Avoid Word-for-Word Translations in Language Learning

A statue full of wordsToday we’ll take a look at something that I feel is extremely important to grasp if you wish to reach fluency in a foreign language; that of avoiding word-for-word translations.

When learning a foreign language, especially one that differs dramatically in grammatical structure, it is tempting to translate word-for-word what you’re reading. For example, in Korean and in Japanese, the verbs come at the very end of sentences. In short, the word order is the exact opposite of English and most Western European languages. Partly due to this, when people start learning such a language, they tend to translate word-for-word what they read or hear.

Let’s look at an example sentence to make things a bit clearer:

나는 어제 학교에 갔어요 (naneun eojae hakkyo-ae gasseoyo).

This simple sentence means “Yesterday I went to school” in Korean. If we were to directly translate this word-for-word, however, it would be rendered as: “I [subject particle] yesterday school to went.”

Here’s another example, this time in Chinese:

我会说, 不会写. (Wǒ huì shuō, bu huì xiě).

This means “I can speak, but I cannot write,” but translated word-for-word, it would be “I know how speak, no know how write.”

Now, of course it is tremendously confusing if you think about the two above sentences in terms of word-for-word translations. Can you imagine getting into this habit and later finding yourself doing this with longer and more complicated sentences? If you end up thinking this way, you will quickly find yourself unable to make out any sentence of your own because your brain will be too confused and busy analyzing word order and grammatical patterns.

While Korean and Japanese are languages that vary dramatically in word order compared to English, word-for-word translations should be avoided for just about any language. Even the simplest sentences should be thought of as loose translations, for example “la maison rouge” in French should be thought of as “the red home” in English and not “the home red.” Of course, it’s a good thing to know that the adjective in this case comes after the noun, and that “rouge” actually means “red” and not “home,” but when you read or listen to these particular words, you should associate them with the general idea of “a red home.”

Alex Rawlings
Alex Rawlings

In an interview I did with Alex Rawlings, crowned Britain’s Most Multilingual Student, Alex emphasizes the importance of thinking in sentences and ideas. Whether “I went to school” in Korean is translated as “I to school went” doesn’t matter, he says. What matters is that the sentence in Korean expresses very much the same “idea” of somebody who, in the past, went to school. The order of the words doesn’t matter, and you shouldn’t get hung up on them. He also adds that he doesn’t learn vocabulary by looking at individual words, but rather by learning entire sentences, thus always acquiring new words from context.

I have come across many students who translate word-for-word what they read or what they want to say back to their native tongue. They read a text in a target language, and I know they understand what they’re reading because they’re high-intermediate learners who have an extensive vocabulary, and yet I see them literally turning the word order around and translating what they’re reading into their native tongue. Unsurprisingly, these very students are the ones who have a lot of trouble constructing flowing sentences in their target language. When they speak, they always seem to think too much about what they want to say and they stutter and hesitate a great deal. While their grammar and their pronunciation may be good, they are unable to speak in a flowing manner and express themselves naturally, even with simple sentences.

Avoid Thinking in Your Native Tongue as Much as Possible

This brings us to the issue of trying to avoid thinking in your native tongue whenever possible. I wrote a post a while back on this very subject, which I highly encourage you to check out if you haven’t done so.

Basically, in the beginning stages of language learning, it is hard to think in the target language simply because you cannot understand anything without having translations (although you could have pictures, which is the foundation of the Rosetta Stone method). When you have to, simply make sure you translate everything in a loose fashion. In other words, think in “ideas.” Forget about individual words and focus on the message as a whole. Otherwise, you’ll lose sight of the bigger picture.

Thinking in a foreign languageThe next step on your road to fluency is to try and force yourself to think in your target language. Once again, Alex Rawlings has a lot of really good insights on this topic (see interview from 4:30). Basically, as you become skilled at thinking in terms of sentences, ideas, and even pictures, it’s time to slowly but surely get rid of your native tongue, which, while always useful to get quick translations and grasp more difficult ideas, can quickly become a crutch in the more advanced stages if relied on too much.

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That’s it for today’s post. I hope the advice today will prove to be useful to your study of foreign languages, and I would love to hear your opinion on what I have just argued in here. Have you ever had trouble because of word order? Have you ever been hung up on individual words, and found it hard to break through the beginner or low intermediate stage? Comment below!

