3 Creative Language Learning Methods: Improve Fluency with Translation
So, you think you’ve tried every language learning strategy?
Well, I’m here to tell you about a cool, fresh way to learn that I bet you haven’t tried before: translating children’s stories.
You’re gonna be donning your translator’s hat and bridging two languages.
Let’s find out how this method can help you learn a new language, shall we?
Why Children’s Stories? How Do They Help You Learn a New Language?
Children’s stories have characteristics that make them ideal tools for learning a new language. These features make them “approachable,” within reach for even the most beginner of learners.
Don’t be turned off by the fact that you’re gonna do some translating. Nope, it’s not just for UN diplomats or the Question & Answer portion of the Miss Universe competition. It’s for mortals like you and me.
And don’t worry. Because of the nature of children’s stories, you will find translating a breeze.
Vocabulary Is Rudimentary
Writers of children’s books expect their readers to barely have the manual dexterity to turn the pages. So they specifically use words that can be understood by somebody who has only spent a few years on this Earth.
You probably won’t find words that will score high on Scrabble in these texts.
Instead, you will find words that are about the weather, animals, family, friends, fruits, colors, kites, shapes and creatures of the imagination—all very basic, and yet very interesting. Also, you will find concrete verbs that pertain to running, jumping, swimming, playing, crawling—anything that can easily be drawn by a book illustrator and imagined by a youngster.
So what is the advantage for you, you ask?
Well, you get to learn the easiest words of your target language. And often, those are also the most useful words. You’re learning beginner-appropriate words that don’t get you discouraged because they don’t overwhelm you with unneeded intricacies. So you’re getting eased into the language.
In addition, because the topics addressed by children’s stories are practically universal, you can be sure that there will be equivalent words in the language you are translating them into. Let’s say you wanna translate a Spanish text to English. How fruitful will the activity be for a beginner if half the Spanish words don’t even have a natural and corresponding translation in English? With children’s stories, you are practically assured of a word-for-word correspondence.
This is also useful for intermediate and advanced learners who want to try their hand at translating texts. Before moving on to advanced texts with more ambiguous and artistic meaning, children’s books will let you build up your translation skills with the training wheels on. Don’t forget that children’s books cover a wide range of age groups, from infants to 6th graders. Books for older children will have longer sentences, along with more complex grammar and vocabulary! That means that, somewhere in this literary category, you will find the right difficulty level to help you start translating.
Sentences Are Short and Simple
There will be no nesting of sentences in these texts. Nor will there be complex or compound structures. For our purposes here, the shorter the sentences, the better. Not only because they make translating easy. Short sentences illustrate with simple clarity the grammar rules that exist in the language. They model how the different parts of speech relate so that patterns can readily be observed.
For example, Subject-Verb agreement is easier to distill in sentences like:
The cat is black.
New marbles are shiny.
My pet dog is sick.
Ants are small.
A beginner, for example, can form some initial impressions about Subject-Verb agreement—even without explicitly knowing the actual rules.
In complex and nested sentences, the grammar rules become too convoluted and overwhelming to be appreciated by anybody, much less a beginner.
So let me give you some tips for choosing your very first children’s book to translate:
1. Choose a book that contains only one sentence per page.
2. Choose a book with sentences made up of 8 words or less.
3. Choose a book with a large font size.
The Story Makes the Language Lessons More Memorable
Do you know why rote memorization rarely results in long-term learning? It is because the whole exercise is devoid of context. And if there’s anything that can help the human brain remember more, it’s context.
Remember that seminar you attended last year? You probably forgot what the speaker’s main points were. But you might still remember his stories. (Just as we remember the stories of our childhood even up ‘til now.) Stories are that sticky. They are so powerful that they were used by the ancients (effectively) to preserve tradition from generation to generation.
By packaging the lessons in a delightful and engaging story, you are ensuring that your brain efficiently stores the language lessons in your long-term memory. Embedding the lessons in a plot makes them much more memorable.
So by translating children’s stories, you get a much-needed boost in your learning. You are not just memorizing things from a list or out of thin air. You actually got the whole process of translating to back you up.
Let me illustrate. Suppose you’re trying to remember the Spanish for the word “yellow.” Instead of your brain trying to remember the list of Spanish colors that you got on a piece of paper, it is thinking along the lines of, “wait, I’ve translated this word before! I think it was in the story about the monkey and his yellow banana…hmmm…plátano amarillo. Right! The word is amarillo!”
