Translation: A 4-letter word?

As a language learner, you may be familiar with the goal of “thinking in the target language” — that is, expressing thoughts and speech directly in a foreign language, rather than generating ideas in English and running them through translation to get to your target. In some respects, avoiding heavy reliance on translation makes sense. It takes much longer to have a thought and translate it into the target language (L2), than it does to articulate the thought directly. Additionally, beginner learners of Spanish and other foreign languages run the risk of falling prey to isomorphic behavior, or expecting the first language (L1) and L2 to correlate completely; i.e., it’s easy for beginning Spanish speakers to look for word-for-word translations. If your foreign language goals include syntax or automaticity, it’s easy to see why translation might seem like the enemy.

However, trying to completely avoid using your native language is not necessarily the answer, especially for beginning language learners. You might be familiar with a learning method that completely eliminates the use of the native language: immersion. Immersive experiences can work very well for students studying abroad or for those who already have at least some knowledge of the second language, but can also present challenges for new learners. In a truly translation-free environment, where the maxim is to only use the foreign language being learned, a new learner might not have the sufficient information to think in the foreign language from the first day of learning. (While learning in L2 by using context clues is a proven technique, that only works if you have reference points in the L2 to begin with.) In fact, some models of the relationship between L1 knowledge and L2 learning suggest that the first stage of new vocabulary for any learner is developed through the framework of L1 knowledge. Additionally, translation as an output activity can force you to stretch your linguistic resources: when translating, you’re forced to give attention to problematic structures. Translation requires active engagement on the part of the learner, compared to some other more passive forms of learning, and can therefore be a valuable learning tool.

Deciding how much of your native language to use when learning a foreign language can be a tricky balancing act. Fluencia works hard to strike that balance: we take advantage of the English you already know, while helping you practice the vocabulary you’ve learned in novel ways and situations.

Translation is a beneficial learning tool, as long as you use it carefully. For starters, try not to translate all the time — continue to make the effort to think in Spanish to improve your automaticity, even if it’s just simple ideas like “I’m hungry,” or “It’s warm.” Translation, like any learning tool, is only one of a variety of methods that should be used in conjunction with other efforts. Direct word-to-word or phrase-to-phrase translation is useful early in the learning process, but as your skill improves, you’ll be able to challenge yourself to think more fluidly in L2.  Additionally, make sure not to confuse syntactical translation with literal translation. Automatic translation machines (think Google translate) usually perform literal, word-by-word translations, which don’t prioritize meaning. Make sure you focus on the meaning, not just the form. Translating one word at a time isn’t very helpful for language learning: it removes the context of how the word or phrase is used, and can produce nonsensical gibberish in the target language. And when doing your own translating, take the time to make a plan: when done with attention, translation as a project can be a helpful learning tool. Choose a passage to translate that’s difficult but not out of reach; this may take some experimentation at first. Generally, simple, factual sources are easier to translate than fiction or complex writing. You can also translate in the reverse, from L2 to L1, using context clues to help you decipher tricky phrases. Finally, it might be a challenge, but don’t cheat! If you’re working outside of a classroom environment, it might be tempting to skip over challenging structures. Make sure to hold yourself accountable.

If you’ve got a passage in mind you’d like to try your translation skills on, why not give it a try right now? If you’re not sure, head on over to Fluencia for a quick warm-up while you give it some thought.