Avoiding the Translation Crutch in Language Learning

A page from a German dictionary with the translation of various words. Image from freeimages.com.

I was on a mission this week: to minimise the interference of English translation in my language learning.

You are probably familiar with the scenario – that slow, faltering, stoppy-starty feel to conversation in a language you are learning. In those early stages, what we want to say often pops up in our native language first; then, we try to translate it into the target language on the fly. The inefficiency of it all is so frustrating.

Independence from translation is one of the super-skills of fluent foreign language use. But reaching that point, where Mentalese, the non-verbal code of thinking, bypasses your first tongue and goes straight to the target one, can seem a far-off ideal.

Translation is Everywhere

The problem is, we are constantly nudged to think of languages in terms of equivalencies. Just look at the most popular e-learning tools. Duolingo, Memrise, Glossika and many, many others default to translation exercises for drilling vocabulary. Even the setup of our beloved Anki assumes a one-to-one relationship between the new words you learn and some native matching pair.

Translation has its place, of course, and not only because of its very long pedigree as the classical language learning method of choice. If you have ever leafed through some old Teach Yourself volumes, for example, it was once the only way anybody ever considered learning or teaching a language.

And it has its success stories. Some very successful polyglots have achieved stunning results with translation. Take Luca Lampariello’s bidirectional translation technique, for instance. Similarly, the Assimil courses, based on side-by-side bilingual dialogues, continue to be incredibly popular.

It remains a rational starting point for the absolute beginner. For one thing, we need something to hook new words and phrases onto when we learn them. As such, even those old translation-based courses have their uses. I learnt masses of vocabulary and grammar from an ancient copy of Teach Yourself Polish. The only snag is, I still manipulate them quite clumsily and unnaturally in conversation, thanks to that translation bias.

Is there a better way to run, once we have learnt to walk?

Minimising abstractions

One route to weakening the native-hook reliance is to mimic how children acquire language: to tie new language directly to mental representations of the real world. If we see words as abstract symbols representing real-world concepts, then the translation method simply adds a second level of abstraction. No wonder it slows us down in higher-level speaking.

Some apps adopt an approach that minimises this reliance upon the native language. For instance, when Drops presents a new term, the translation is flashed up briefly with the pictogram to avoid misinterpretation. But beyond that point, its activities rely only upon the image, not the English translation.

Can we integrate that kind of non-verbal representation into our independent learning?

Helping hands

Well, one way I have explored recently is through physical signing – a kind of personal sign language. It is a good fit, to be honest. I can be a bit of a ‘hand talker’ in any case, as a visual thinker. My hands have a communicative mind of their own, and like to form shapes of their own accord along with the sounds that come out of my mouth.

Why not, in that case, enlist that trait in the battle to ‘de-English’ my foreign languages?

I start by forming the shape of the idea or concept with my hands as I say the target word out loud. Some signs are easier than others, but since they are purely personal cues, they can be as obtuse as you like. ‘Get’, for example, is a movement of the hands towards the body. For ‘rest’, I smooth out a flat surface before my body, as if preparing a bed to lie on, or painting a calm sea. The hope is that future retrieval of the word comes from a non-verbal representation, rather than an English translation.

Of course, you could also make this signing official. Fully-fledged sign languages have highly complex systems for expressing concepts like tense. For a kinaesthetic learner, these could offer very flexible support techniques to couple all sorts of grammatical features in a spoken language with a non-verbal memory cue.

Better meta

The native language trap is set when we talk about features of the target language, too. This might be with teachers and peers, but also when using text books and grammars written for a non-native audience.

Fortunately, squashing this bug is an easy win. You can go meta with your language skills by equipping yourself with the necessary speaking tools. By learning terms like ‘noun’ and ‘verb’ in the target language, you can work on grammar acquisition in a monolingual environment rather than resources meant for foreign learners.

Similarly, you might consider supporting the growing wave of social media content creators turning away from English and using the target language for discussion of polyglot themes. It can be a tough call, balancing a desire for linguistic diversity with inclusivity. But more and more members of the community are switching on to the idea.

Triangulation

All that said, some resources are just too good to write off just because they use a drill-by-translation approach. But all is not lost: you can change the base, or native language, in many of them. Simply make a different language your ‘native’ one!

Admittedly, this only works well when you have at least one strong foreign language already. You switch the base language of the app or resource to one of these, triangulating your learning with by linking two foreign languages. The bonus pay-off: it helps to maintain your stronger language, too.

A well-used triangulation tactic is to work through a Duolingo course designed for speakers of another language, such as German for Spanish speakers. In Glossika, too, you can change the base language to completely upend the environment, and avoid native translation as your method. Alternatively, if you are following your own DIY mass sentences programme, repositories like Tatoeba offer the same feature.

Translation Options in Glossika - a screen showing Polish and Norwegian (Nynorsk).

You can’t get away from translation in Glossika. But you CAN escape your native language. Here is a Norwegian (Nynorsk) sentence for learning, with Polish support.

The same works the old-fashioned way too, of course. It is easy enough to get hold of learning materials for a different native language audience, just like those alternative Duolingo courses. Assimil editions, for example, are available chiefly in French and German, like the Greek course for German speakers below.

A picture of the book "Griechiesch ohne Mühe" (Greek with Ease) by Assimil.

“Griechiesch ohne Mühe” (Greek with Ease) by Assimil – my latest acquisition for avoiding English translation!

Personally, I love building up a library of double-foreign language teaching materials – there is something really fun about constructing a web of all your language projects without everything revolving around English at the centre.

Gaining Your Wings: Comprehensible Input

At some point, of course, translation becomes a moot point. The stabilisers come off, and your level is enough to operate with authentic materials produced for a home audience.

When you reach lift-off velocity – say, A2 or B1 – you can do away with the translation crutch altogether. This is the point where you can start to ‘mass sentence’ up your skills the native way, through exposure to real-world media, and the copious reading and listening that comes with that.

Getting to this point whilst minimising translation is the real feat, though. If you can manage that, you will be well on the way to thinking directly in the target language.

Good luck gaining your own wings!

Richard West-Soley

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