Stop translating in your head!

That’s something that’s really hard to do. And yet, it’s one of the key aspects of learning a language. After all, you don’t translate anything when you’re listening to your native language, do you?

There’s no magic method to do that sadly. At least not that I know of.

But I do have some tips that might help you towards gradually stopping to translate when having conversations.

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First, why shouldn’t you translate in your head? After all, as long as you understand the stuff and you can speak decently, where’s the harm?

Well, the truth of the matter is, no matter how good you are, translating takes time. Time that could be spent understanding what’s being said, or time that could be spent speaking. It adds another step before understanding and speaking, which creates gaps where you think about what was being said, thus making the conversation unnatural.

And the other problem that I believe occurs when translating is: fatigue. Translating is another task that you add when listening and talking. Listening and talking are tiring as it is, and even more so in a foreign language. If you spend time translating, you’ll get tired even faster, and therefore reduce your ability to speak the language and well… you’ll be tired.

That’s why I believe that translating in one’s head, is a bad thing.

Not translating in one’s head is something pretty advanced in language learning, which takes time and comes with fluency, so don’t put too much pressure over yourself. But even if you’re a beginner, I believe you should try, the sooner the better.

So, how do you not translate?

As I said I haven’t found the perfect solution. However, there are some things that I use regularly that might help you:

1 – Don’t remember the English word, remember the object.

If, for instance, you were trying to learn the word for chair in Japanese: 椅子 (isu). Instead of remembering the English word « chair », try and remember the object. Therefore, when you hear the word 椅子, instead of thinking « chair », picture the images of a chair. That’s something I often try to do.  To help you do that, if you’re using flashcards, you can stick a picture of chair, instead of writing the word “chair” on the back of the card. A way to make things easier.   

2 – Use monolingual definitions as soon as possible.

After having reached a certain level of fluency, when learning a new word, try as much as possible to learn them without their translations but with their dictionary definitions. I’m not saying never check out the translation to make sure you understand the meaning, but check it as little as possible.

Then if, for example, you add a certain word to a flashcard, don’t write the translation on the back of the card, but the definition. So that, when you’re reviewing the word, you remember the meaning rather than the translation. And if you forget the word, you’ll be able to read the definition on the back of the card and the meaning will come back.

3 – Fabricate an object for non-object stuff.

This one works a bit like the first one, remembering the object, but for non-object stuff. The goal is to try and to fabricate a situation or imagine something that will help you remember the meaning without having to translate. Let’s take an example: the word for « objective », as in « an objective opinion »; in Japanese: 客観的 (kyakkanteki). This isn’t an object you can picture, so you have to create your own. I personally imagine a tourist watching a bunch of people argue. Since he’s not part of the group, he would probably be objective about the situation. When I picture the situation, it allows me to remember the meaning. 

4 – Getting help from Kanji

Kanji can help for various stuff. They can help with is coming up with situations or mnemonics, just like in the previous example: and are both present in the word tourist (観光客, kankoukyaku). So when I saw the word 客観的 for the first time, I thought of a tourist because of those two Kanji. Although this is what I thought of when seeing the word, it can be very different from people to people, which is why it’s important to craft one’s personal situations and pictures.

And of course, you can use the meaning of each individual Kanji to help you understanding the meaning of the word. Although sometimes they have nothing in common with the word they make up…

Focus on the meaning rather than the translation.

I’d say this is the most important thing to remember from this article.

And it’s more of a direction than a tip but, when you’re trying to remember a word, the goal is to focus on the meaning and the situations in which it could be used, rather than simply the translation. So that, when you’re encountering a situation that could use this word, you’ll be able to use it, without thinking about how it is in your native tongue. Because chances are, the usage will differ hugely, especially in Japanese. Even some words you’d think would apply to the situation in your native language, wouldn’t in Japanese. So when you’re reviewing a word, try and picture the meaning either by creating situations in your mind or imagining the meaning or an object or anything. Focus on the meanings, objects and situations.

Now, although I keep saying you shouldn’t translate, I’m saying that this is of course the ultimate goal, but it’s not that easy. And there are definitely times where you should translate if you need, like when learning a really complicated word and it’s just easiest to translate it when you encounter it. Or when you’re trying to read a complicated sentence and you just can’t find the meaning, sometimes translating helps. Especially at the beginning of language learning.

As I said, there’s no magic solution to fluency and to not-translating, but these are some things that I use frequently and figured might help you too. But they’re definitely not perfect, they are just a way of speeding up the process and there are certainly other ways to do so; which brings me to ask:

What do you do to « not translate » ? Do you think « not translating » is actually a good thing?

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