It’s like grasping at straws at the beginning of learning a language.
You’re trying to make sense of anything.
The strings of sound coming at you are difficult to decipher.
Albeit exciting, there’s a lot of confusion as you start out in a new language. You have to use every strategy available to you to “break the code.”
Direct, or literal, translation is typically one of the strategies we employ. We take every word and “filter” it through our native language.
Make no mistake, translating in your head is a habit that will prove to be incredibly helpful in the beginning. However, if you rely on it too much, it’ll burden you later on.
What many language learners do in the beginning is closer to finding the words in their native language and then settling for the direct translation without considering the implications. For example, using ご覧になる (ごらんになる) to mean “see” in Japanese. On a very basic level it does indeed mean “to see,” but that’s not what native speakers are going to understand when you use it in regular conversation. When you start learning about a language on a deeper level, those direct translations you relied on will quickly cease to be as helpful as they were in the beginning.
To see why, think about the process that’s taking place when you translate in your head as you read, speak or listen to foreign languages. The crux of the issue here is that there are far too many variables to consider.
Because of all the differences that exist between languages (word order, verb tenses, cases, etc.), trying to go back and forth becomes cumbersome and unnecessary.
It’s tiring just thinking of the whole mental process where you hear or read a sentence, then try to internally match every word to the equivalent in your native tongue. The whole process ruins any reading or social experience you’re having and it’s just exhausting.
It’s even more exhausting when you think of the elements that might prove to be more important to communication and understanding. In Mandarin, for example, there’s pronunciation to consider, like ensuring you know the difference between 媽 (mā) — mommy and 馬 (mă) — horse. (Wouldn’t want to get those mixed up, would we?)
You also have to consider the fact that not every word you come across is going to be completely translatable.
Fortunately, there are a multitude of ways for you to break out of that habit and we’re going to show you a few of the best methods. Hopefully some, if not all of these will work for you.
Whatever solution you choose, remember that practicing with your foreign language a lot is necessary.
The first method you could try is image association. In the beginning of your language learning experience, you’ll probably find that you tend to associate new foreign words with the equivalent in your native tongue. Instead of allowing yourself to do that, try associating a word with a clear image or feeling instead. This technique has been proven to work better than simple translations.
Instead of associating the Portuguese saudade with the English word “longing,” try to really understand the feeling of missing someone or something that exists far away in time or space, if it exists at all. Instead of associating the words such as the Spanish word perro with the English “dog,” try actually picturing a dog instead.
This simple change in your learning technique will aid you greatly when you start using what you’ve learned out in the real world. When a Spanish speaker says, un gran artículo (a great article), you’ll know what that means almost instantly because you’ll associate both gran and artículowith a feeling of greatness and an image of articles (particularly this lifesaver of an article!).
When you start doing this, you’ll stop having to filter and immediately associate the word with a meaning.
2. Use sticky notes to your advantage
To help with this, a second method and a classic, is to stick sticky notes on everything around you! Okay…maybe not everything per se. Just plant a sticky note on objects you want to learn the foreign name of.
If you’re learning Italian, you’ll want a sticky note with frigo or il frigoriferoon your…you guessed it—fridge! Whenever you see that word out in the world, you’ll think of that object and know what it means….and that you’ll have to go grocery shopping soon.
You can take it even further after you’re confident with basic nouns and start adding things like adjectives, qualifiers, prepositional phrases orentire sentences, like “a soft couch,” “a very long table” or “I put the milk in the fridge.”
This is a great method to use in conjunction with the others, especially if you’re more of a visual learner and need a way to bridge the gap between what you read in textbooks and on apps with what you see in the real world.
When you repeat the words you see while looking at the objects they’re attached to, you’ll start to slowly wean yourself off of having to use your native language, because those foreign words you’re trying to learn will be attached to something you can easily visualize.
3. Constant internal narration
This method is especially great for those who can easily understand what everyone is saying but seem to hit a mental block when it comes to expressing themselves. When you hear those foreign words, you seem to understand them but when the time comes for you to talk, you’re at a loss and you resort back to translating to make sure you find what you believe to be the right words.
If that’s you, you definitely need to practice actually speaking without too many pauses. You can do it. After all, you already know the right words, clearly. One of the best ways to practice is by narrating your every action. You can start by being literal then progress by describing what you do, what you see, hear and feel in more detail.
After a while, when the time comes for you to actually have a conversation, you’ll find that you’re able to find the right words without ever having to really consider what they mean in your native tongue.
Maybe you come across something you genuinely don’t know how to describe without resorting back to your native language. There’s a solution that doesn’t require you to cheat like that. Monolingual dictionaries are a fantastic way of learning without translating. For example, there’s Vocabulary.com for English, Duden.de for German, Zdic.net for Mandarin and many more.
There are a lot to choose from, and best of all, they come as apps now, too! They’re also a great way of gauging your progress. The more clear a definition is to you, the more fluent you’ve become.
The best way to stop translating is to surround yourself completely with the language if you can. You’ll stop translating over time as you grow accustomed to foreign words. These methods will help you do just that if you’re unable to travel or engage with a community of native speakers. There’s always a way.
Good luck! If you need more helps or advice, I am always available!