Doing away with public education "advice"
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! As we know, mainstream advice is generally not worth taking if you are looking to break out of being normal. Approaches to learning a language are no exception to this rule. One of the most atrocious pieces of advice that I find holds most people back is, "it's bad to directly translate". Is direct translation accurate and/or the end goal for anyone? Rarely. Can it be leveraged to accelerate and enhance acquisition? Absolutely.
Eventually the goal is to work away from direct translation because, in theory, there will no longer be a need to translate at all. That is true fluency. However, that takes effort and dedication over an extended period of time. Until then translation is going to be part of growing and should therefore be leveraged in any way possible to ensure fluid acquisition. The only thing that really needs to be done is to write down the sentences and then verify that they are correct. We will discuss some resources below, but first let's discuss the pitfalls to avoid and the advantages to exploit.
The Pitfalls of Direct Translation
One of the reasons people are told to avoid direct translation is because it is a horrible place to stop. If you are going to put time into becoming bilingual you absolutely should push beyond direct translation. With that said, when you are going through the process, direct translation is probably one of the most useful tools in your belt, at least until you are no longer relying on memory alone.
The brain works in interesting ways and, luckily, the more fun we have when we teach or study a course the more likely it is that the memory will be deeply ingrained. Learning new ways to describe any observation we make in many different ways is a good way to stay engaged and ensure that new information is being taken in through various forms and lessons.
A major problem that can arise, though, is you end up extremely limited in what you are able to say and how you are able to express yourself. People tend to speak the same way most of the time and this can create a loop where they are unable to escape their limited vocabulary and end up defaulting back to the same phrases over and over and over again. Linguistic diversification is absolutely necessary when working on a second language and direct translation focus inhibits this greatly.
Searching for words that don't exist
Another issue with translating directly is some languages simply do not operate in the same ways. Though it is tempting to default to prior knowledge, it can cause issues. An easy example of this is the way we say, "I miss you" in English. If you try to directly translate that to French you would get "Je manque toi". However, in French to say you miss someone you would say, "Tu me manques" which directly translates to "you miss me". This is just one example of how things can get lost in translation. With how many ways there are to express any number of things, there are countless examples of these direct translations leading to potential miscommunications. Direct translation is a crutch and it should be recognized as such. Use it until you no longer need it.
Defaulting to the same words
If an effort is not made to escape direct translation it becomes difficult to switch up words and say things in different ways. Command of the language is the ability to say the same thing in several unique ways. When you get caught defaulting to the same few words every time you're speaking with someone you may get discouraged and have trouble continuing on. Expression is not meant to feel like a cage and when you feel limited it can be easy to want to default out and go back to speaking your mother tongue. Fight this urge and try to think of new ways to say the same thing.
The problem with direct translation can be summed up in a single word: limiting. One of the last things you want to be doing when learning is limit the possibilities and direct translation does limit the possibilities. That said, there are ways to use it for good and to enhance and accelerate your acquisition.
The Advantages - Active Learning
Now that the pitfalls are clear, allow me to make my defense of direct translations. There are many ways to learn a language, but like it or not at one point you will be directly translating sentences in your head. It is a rite of passage and something that we all do or have done at one point. This does not mean you are failing, it means you are learning.
Learning what not to do
Making mistakes is by far the best, fastest way to learn a anything. The reason for this is simple, you have to be using the it to make mistakes. When you make mistakes you get better. When you get better you speak more. When you use the it more you make more mistakes and so on until one day you simply stop making mistakes. When you translate something and it is not correct, you didn't just learn how not to say something, you learned how to say it and probably more ways to facilitate your expression. Understanding what not to do is just as important as understanding what to do, especially early on in your learning process.
As I mentioned above, when you make a mistake you won't just learn what not to do, you will learn a new word that does fit in place and you therefore gain another tool you can use to express yourself. This combined with the fact that sometimes there simply aren't ways to say certain things in every language means you end up with far more knowledge than you would have had otherwise. If you are able to apply the new things you learn you can turn this into a positive feedback loop that runs on throughout the duration of your studies.
