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Did you know that some English learners have a natural advantage? If your first language is very close to English, like Danish or French, it should be easier for you to learn English.
If your language is very different from English, such as Arabic or Chinese, it is likely to take you longer to become fluent in English.
Why? For the simple reason that you will face a range of structures and grammar forms that will not seem natural to use.
For example, if your language has no articles (a/an/the), it can be very difficult to master this seemingly easy point. If your language DOES have articles, you may hardly have to think about it.
So, the more different your language is from English, the harder it is to translate directly from one language to another. Doesn’t this mean that you should try to avoid translation as a learning technique? Not exactly!
On the contrary, you can use this “problem” as a tool to enhance your language learning. As Sun Tzu said, you must consider how to turn a disadvantage into an advantage.
Let’s find out how.
How NOT to use translation when practising English
As someone learning Malay, I found it interesting to observe flight attendants on Malaysian Airlines.
What I observed was this: the flight attendants asked non-Malaysians, “Would you care for something to drink?” But they asked Malaysian passengers, “Minum apa?”
As a direct translation, minum apa means, “Drink what?” It sounds terribly rude in English, but it’s a common way of speaking in Malay.
It’s a good example of how direct translations work (or don’t work). Not only do languages differ in grammar, but also in cultural aspects. For example, in English, we say things in an indirect and longer way to be more polite (Would you care for something to drink?).
In Malay, minum apa is not rude as long as you use a polite tone. Your tone is more important than the length or directness of your sentence.
So the first thing NOT to do is direct translation.
As someone begins to learn English, they need to translate in their head. As they improve, they begin to think in English when using the language. There may even be words that they use in English without knowing the equivalent in their own language.
This is a good habit, and I am NOT recommending that you always translate in your head when speaking.
When DOES it help to use translation in language learning?
Many mistakes and difficulties that an English learner faces are due to differences between their mother tongue and English.
For example, Chinese has no verb tenses. Therefore, speakers of Chinese struggle with tenses when learning English.
English lacks the tones that Chinese has. Therefore, speakers of English struggle with tones when learning Chinese.
Translation offers a way for us to analyse and understand these differences.
As another example, THE in English translates to either le, la or les in French. French has three words where English has one. Which do we use?
As it’s a small, unimportant word, we might not even bother getting it correct when we speak. People may not notice if we get it wrong. That’s fine, but it doesn’t help us to improve.
However, translating English to French - and writing it down - forces us to think carefully about the mechanics of the language. We might notice that in French, le, la or les are used in ways we don’t use articles in English.
So we should use translation in this way:
- We should think of translation exercises as a way to discover differences between languages - and learn from them.
- We should practise translation as a written exercise.
The bidirectional translation method
This is a simple method which involves two steps:
- Find a text in English and translate it into your own language.
- Translate it back into English again.
Step 1 helps you to have a better comprehension of the text. Step 2 allows you to spot mistakes, check your comprehension and also practise thinking in English.
The process as a whole will make you much more comfortable working with two languages. This is helpful if you are often in a scenario where two languages are used (such as a bilingual office).
Luca recommends texts of 100-500 words. The text should be at a level suitable for your English level, or a little above your level. It will be much easier if you choose a text on something that interests you - don’t choose a random text from a news website.
I’d like to add my own suggestion, which is to perform step 2 on a different day to step 1. Perhaps wait a couple of days so that you don’t find yourself reciting the original text from memory.
How do you know if your translation is correct?
How do you know if your translation is correct? In simple terms, you don’t.
The purpose of the activity is not necessarily to produce a “correct” translation, but to get you curious about the differences between English and your own language.
Nevertheless, if you are having trouble with a translation, I do recommend trying Google Translate. Like many Google products, it is constantly improved over time using artificial intelligence. These days, I find that it works extremely well.
Google Translate is also a bidirectional translator. That is, it can translate English to Spanish or Spanish to English, for example.
Supercharge the bidirectional translation method - using it with listening
Like many study techniques, how you use it is up to you.
So here I would like to suggest a way to use it with listening, for an extra challenge.
- Find a listening source that comes with a transcript, such as the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast.
- Listen, and take notes on the main ideas.
- Write a summary of the main ideas in your own language.
- Translate this summary back into English.
When you are finished, you can look through the transcript to the podcast. What you are looking for is this: does your summary use natural language in the same style as the transcript?
Alternatively, you can take a section of the podcast, transcribe it (in English), then translate it into your native language.
If you would like to skip the “transcription” (or you would like to check your own transcription), simply check it against the provided transcripts.
Using the bidirectional translation method in your study routine
A good study routine contains practice on all the aspects of English: listening, reading, writing, speaking, grammar, vocabulary, fluency.
The bidirectional translation method mainly offers practice on grammar and sentence structure - this is where it can fit into your routine. Secondary aspects are reading, writing and fluency. If you try my “twist” version, you’ll be practising listening, vocabulary and summarising, too.
It’s a fantastic way to practise a wide range of skills at one time!