By Lingholic

  • www.lingholic.com is all about the art of learning languages. Learn how to learn and dramatically improve your foreign language acquisition ability.

  • Show Comments (27)

  • 100% agree with this!

    You can end up with really strange grammar if you rely too much on translating, and that can result in miscommunication or simply not being understood. You need to get into the patterns of the new language and as you say, the sooner the better!

    • Definitely agree!

      Are you back to Vietnam, Ruth? I’m missing this part of the world!

      • Alas, no. There’s nothing quite like Asia is there?

  • Luca Lampariello

    Great stuff Sam, as usual 🙂 I have been thinking quite a while about writing a piece about this very subject on my own blog ..and will do so soon. Thanks again for this fantastic article! Luca

    • Thanks Luca! Looking forward to reading your take on this topic on your blog. How’s your Japanese going by the way? Are you finding it much harder than Chinese, or do both languages share many similarities?

      • Luca Lampariello

        Dear Sam, Japanese is going well, but I have to say that I find it much much harder than Chinese, and I think that this is mainly due to what the Japanese call the “fureesu kouso” – syntax. I would say that the oral language is rather different, even if some words are similar, since some japanese words stem from ancient Chinese. Knowing Chinese characters helps one recognize the meaning of words but most often not their corresponding sound. All in all, it is a very fascinating language 🙂 Take care and congratulations again on this great article! Luca

  • That’s completely true, and it’s an issue I often notice. People try to translate word for word and refuse to simply translate the idea for some reason.

    That’s why it’s so important to see a new language as a new world and therefore to avoid comparison as much as possible.

    when I was learning Korean, I always tried to avoid translating into English or French. And it was very practical to be with people who only spoke Korean. That way when I got confused, they tried to explain in Korean or using the environement, showing a tree, miming etc. ,

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Benjamin!

      And cool blog by the way 🙂 What made you learn Korean? I think it’s great that you tried learning the language surrounded by people who spoke it, and when you didn’t understand something others tried explaining it to you but in the target language. It’s a really great way to gain fluency rather quickly.

      • Thanks :).

        One of the first person I practiced English with was Korean, we both had a terrible English but it was fun and it got me interested in Korean culture. Then an opportunity to go to Korea for six months to teach French appeared and I couldn’t miss it :). It was an awesome experience which taught me a lot about multiculturalism, languages and the world. Now I keep learning Korean because I am very curious to see how Korean people see the world, and language is essential to better grasp that. It just fascinates me.

        Learning Korean in Korea was a truly amazing experience. Very motivating too. Everyday I learnt new sentences, a little of grammar also to understand how sentences work, and immediately after I had the chance to use them, which allowed me to memorize quickly and get the right pronounciation.

  • Scott

    I agree that it is foolish to constantly translate to and from your target language especially in conversation.

    I used to use a lot of Anki cards that were pure L2, the word on one side and the other a dictionary definition in the target language, however I found that they were not really sticking enough in my memory. I’ve gone back to inserting English into all my Anki cards and even creating two sets of cards so that I can translate both ways (L1-L2/L2-L1). I find this is helping me to remember my words in when in conversation better.

    What do you think? Is translation bad for game time but a good training tool? Or should it be avoided all together?

    • Hi again Scott!

      I think it doesn’t have to be an “either…or” type of option, One thing I’ve been doing for a while is to put at the back of my Anki flashcards the definitions written in the target language (as found in a unilingual dictionary), but often I also have the translation in English. I’ve mainly been doing this for more complicated words that have abstract meanings. Personally I think it’s better, in the long run, to try as much as possible to be truly immersed in the language.

      In the end, whatever works for you the best is the way to go. But while having quick translations is efficient and easy, the sooner you get used to entirely think in the new language and learn new words by reading definitions in that language, the faster you will develop fluency and the ability to truly understand the nuances in meaning and the uses of various words in your target language

      Hope this helps!

  • Geneviève Meurisse

    I attended German lessons a long time ago (in Goethe Institut in Lille): I didn’t know a single word of German and the teacher didn’t speak French at all. With 6 hours a day, five days a week for four weeks I do remember I started dreaming in German ! 40 years later I still remember sentences I had to learn by heart. Quite a good way to start learning a foreign language, but when you really want to express yourself you do have to know the meaning of the words you use.