- Learning grammar patterns
We have arrived back at my old nemesis, grammar. I don't truly dislike grammar, I just rightly point out that vocabulary is more important. One of the greatest advantages of directly translating things consistently is that you will be able to hone in on patterns. Grammar is, for the most part, just a bunch of patterns that were given names and called rules. Unless we are talking about French, in French there are no rules.
When you are constantly directly translating you will notice that either something consistently works or it doesn't and that can give you insights into how you may apply it in other situations. You need to be looking for patterns in everything when you are learning a new language.
Using Concepts More
The final advantage is that you simply use the it more. I am always saying that conversational is more important than fluent because if you become conversational you will become fluent. Directly translating things in your head means you are using the language and the more you use it the faster and better you will retain everything you study, bringing you success faster. Practice does not make perfect. Practice does make permanent. Use it and you will discover where you are weak, especially when it comes to translating and comprehension. From there you can build and overcome those weaknesses as you become conversational and then fluent in your target language.
I would be remiss if I didn't take this opportunity to provide some ideas on how to escape the direct translation cycle. Some of these ideas may seem counterintuitive, but I would not recommend them if they were not strategies I myself have used and continue to use.
Translate in your head - A Learning Process
Like a said, counterintuitive. Do it to stop doing it? Yes. There will come a point when you no longer need to translate it because you've done it so many times and heard and seen and said it so many times that it is just natural. Suddenly you stop associating the thing with the English word and start associating le truc with the French word. This can only happen if you are exposed to the language, though. That is why I say you need to translate everything in your head as much as you can bear it until you no longer feel the need to translate at all. It will come, but it takes time and it likely will not be on your timeline.
Write for Success
It probably gets old seeing this, but I will not let up because people truly do underestimate the power of writing things down. When you are translating things in your head, try to write them down as often as possible. This will give you more time to verify if what you are saying or understanding is accurate, and it will also give you something physical to look at when you are studying and trying to parse the patterns of the grammar. Using a dictionary and thesaurus you can add even more targeted learning to your session and increase your vocabulary even faster. As far as checking the grammar and structure of your sentences goes, here are some good resources:
Reverso - will give translations and synonyms as well as examples in different contexts to help you decide which is best for you
WordReference - does similar things to Reverso, a great extra resource to double check and find what you're looking for
Linguee - Another option with more
Linguno - conjugation practice
Get familiar with these resources as they are useful for anyone working on acquisition. I realize that some are limited on material, but they do cover many common tongues. I will work on gathering more resources in the future. Please leave a comment stating your target language if these resources do not cover it and I will find a resource to include in the next post.
The more language input the shorter the necessary time
This final point is probably obvious, but I think it is worth stating. The more you use the it, the more you are exposed to it, the faster and more effective your acquisition will be. Creating a learning environment for yourself in which you can translate things all day in your head will be exhausting, but it will also clarify things for you as you continue doing it.
One thing I suggest, though, is taking a day or two every few days to rest. When you come back to the language you will be able to see it with fresh eyes and that in and of itself can be illuminating. None of this happens overnight, but if you can train yourself to practice translating things day in and day out from articles you read to news commentary and music, your process will be smooth and speedy. That is what I want for you.
Conclusion - The Learning Environment
Mainstream advice is, by and large, garbage. Develop a learning environment that works for you. While I believe direct translation is a tool that can be used to enhance experiential learning, I also understand that it can become a crutch on which people become dependent.
If you are going to use crutches, and you should, make sure you have a plan to transition away from them; and make sure you are leveraging what you are learning from them by writing everything down and supplementing with the above resources and a dictionary and thesaurus. Whether you directly translate the things you think and say or the things you are hearing and reading, I wish you well in your studies.
Becoming bilingual is difficult, but you can do difficult things and be great. So go do difficult things and become great. Here I've given you some of the tools, but in the end, there is no comprehensive guide, no tips or tricks to carry anyone across the finish line. Language acquisition requires time, effort, and consistency. That said, it is something that anyone of any age is more than capable of accomplishing. I'll be here rooting for you and watching your progress.