If you are new here please read this first.
If you’ve been following my blog for a longer period of time, you’ll know that one of the English Harmony cornerstones is elimination of translation.
You need to create a separate department for English in your brain.
Whenever you have to speak in English with someone, you simply switch over to the English department in your brain.
The funny thing is – you might already been doing it without being consciously aware of THINKING and SPEAKING in your target language if you’re a bilingual speaker, for example.
Yet, when it comes to English, you might have an irresistible urge to translate from your native language while you’re speaking in English!
Basically you’re speaking in English, but you keep thinking in your native language; you’re constantly finding yourself trying to figure out how this or that particular concept can be described in English terms.
You’re not alone!
Hundreds of thousands of your fellow foreign English speakers are having the same issues, and if you’re anything serious about your SPOKEN English development, you’d better make sure to read the rest of this article where you’ll find out:
- WHY you have this weird process going on in your head;
- WHY you shouldn’t be thinking in your native language and speaking in English at the same time;
- HOW to avoid translation and speak and think in English ONLY!
WHY Foreign English Speakers are Hell-Bent on Translation
1. Traditional English Studies
You don’t have to look further than the traditional setting of English studies – everything is centered around translation!
Dictionaries where you can look up words in your language to find out the English translation and vice versa.
Textbooks with instructions provided in your native language.
The old-school method of building English vocabulary whereby a teacher provides students with new English words to look up and find their respective meanings in students’ native language.
No matter what exactly it is you’re doing in order to learn and improve your English the traditional way, translation is involved in some way, shape or form; it’s considered as one of the main tools of an English student.
2. Desire to Understand 100%
Contextual English vocabulary acquisition is crucial if you want to speak fluent English.
But did you know that it requires you to get rid of the desire to understand EVERY SINGLE word and do away with the urge to figure out what EXACTLY it means in your native language?
For example, if I told you that the phrase “Cut yourself some slack” means “take it easy on yourself”, wouldn’t you be just itching to find out what the word ‘slack’ means and why it’s used in this particular context?
That’s the desire I’m talking about, and it’s actually detrimental to your fluency improvement!
The simple truth is, you DON’T NECESSARILY need to know what that word means! As far as you know what that phrase means and when to use it – you’re OK!
That’s the only way you can develop your ‘gut feeling’ for correct English, but this desire to translate everything from English into our native language in as much detail as possible has been developed in us since an early age, and that’s why so many of us foreigners fail to embrace the concept of building English vocabulary and phraseology based on other English words.
Even if you’re only half-sure of something – it’s fine! Go with it, use that word or a phrase, and you’ll learn the trial and error way which is the most natural way of learning and improving.
3. Fear of Making Wrong Assumptions
We want to be sure that whatever we say is 100% correct and fitting for the particular circumstances.
If you hear someone use a phrase “You can’t deter people from committing crime if they’ve already set their mind to it”, and you’re 80% sure that ‘deterring people from committing’ means ‘to prevent people from committing’, you may be uncomfortable using that phrase yourself.
You may wait till you have access to a dictionary and Google Translate tool, and then you look up the individual word ‘to deter’ and check its translation in your native language to make 101% sure you got it right so that you can start using it.
You don’t need to be that cautious.
Make assumptions and start using new English words and phrases when you’re PRETTY SURE what they mean.
In 9 situations out of 10 you’’ll be correct, and that’s just fine!
If, on the other hand, you keep sticking to the old tried and tested method of translating from English into your native language, you’re slowing down your English improvement progress quite considerably as well as reinforcing the ‘translation mode’ of your mind.
4. Fear of Stepping out of Your Comfort Zone
Rapid spoken language improvement is possible only when you’re doing things that might make you uncomfortable.
Translating directly to/from your native language always refers to something you know very well – your NATIVE LANGUAGE.
It provides the much needed assurance that you’re doing OK, that you’re among your own – even if no-one else is close by. It connects you to your native roots at a deep, emotional level.
If you lose your dictionary and you’re forced to start guessing what this or that particular thing might mean, you’re in uncharted territory. It presents a certain degree of discomfort for most people, and that’s why we’re so drawn back to what will make us feel safer – our native language.
Nowadays almost any device or gadget has a manual in 20 different languages, and if your native language is popular enough, you have the option to set your PC or smartphone interface to work in your native language.
Not that it would be a bad thing; it’s quite the opposite – switching between languages on your cellphone should in fact facilitate the notion of perceiving each language as a stand-alone means of communication as opposed to something that can be learned and explored via some other language.
It’s the translation technology that makes things confusing.
Google Translate tool.
Countless different electronic translation devices on the market.
Movie subtitles in your native language.