Now, is that not a much better way of storing things in your memory? If I were you, I’d translate plenty of stories. The lessons will quickly build up and compound. Before long, you wll not only have plenty of story lines in your head, but a formidable grasp of your target language.
Learning-by-using is a Proven Technique
Many years ago, it was only the natural travelers who were notoriously good at picking up new languages. They would go to a foreign land, spend years there, interact with the locals and leave the country with a certain adeptness in the language. They did not even go to language classes. They only went to the market.
We call that method of learning immersion.
If you wanna learn a language, one of the best ways is to keep using it. And what better way than to actually go to the place where people use your target language? Immersion is about practice. It isn’t about just about memorizing vocabulary, but rather it is about using it to get around a place or to buy some food at the supermarket. It is about standing in front of native speakers and interacting with them.
And this is what is actually happening when you are translating a book. It is almost like talking to a native speaker. He tells you something, and then you look down to your dictionary to make out what he was saying. After figuring that out, you are searching for words in your dictionary that will help you in composing an appropriate response.
In short, translating a children’s book is a form of immersion. You are actually actively employing your lessons. You are practicing the target language. Your mind is hard at work looking at proper word use and appropriate word relationships. So just as walking into the city center and interacting with native speakers is a vehicle for language learning, translating a book is a vehicle as well. And just as the more you interact, the better you get—the more you translate, the better you become.
So what are you waiting for?
In the next sections, we will look at the different ways of learning a language via translating children’s stories.
3 Cool Language Learning Methods: Translating Children’s Stories Back and Forth
I. Translating Children’s Stories from Foreign to Native Language
Skills developed: By translating children’s stories from your target language to your native language, you not only add loads of vocabulary to your bag, you also learn how the different parts of speech interact with one another.
Guess what? You’ll also learn what the most basic sentences in your target language look like. You’ll notice patterns and have models to examine how grammar rules apply in sentence construction. Because of all these brownie points, translating children’s stories can be a seriously productive use of your time.
1. Translate each word
The key in translating children’s stories is to start one word at a time. Begin by using free translation apps online (if necessary) to translate individual words. Suppose you want to translate this Spanish sentence: La casa es grande.
Translating each word, you will get: The house is big. You’re already done in this case! Working with individual words alone will give you a lot of information about the sentence, and it will be enough for a translation. Isn’t that neat, when English and your target language neatly correspond?
2. Translate each sentence
Words alone are not always enough. Sometimes, you need to do some transpositions. For example, look at this Spanish sentence: Maria es una bailarina apasionada. Translating the words individually, you’ll get: Maria is a dancer passionate.
After working the individual words into your native language, you now have a general idea of what the sentence is about. The sentence’s meaning will be easy enough to divine from this, if it isn’t already completed translated. In this step, finish translating that whole sentence using your own words and phrasing. It wouldn’t take much for you to get the above sentence translated into English: Maria is a passionate dancer.
If you’re keen, with this sentence alone, you’ll get an inkling of the noun-adjective sequence in Spanish. Give yourself some slack and do not worry too much about whether or not you will get the perfect translation. It’s more important that you get into the swing of things. So have at it!
3. Milk the sentence for the basics of grammar
After translating the statement into English, you’ll want to milk it of language lessons. For example, I want you to take notice of the different parts of speech and ask yourself some of these questions:
- Which part of speech (noun, adjective, verb, etc.) comes first? second? last?
- Which words are used to connect the main words in the sentence? (eg. conjunctions, linking-verbs etc.)
- How does the sequence of words compare/contrast with English?
Answering these questions, you now have an initial look into how the grammar rules of the target language differ from the rules of grammar of the language that you know best–your native tongue.
4. Check your work against another translation
So you’ve made it through translating some sentences—what’s next?
Consider this as a bonus step. Depending on how confident you are in your target language, it can be helpful to pause every now and then to check against someone else’s translation. Aside from clearing up confusing parts, this can also point out any cultural nuances you might have missed.
There are actually a lot of popular children’s stories with English translations. Bilingual books are a handy resource, from Spanish-English classics to folktales in Japanese and English.
