The key to fluent conversation is letting go of the temptation to translate.
“They run bicycles.”
“I did a chronogram in my mind.”
“The sun is getting shorter.”
“In the last vacation, I was in Austria.”
If you’re a native English speaker, reading the above sentences might have made you stop and think — “Wait. What? Did I read that correctly?”
But what if you knew those four sentences were spoken by students learning English? Out of context, or in a situation where English is expected, the meanings might be lost upon the unaware listener.
Sentences like those above are often the result of literal translation, instead of fluid expression in a target language. So if you’re learning English, or any other language, take your time to learn to stop translating.
I’ve been teaching adults English for the past three years, and learning Spanish since high school — and no matter how long you’ve been learning another language — when trying to put difficult thoughts into words, the initial temptation is to TRANSLATE from your native language.
But imagine a rushing river, where the flow of water is like your rush of ideas. If you place rocks or barriers within that river, the water has to stop, move, turn, and pause, before continuing. Translation places a similar barrier between the thought and the word, and the result is jolted, disjointed, sometimes confusing speech.
Of course, if you are just beginning your journey to learn another language, one of the first steps is learning vocabulary and connecting it to known words in your native language. (This is called building upon known knowledge, and is a great starting place!)
But while this technique is helpful for beginners, the more you advance, relying too much on translation gets you stuck. There’s a certain point when translating what you think a word means actually turns into a phrase you don’t intend at all.
For example, if I wanted to explain the phrase “Me da pena” from Spanish to English, I might translate the idea as “It gives me pain.” As an English speaker, I might think, “That makes sense, maybe she’s hurt.”
What’s the problem?
As a speaker of BOTH Spanish and English, I can tell you that even though the literal translation of “Me da pena” might mean “It gives me pain”…the phrase itself definitely is not talking about physical pain. In fact, the phrase might be best translated as — “I’m sorry to inconvenience you” or “I’m sorry to bother you.” A completely different meaning.
As the listener or speaker, being on either side of a mistranslated phrase can not only be confusing, but also frustrating.
This is why moving past word to word translation is a milestone that intermediate language learners need to strive for.
So how did I finally stop translating?
By immersing myself in cultural contexts.
Just like the river moving forward without barriers, eventually it picks up enough speed to have a constant flow. And even when a rock appears, with enough current, going around the rock helps move the water faster.
When you stop translating, you will finally begin to speak more naturally and with ease.
And when you hit a new idea or bump in your communication, you can find a way around it since you’re already thinking in the target language. That’s the ultimate goal of all language learners.
Ok, Alicia, that works for you because you’re living in México!
To be fair, while I understand this rebuttal, I don’t think living in another country is necessary for cultural immersion. Even though I live in México, I spend six to eight hours every day teaching English, speaking English, writing English, editing English, listening to English. In the end, I probably dedicate 10 hours a week to Spanish.
That’s right. 10 focused hours in my target language. If you break that down, that’s two hours per day. Not too far-fetched, no matter where you’re located.
The beauty of the globalized, internet-connected world is that you can access quality media in your target language.
So, I listen to the podcast Leyendas Legendarias which narrates supernatural and monster stories in Spanish. Because they’re entertaining and chock-full of native slang, humor, and idioms. Even if I never set foot outside my door, this show alone would help me decipher current cultural ideas in México.
Next, I watch the show Modern Family in Spanish. Why? It’s a show I already know in my native language, so the context and characters are easy to follow. But in Spanish, I’m able to equate what I already know about the plot lines to a Spanish setting. (Hint: I never watch with subtitles — that only practices your reading, not your listening skills!) Watching a show you enjoy without subtitles tricks your brain into needing to decode the foreign sounds, so the quicker you turn those subtitles off, the faster you’ll adapt to the language.
In addition, I’ve recently acquired The Witcher novel series in Spanish. Since it’s a series I already wanted to read, I’m forced to push my thinking past unknown words and difficult sentence structures. Another key to immersion is I don’t stop to look up words, because it pulls me out of the story. And the more I read, the more I associate repeated words and phrases with the context, and finally the terms are acquired as part of my own working vocabulary.
So how can you integrate these same ideas into your own language learning?
The next step is identifying what is lacking in your immersion process. Are you listening to podcasts that mimic native conversations? Are you still using subtitles when watching series or movies? Are you stopping to translate every unknown word while reading?
If so, now’s the time to decide to fully immerse yourself. You certainly can re-create these processes on your own.
Pay attention to when you hear phrases that sound differently than you would say them. Listen closely to where words are placed in the structure. Record yourself trying out new sentences and ideas. Go past the difficulty of not understanding.
And by finally immersing yourself, one day, instead of saying —
“They run bicycles” because you’re thinking in Russian, you’ll say, “They ride bicycles.”
And instead of mis-translating —
“I did a chronogram in my mind” from Portuguese, you’ll say, “I made a schedule in my mind.”
Instead of describing —
“The sun is getting shorter” because that makes sense in Korean, you’ll say, “The sun is going down.”
And instead of mis-translating —
“In the last vacation, I was in Austria” because that preposition and article works in German, you’ll say, “During my last vacation, I was in Austria.”
Stop thinking first in your native language.
Imagine your world in your target language.
How would you describe what you see around you?
Don’t over-complicate it. Use simple sentences if needed.
Your brain will stretch and form new neural connections. You will finally follow your ideas to the end.
By moving away from translating, you’re moving closer to being a fluent speaker.
By thinking in your target language, you put yourself within the cultural context to understand.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re already on your way to meeting your next challenge.
Language acquisition is a lifelong process, so the sooner you stop translating, the quicker you’ll be speaking without thinking.
So get ready to let your thoughts flow!