All these and many more available quick-fix solutions create a deceptive image of translation as an INTEGRAL PART of any foreign language learner/speaker.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we should do away with it all, of course I’m not! As far as language learning in the early stages is concerned, you can’t really do without translation.
Once you’ve gone past the beginner’s level, however, I don’t see any reason why anybody should keep looking up things in their native language if they can just as successfully use English-English dictionaries and movie subtitles in English.
It’s the availability of all the aforementioned tools that makes people believe that translation is necessary; in fact the average language learner would probably think I’m insane by telling them they should stop translating and start using ONLY the English language!
WHY Foreign English Speakers Shouldn’t Translate To/From Native Language (Beyond the Beginner’s Level)
1. If You Want to THINK in English, You Can’t do It While Translating!
Thinking in English is one of the pre-requisites of a fluent speech.
When you speak, you can’t possibly have 2 processes going on in your head – thinking in your native language and speaking in English.
The resulting English speech is going to contain loads of awkward grammar constructs characteristic to your native language, and your speech is also going to be more hesitant and interrupted. Not to mention the fact that you’re going to constantly get stuck for words if you keep referring to your native language when trying to explain something in English.
Writing is a different story because you would experience such and similar symptoms to a much smaller degree and then it mightn’t be so self-evident that translation impedes your English learning and improvement process.
Still, even when writing one should make an effort to think in English because it forces you to acquire natural, native-like English expressions instead of writing as if you were translating from your native language word-by-word.
2. Using English Becomes So Much Easier Without Translation!
When you embrace the concept of using English ONLY, life all of a sudden becomes much easier.
I will use an example from my own life to illustrate this.
I started my current job 4 years ago, and the previous guy in my position had also been a foreigner – a Polish fella, to be more specific.
During my first weeks in the new position I kept finding plenty of notes with English – Polish translations of different work-related procedures and processes. Not that there’s something shocking about it, but it just goes to show that he was constantly referring to his mother’s tongue while being engaged in his work duties.
Let me tell you once more – it’s OK if you’re a beginner English student; your English vocabulary would probably be too small to grasp more difficult concepts and technical terms.
But once you’re beyond a beginner’s level, I don’t see any benefit in keeping using your native language as a reference for new English words and terminology!
You can always explain things using VERY SIMPLE language.
On top of that, especially if you work in an English speaking environment, most of the time things are self-explanatory. All you have to do is suppress your desire to understand how EXACTLY this or that particular thing is called in your native language, and then you’re going to make it so much more easier for yourself to function in your working or social environment.
3. To Avoid Using Unnatural English Grammar Constructs and Wrong Words
Every language has its own way of referring to reality.
We might think it’s all a technical matter of learning X amount of vocabulary and Y amount of grammar rules, but there’s an awful lot more to it than just that.
You have to FEEL the English language.
You have to develop the 6th sense when it comes to knowing how to describe certain things and concepts, and you’d better leave translation out of it if you want to develop that ‘gut feeling’ of yours for native-like and correct English!
If I were to translate from my native language, I’d ask you first thing in the morning – “Have you slept well?” or “Did you sleep well”. Not that there’s something wrong with that – it’s quite straightforward and understandable! It’s just that native speakers have different ways of asking such and similar things.
Expressions like “Did you have a good night’s sleep?” or simply “Sleep well?” are way more popular.
But what about the following gems: ‘car candles’ (spark plugs); ‘my leg fingers’ (my toes) and ‘I don’t have a clock’ (I don’t have a watch on me)? They’re all mistakes I’d been making in my early days of learning English simply because I kept translating from my native language in my head!
Not to mention the vast array of English idiomatic expressions you simply don’t stand a chance of learning and using if you don’t embrace the concept of contextual learning and elimination of translation – “How to go about this?” (How to solve the situation?), “Get over it!” (Accept the harsh reality and forget about it), “Do you get me?” (Do you understand me?).
4. Full Immersion is ONLY Possible Where There’s NO Translation!
Personally I spend my days in a 9 to 5 job speaking with English speakers only.
I speak with my family members and other fellow Latvians in my native language, but the rest of the time is pretty much dedicated to English ONLY.
I THINK in English. I USE English. I EXPERIENCE the world through English.
It’s called full immersion, and it feels amazing to be able to use English just like my native language.
It hasn’t come easily, however, because I was struggling to achieve this level of fluency for years.
And the number one reason for my inability to achieve fluency was translation.
I kept learning vocabulary lists where each word was explained in my native language, and as a result my speech was always interrupted and hesitant. My native language was interfering with English in my head, and it took me a long time to figure out what exactly I was doing wrong.
