Your biggest barrier to effective language learning? Translating.

Your biggest barrier to effective language learning? Translating


Hello fellow language learners! Here’s Theo, currently struggling padawan in the process of learning French and proud owner of an unhealthy obsession for languages: I speak Romanian, German, English, and in-progress Spanish and French. Some of these I’ve learnt as a child, others later in my teenage years, but it’s only recently that I’ve become more conscious about the mechanism behind language learning and how we’re unfortunately doing a lot of self-saboutage here.
Barrier nr. 1: Translating. Whether when reading, speaking or listening, translating is actually doing more bad than good, both to yourself and – if you’re part of any group lessons – to your fellow learners. In this article, I’ve put together 7 tips/ideas/learning points/points-of-inspiration-while-taking-a-shower which I hope will help you in your progress. So here we go!
1) Imitate. Imitate. Imitate.
Now, my fellow French learners will understand how terribly self-conscious you can get when first trying to speak out in that aw-so-melodic language.
One word: persevere! Another six: play the role of the native! The biggest trick here is exposing yourself to as much native talk as possible, and taking on (aka shamelessly imitating) some of the frequent words/expressions/sounds of the language, even if they seem unnatural at first. Don’t be afraid of all those words native speakers use in casual conversations (looking at you “alors” “voila” “donc”…)
Try to catch the tone, the musicality, the nuances of your language. You don’t need to perfectly master grammar or have a vast vocabulary in order to do this! Just pay attention to the way people speak in the news, on TV, in different social settings. Spot the patterns, the way people express excitement, or frustration, or joy. There will be sounds or words that people regularly use to show these. This varies hugely between languages and I guarantee you that you’ll become obsessed with this part of language learning soon enough. You’ll surprise yourself having thoughts in French in no time! Aw, and you’ll definitely end up saying “alors” way too often…


2) Surround yourself with your target language

There’s a word of wisdom somewhere in the land of effective language learning that talks about how Less & Often is better than More & Occasionally. This little trick will help you A LOT if you take just a few minutes a day and do a few routine changes to accommodate for ad-hoc learning!
A few tips here: listen to news podcasts, listen to entertainment shows (good to learn culture-specific humour!), change your phone settings to your target language (you’ll be coming across those words later you’ll be knowing them already!), download a newspaper app on your phone and read half and article before bed, get a language exchange partner etc.

3) Watch films/series with captions, not translations!

If you have a post-beginner level, watch films with captions in your target language rather than subtitles in your own language. This is absolutely crucial! Attempting to translate on the spot and trying to match the written with the spoken is not only hard, but rather unnecessary (unless you plan on becoming an interpreter/translator any time soon). You need to train your brain to operate in the target language as much as possible, trying to deduce meaning from the context rather than translate every word.
Sentence structures across languages are also quite different, so you’re not doing yourself a favour by shifting back and forth from English to your target language and back. Not to mention that by the time you’ve done that, the subtitles probably moved on at least two screens… 
This technique also helps you get familiar with the spelling of new words, helps you isolate words you may have missed by just listening and it’s also easier to pause and search for a particular word that you can’t understand.

3) Have a (yes) translation app handy

I’m using Converso, but any app will do. Have this handy and make sure you’re writing down all the words you’re coming across in your podcasts, films, books etc. However, make sure you’re writing down a sentence where you actually use the word in context. And if you can, go beyond 3-word sentences, try to make it something you’d use in real life!

4) Don’t stress out too much if you only get the main idea, or the main words, or not even that…

The first time I played my FranceCulture podcasts, it’s fair to say that the only thing I got was the presenter’s name, a few “je”‘s here and there and some words that happen to be very similar to those in my native language (unfair advantage?). However, as you progress with your learning you’ll start understanding more and more. Soon, those in-class listening exercises will no longer be a fear, and you’ll be able to use these podcasts as a way to measure your progress!

5) Use what you’ve already got

Use every opportunity to speak, even if it’s just speaking to yourself around the house (I won’t judge, I’m regularly faking phone conversations in public). Use the words you’ve learnt, try talking about your day, spot the structures where you get stuck, try to find solutions to communication problems. Language learning is sometimes a bit like playful experimentation, you need to use the words and structures you’re learning and make new connections where you can.
Avoid the temptation to translate. Can’t think of the word in French? Explain it using words you already know. Always try to rephrase rather than get stuck with one particular word and fall back into translation.

6) Your target language is a puzzle

I guess one of the final pieces of advice I’d have is one of perspective: look at your learning process as something dynamic, organic. You’re always adding new pieces, new knowledge of grammar structures that are helping you to express yourself in more complex ways. But there’s no such thing as using advanced language from the start. Your learning is essentially a trial and error process, and the more errors you make, the quicker you will learn. Acknowledge your existing “tools” and play with what you’ve got. Don’t “wait to be fluent” in order to speak.
As with puzzles, start from the easy ones and build your way up, but don’t quit putting the pieces together!
Happy learning!

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