    • I definitely agree Geneviève. That’s why I believe in the early stages translations of course play an important role, so that at least you know what you are saying. However, as you progress, I think it’s important to make a conscious effort to gradually shift to reading definitions and thinking in the target language. This also helps in acquiring additional vocabulary, because when you constantly read definitions of new words in the target language, you are exposed to the language much more. What do you think?

  • Jason Eyermann

    I think it’s very helpful to have word for word translation or literal translations. It helps to work out how the language works. The most famous of resources that does this is of course Assimil. But i know of no other resource that does this. Does any one know. I’m currently studying Mandarin.

    • Hi Jason.

      Assimil does provide word-for-word translations in smaller fonts below the loose translations. Of course, I’m not saying they are useless (although I personally rarely refer to them). I’m simply arguing that thinking in such terms is a bad idea, and in the long-term it will result in paralysis and over-thinking. I definitely think it’s much better to think in loose translations. What is your personal take on this?

      Unfortunately, I’m not exactly sure which other resources provide word-for-word translations. If anybody knows, feel free to share!

      Sam

  • travellingforfun

    Very helpful. From learning a language or two to intermediate level he is dead right in trying not to think in English as you always end up getting the words mixed up in the target language.

    • Thanks for the comment! Which languague(s) are you learning or have your learned in the past? Glad to have a fellow travel enthusiast on the blog! 🙂

      • travellingforfun

        I learned Spanish, French and some Arabic but as would be expected Arabic is twice as hard as the others

        • SuperSiri1159

          You get use to male and female. It actually makes sense because when you read a book you know if the character is a man or a woman. I was amazed when I discovered European languages-speakers don’t know that sometimes. Arabic can be easy in the sense of grammar (only 3 tenses, vs 15 in English) and sentence structure (you can basically choose the order of the words, you can say sentences without verbs etc.

  • David McDevitt

    As someone who’s interested in grammar and structure, I love word for word translations because they deliver the flavor of how a language actually functions. It’s fascinating learning which specific words a culture uses to express its ideas and how they differ from your own. It’s fine to learn phrases, but eventually if you don’t know the definitions of the individual words, it blocks you from using those words in phrases and sentences of your own construction, or understanding them when others use them in a different context. Sometimes you’ll use them wrong or it may sound silly—but, as you pointed out —it’s important to think in the new language, and to really think your own thoughts you need to be able to mix and match the vocabulary you’ve learned. I often turn to wiktionary.org to find out word meanings to phrases that language guides stubbornly won’t define. I see the different definitions, the different forms, and the etymology. Though I do this mostly out of sheer curiosity, I think it helps me to memorize too, because I’m enjoying it. Maybe that’s the key! Finding which way you enjoy—the way that doesn’t seem like a chore. Whether words or phrases, that’s probably more useful than anything else.

    • Hi David. Sorry for the late reply, your comment somehow fell through the cracks! Well, your perspective is certainly interesting. I don’t think that one shouldn’t learn the individual meanings of words, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be possible to do so when learning entire sentences rather than individual words from lists, for example. Besides, one of the reasons I typically don’t encourage language learners to learn the meaning of words individually as opposed to in sentences is because of collocations; words that go well together for no particular reasons, such as “quick shower” but “fast car” in English. Examples abound, of course. Another reason is because a single word–for example, the English verb “to get”–can literally have dozens or even hundreds of different meanings depending on how they’re used.

      In the end, I think it’s important not to get bogged down by an unfamiliar order of words, or even by a different word used for an expression than what you would find in your native language. By thinking in meanings and keeping it simple rather than overanalyzing the language, I think you can get much better results and faster. But do let me know how your language studies are going, I’m curious to see how your way of learning is working for you!

