It’s like grasping at straws at the beginning of learning a language.
You’re trying to make sense of anything.
The strings of sound coming at you are difficult to decipher.
Been there, done that.
Albeit exciting, there’s a lot of confusion as you start out in a new language. You have to use every strategy available to you to “break the code.”
Direct, or literal, translation is typically one of those strategies we employ. We take every word and “filter” it through our native language.
Make no mistake, translating in your head is a habit that will prove to be incredibly helpful in the beginning. However, if you rely on it too much, it’ll burden you later on.
We’re going to take a good look at the whole process of mental translation and show you why it could be detrimental to your language learning experience if you’re unable to get past it and start thinking in your new language.
We’ll take you through the different methods you can use to start quitting the habit and progress even further with your new language.
Why You Should Stop Translating in Your Head
Real translation is accurately articulating a feeling or a concept in another language. That’s useful, of course. It allows things like classical literature to be accessible to speakers of all languages.
But that’s not exactly what you’re doing at this point in your language learning experience, if you’re not currently a professional translator.
What many language learners do in the beginning is closer to finding the words in their native language and then settling for the direct translation without considering the implications. For example, using ご覧になる (ごらんになる) to mean “see” in Japanese.
In this Japanese example, you have to consider that this is the honorific form of the verb. On a very basic level it does indeed mean “to see,” but that’s not what native speakers are going to understand when you use it in regular conversation. When you start learning about a language on a deeper level, those direct translations you relied on will quickly cease to be as helpful as they were in the beginning.
You might be at that stage where you’re still reasonably satisfied with your process and not too bothered by translating. Eventually, you might notice that all that translating is holding you back.
To see why, think about the process that’s taking place when you translate in your head as you read, speak or listen to foreign languages. The crux of the issue here is that there are far too many variables to consider.
Because of all the differences that exist between languages (word order, verb tenses, cases, etc.), trying to go back and forth becomes cumbersome and unnecessary.
It’s tiring just thinking of the whole mental process where you hear or read a sentence, then try to internally match every word to the equivalent in your native tongue. The whole process ruins any reading or social experience you’re having and it’s just exhausting.
It’s even more exhausting when you think of the elements that might prove to be more important to communication and understanding. In Mandarin, for example, there’s pronunciation to consider, like ensuring you know the difference between 媽 (mā) — mommy and 馬 (mă) — horse. (Wouldn’t want to get those mixed up, would we?)
You also have to consider the fact that not every word you come across is going to be completely translatable.
Russian, for example, has a vocabulary famous for the number of words within it that simply cannot be accurately translated to English. Тоска roughly translates to mean “yearning” or “melancholy,” but ask any native Russian speaker and they’ll tell you that the English translation doesn’t come close to conveying tоска in all its complexity and depth. You’re not going to learn how best to use it if you’re always thinking about how it translates to your native tongue.
3 Ways to Stop Translating in Your Head
Fortunately, there are a multitude of ways for you to break out of that habit and we’re going to show you a few of the best methods. Hopefully some, if not all of these will work for you.
Whatever solution you choose, remember that practicing with your foreign language a lot is necessary.
Using a platform like FluentU will help accelerate the process of thinking in that language. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into language learning experiences. Once you’ve gotten enough exposure to natives speaking their language fluently, you’ll forget all about translating!
The first method you could try is image association. In the beginning of your language learning experience, you’ll probably find that you tend to associate new foreign words with the equivalent in your native tongue. Instead of allowing yourself to do that, try associating a word with a clear image or feeling instead. This technique has been proven to work better than simple translations.
Instead of associating the Portuguese saudade with the English word “longing,” try to really understand the feeling of missing someone or something that exists far away in time or space, if it exists at all. Instead of associating the words such as the Spanish word perro with the English “dog,” try actually picturing a dog instead.
This simple change in your learning technique will aid you greatly when you start using what you’ve learned out in the real world. When a Spanish speaker says, un gran artículo (a great article), you’ll know what that means almost instantly because you’ll associate both gran and artículo with a feeling of greatness and an image of articles (particularly this lifesaver of an article!).
When you start doing this, you’ll stop having to filter and immediately associate the word with a meaning.
2. Use sticky notes to your advantage
To help with this, a second method and a classic, is to stick sticky notes on everything around you! Okay…maybe not everything per se. Just plant a sticky note on objects you want to learn the foreign name of.
You can make your own or you can use the wonderful Vocabulary Stickers , which has the labels already made for you!
If you’re learning Italian, you’ll want a sticky note with frigo or il frigorifero on your…you guessed it—fridge! Whenever you see that word out in the world, you’ll think of that object and know what it means….and that you’ll have to go grocery shopping soon.
You can take it even further after you’re confident with basic nouns and start adding things like adjectives, qualifiers, prepositional phrases or entire sentences, like “a soft couch,” “a very long table” or “I put the milk in the fridge.”
This is a great method to use in conjunction with the others, especially if you’re more of a visual learner and need a way to bridge the gap between what you read in textbooks and on apps with what you see in the real world.
When you repeat the words you see while looking at the objects they’re attached to, you’ll start to slowly wean yourself off of having to use your native language, because those foreign words you’re trying to learn will be attached to something you can easily visualize.
3. Constant internal narration
This method is especially great for those who can easily understand what everyone is saying but seem to hit a mental block when it comes to expressing themselves. When you hear those foreign words, you seem to understand them but when the time comes for you to talk, you’re at a loss and you resort back to translating to make sure you find what you believe to be the right words.
If that’s you, you definitely need to practice actually speaking without too many pauses. You can do it. After all, you already know the right words, clearly. One of the best ways to practice is by narrating your every action. You can start by being literal then progress by describing what you do, what you see, hear and feel in more detail.
After a while, when the time comes for you to actually have a conversation, you’ll find that you’re able to find the right words without ever having to really consider what they mean in your native tongue.
Maybe you come across something you genuinely don’t know how to describe without resorting back to your native language. There’s a solution that doesn’t require you to cheat like that. Monolingual dictionaries are a fantastic way of learning without translating. For example, there’s Vocabulary.com for English, Duden.de for German, Zdic.net for Mandarin and many more.
There are a lot to choose from, and best of all, they come as apps now! They’re also a great way of gauging your progress. The more clear a definition is to you, the more fluent you’ve become.
The best way to stop translating is to surround yourself completely with the language if you can. You’ll stop translating over time as you grow accustomed to foreign words. These methods will help you do just that if you’re unable to travel or engage with a community of native speakers. There’s always a way.
It takes time
As we said before, translating in your head isn’t bad. In fact, when you’re just starting to learn a foreign language, your habit of mental translation is actually beneficial.
It helps you flesh out your vocabulary and it helps you identify weak areas.
If you’re seemingly fluent in casual conversation but find that you have to translate internally when you’re talking about something like science, you’ll know what you have to work on.
We’ve given you a few methods here from image association and sticky notes to narration and immersion but the one thing you have to remember is that no matter what you do, language learning as a process takes time.
One final solution to this problem is to just let it run its course.
Sooner or later, as long as you keep studying and trying, you’ll stop translating. It’s inevitable.
And One More Thing…
Want to get a closer look at FluentU?
FluentU has a wide variety of videos, including movie trailers, funny commercials and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover over or tap on the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “quiz mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.