprehension will go through the roof.

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    Someone should put this post into his list of posts with language learning exercises. (Not me, it’s too much work). I wonder what else professional translators hide from us mere mortals, that we could use?