Online translator tools like Google Translate aren’t as reliable, but they can help you pick up on the overall story in a pinch if you get confused.
You could also try watching FluentU videos with English subtitles or the target language’s subtitles (or both at the same time). The best part is that all FluentU subtitles are interactive, so you can instantly check the definition of any word you see on-screen.
II. Translating a Children’s Story into a Foreign Language
In this section, we do the complete reverse and translate stories from your native language to the target language. This route usually comes second to translating stories from the target language. That is because you can make use of the skills gained from the previous strategy.
Skills developed: One of the advantages of going from your native language to your target language is the bag full of synonyms you will pick up along the way. Moreover, you will be more sensitive to the nuances between synonyms. Over time, you will be more skilled in picking the right word for the specific context at hand.
This route will also give you the chance to practice the lessons you’ve learned in the previous section. Most language learners stop at translating texts into English. But that is clearly not enough. That is like using a flashcard but looking at only one side of it. It doesn’t really make any sense. You have to come full circle.
This wise advice comes from the famed polyglot Luca Lampariello. By translating to the target language, you learn to pick up the nuances between your native language and your target language. You notice how they interact and overlap—what makes them similar and what makes them different. This kind of flexibility is only developed when you come “full circle.”
1. Translate individual words into the target language
This is where you will get the building blocks for the words that will compose your sentence. You will quickly notice that, when working word-by-word, there are many translations for a single English word. So how do you choose the best fit?
Besides looking at context, you should also go for simplicity. That means if a cognate is available, choose the cognate as the translation. For example, for the word “abundant” you can choose from the Spanish words: abundante, colmado, lleno or caudaloso—which all signify abundance. In this case, it would be better, more often than not, to choose the cognate abundante to capture the complete sense of the word.
In addition, avoid being too specific or being too general with your translations. Being too specific or too vague, you will leave out some nuance in your translation and you will end up with a word that doesn’t fully capture the sense of the original word. Your skill with these things will come with experience. I encourage you to cut yourself some slack. Don’t go for 100% accuracy. But definitely know that as your practice time increases, your accuracy will increase as well.
2. Translate the whole sentence into the target language
This is where those skills from the previous section come in. Remember the grammar nuances you’ve milked by translating the target language into your native language? Put them to good use here.
Let’s say you’re going from English to Spanish. The sentence I like red flowers will be translated into Spanish as me gustan las flores rojas. Notice the Spanish transposition we’ve learned earlier where the adjective (rojas) comes after the noun (flores)? We will get a chance to apply it here.
III. Writing Your Own Children’s Stories
Skills Developed: Besides acquiring the skills previously mentioned in the two sections, writing your own stories is the best use of your translating time. You are not bounded by the topics and themes of the stories of others. You are laser-focused on the very topics that you wanted to learn.
Last but not least, you will have made gains on creativity that improve your capacity for language learning as a whole.
Especially for creative types, writing your own children’s stories will be the best and most fulfilling use of your time. Here, you are free to explore themes that resonate with you and learn all the relevant vocabulary. Let’s say you want to master the German numbers—write a story about that. If you fancy learning about the French days of the week, then write about that!
1. First, write your story in your native language
This will allow you to crystallize the plot and figure out which necessary elements of language you will need. If you decided to write about German numbers, then incorporate them carefully into your story. (If you’re good enough, you can skip this first part and write directly in your target language.)
2. Second, write your story in the target language
Be flexible when you do this. If you discover that the native language version you have written is too hard, go back and make it a little bit easier. Students often discover that their perfect story is impossible for them to translate. This is normal. You will definitely have some starts and stops. Translating will be awkward at first. You will feel like a baby learning a new language. But push on, don’t give up.
3. As a check, try translating your story back
I know this sounds a bit redundant, but looking at things in reverse will show you the holes in your translation. You have no idea how things look when you do them in reverse. (Try it. You’ll be surprised.) In addition, it will cement your learning. Working on your story forwards and backwards, from one language to another, will strengthen the neural connections in your head.
And there you go!
We have learned here that translating children’s stories is actually a great from of immersion. Since you are actively learning and using the language, it is like conversing with a native speaker. It is very possible to get proficient in the language just by translating stories from a target language to your native tongue and vice-versa.
So what are you waiting for? Try out this unconventional language learning strategy and get creative with your study routine!