      Cheers,

      Sam

  • Len

    Thank you so much. I have been trying to learn french for years. My friends in Quebec always told me to try and stop translating but I never knew how. To advance I watch children shows in french but never made the progress I was hoping for. This advice has made all the difference. If I miss something I now repeat in the target language and do not do the word for word translation like before. The light bulb had come on. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

    • Hi Len. Thanks so much for your comment, it’s fantastic to see this article had such a positive effect on you! Let me know how your French learning goes in the coming weeks and months, and be sure to check out some other articles on Lingholic, I’m sure a lot of them may come in handy to you too. 🙂

  • Tom Sessums

    From what I’m discovering, all free online translators seem to not translate things word for word, only this is actually making it very difficult to learn Korean from scratch: I’ll use Spanish-English as an example, for simplicity’s sake, but virtually all the online translators will tell me that “El carro verde” = “The green car.” So, from that I learn that el=the, carro=green, and verde=car. Only that’s wrong, because carro=car and verde=green, and so how I can I learn Korean, how it works or even how to think in their language, if the translators are basically keeping the words and their order a secret from me? From the Spanish, I would need to see that “el carro verde” literally means “the car green” to not only learn the words, but see that they put adjectives after a noun. I’m not trying to memorize every possible sentence combination in Korean without understanding what the words mean, rather I’m actually trying to learn the language. If the way Koreans say something is “Drive one car green the I do,” then I want to see that. I know that in English we would say “I drive the green car” but I need to see that in Korean “the” is in the post position rather than in pre-position, because they don’t have or do prepositions, etc. I’m actually trying to learn the language, not just get a translation in English handed to me so that I don’t ever have to understand what their words mean or how their sentences and language works. Unfortunately, it would seem that every single online translator acts as interlocutor, none of them giving me a literal word for word translation, so how can I learn, how can I see? How about just one online translator that does BOTH, so if I put in “el carro green” it tells me both the meaning, the green car, and shows me that they are actually saying “the car green” because if I’m going to learn Korean, I need to see that they are saying “Today new opening one movie watch go,” and not just “Let’s go see the new movie opening today.” If online translators are going to do all of that for me, then why do I even need to see or hear the Korean? Seriously, the online translators seem to all have “let’s go” at the beginning of the sentence and not at the end where they are actually saying it in the phrase “오늘 새로 개봉한 영화 보러 가자” and for learning purposes such a total translation and rearrangement is useless, unless I want to, word-for-word cut, paste, translate then cut and paste back into a newly created document, so I can eventually see how all the words stack up and in what order. I’D LIKE BOTH actually, but without any word for word translation at all, maybe one day, in trying to ask somebody out, I’ll be telling her that I’d like to watch her drive a green car into a theater. Just one online translator to show both, but right now I can’t find a single one to just show me any word-for-word translation. The simple sentence you mentioned above, “나는 어제 학교에 갔어요” well with an online translator I’d be guessing that perhaps 나는 is the Korean word for “yesterday.” Why? Because I don’t know Korean yet and that’s what all the online translators would be all telling me if I entered in your example simple sentence for a translation.

  • kelv1969

    Personally I would prefer to work from literal translations. Surely to become fluent a learner needs to understand the meaning of sentences word for word, as they are being rapidly spoken by the native. There isn’t time to reorder words in the brain and translate into acceptable English as you hear a rapidly spoken conversation.

    The example given above, “I know how speak, no know how write.” is the correct word order for that language. All native speakers of that language understand the sentence. When I read it, I understand the meaning, even though the word order feels strange. Surely learning the native word order, along with individual word meaning is important, if not vital, to become truly fluent. Forget English and its gramatical structure…learn to THINK as a native… every word that is uttered of the foreign language should immediately conjure a picture, feeling, meaning in the brain, just as would happen with the learner’s native language. When I hear the word “apple” I picture an apple. When I hear the word “manzana” I picture an apple. It is immediate. It needs to be immediate, because speech is so quick. The native isn’t going to reorder his words so that it sounds less alien to your ears. Learn to understand the native speaker and embrace his word order. It is second nature to him. Make it second nature to you! Think like a native and you will be fluent. That’s my theory anyway. Take it or leave it….LOL

  • Anthony Uppal

    While in bootstrap mode for a language literal translation is important. Eventually you must not translate at all. Literal translation helps you think like a native speaker. If you are really saying how yourself call you but think it is what is your name you are missing the basics. It is better to have the literal right from the start and really know what you are saying and of course the general meaning also.

  • Lola

    So true
    I grew up as a bilingual and I didn’t have to translate word to word
    My mind would switch to the other language automatically
    Then I learn two more languages
    I do translation and actually I translate the whole sentence , not just word to word
    English has not got gender for every words but other languages do
    Imy a language lover
    It’s a very good article to help people get off that habit

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