Now when I speak in English, I switch from my native language to English COMPLETELY, and full immersion happens naturally.
And the most important thing of all is that it doesn’t really matter how limited your vocabulary is, or how limited your means of expression are.
If you don’t get your native language involved in your head while speaking in English, you will find it 100 times easier to speak, and you’ll always be able to say something, I can assure you of that!!
5. Contextual Learning is ONLY Possible Without Translation!
OK, fair enough, you can probably learn new vocabulary and phraseology by resorting to both – translation AND using other English words.
By far the most effective way of improving your English is, however, contextual learning when you describe new concepts using other English words ONLY.
For example, here’s how I would explain the following English collocation (collocations are any word combinations or phrases used by native English speakers) -‘honed to perfection’ – “something is honed to perfection when you’ve worked on it for a long, long time till it’s become perfect”.
Now, if I were to look up this word in an English – Latvian dictionary, it would provide me with the following translations: 1. trít 2. asinát.
The problem is that both words mean ‘to sharpen’ in Latvian, and now I’m getting a bit confused – why is the word ‘to sharpen’ used in a phrase where something is being brought to perfection? It leads to more research, and as a result I find out that the word ‘a hone’ actually is a sharpening tool, and the phrase ‘honed to perfection’ is just figurative speech.
Fair enough, now you may think that it’s only a good thing and I’ve learned a bunch of new things in the process, isn’t that right?
Let’s look at what happens next time I want to use that phrase ‘honed to perfection’.
I’m opening my mouth, yet at the same time an image of a hone pops up in front of my eyes, and I can’t help it because it’s an association I created while looking up those words in Latvian. But that’s not the worst part yet! The biggest problem is that the related Latvian word ‘galoda’ is popping up in my mind as well and it’s kind of pronouncing itself against my will thus interfering with my English speaking process!
This sort of an issue was happening to me regularly, and it’s all because of the wrong vocabulary associations I’d been creating between English and Latvian in my head.
What should happen in reality is the following.
You learn that the phrase ‘honed to perfection’ means that something is made perfect.
No more questions.
Simply ACCEPT things the way they are and you won’t have this ‘mind chatter’ driving you nuts while you’re trying to speak in English!
HOW TO AVOID TRANSLATION
1. Use English – English dictionaries ONLY.
Here’s two great dictionary websites I’m using all the time and I honestly haven’t looked up a single English word or a phrase in an English – Latvian dictionary for YEARS!
Buy an English – English dictionary.
Buy thesaurus – a book where synonyms and antonyms are listed for a large amount of English words (this one is perfect for intermediate English students!)
Throw away your old Native language – English and English – Native language dictionaries (or just stash them away at the back of your bookshelf because I don’t actually approve of getting rid of books, I love them too much!)
Do whatever it takes just not to have your old dictionary within close reach so that you don’t tempt yourself!
Embrace this concept of explaining any new English concept using other English words ONLY, and you’ll see how brilliant it is.
Force yourself into it if you don’t have another choice, be brutal with yourself, but please do it. For your own sake!
2. Don’t Watch Films With Your Native Language Subtitles
By all means – when watching English films and movies – try to do it either without subtitles at all, or use the English ones. That way you’ll leave yourself no choice but to think in English, and while you might find it a bit difficult at first, eventually you’ll definitely get used to it.
You’ll also develop your listening comprehension, so it goes without saying that watching TV in English only is one of the best ways of a passive English immersion out there!
Also, considering the amount of time we spend staring at the box these days, it would make sense to use all that time to your advantage. All you have to do is make a little effort and suffer a small inconvenience in the beginning, and you’ll reap massive rewards in the end!
3. Don’t Question Everything!
I’ve also noticed that my fellow foreigners have a terrible habit of overanalyzing things; even when meaning of a certain word is quite clear, they’ll keep asking things like: “But can you tell me please why I have to use this word and not this one? Why? Why? WHY?”
“Why do I have to say ‘tonight’ if it’s actually evening?”
“Why do English speakers say ‘dinner’ if it’s actually supper time?”
“Why do I have to say ‘Close the office door’, wouldn’t ‘office’s door’ be the proper way of describing the possessive case?”
Believe me, my friends, all such and similar questions have no use if you’re anything serious about your spoken English improvement!
Just ACCEPT the way things are said, and don’t translate!!!
4. Stop Using Google Translate – Embrace Simple Search Instead
There’s a way of using Google in order to figure out how to use the English language like a native speaker.
I’m talking about doing simple Google searches within quotation marks, and if done properly this method is almost everything you need to learn natural speech patterns!
And if you want to find out more about it – please refer to this article where I’ve discussed a number of additional tactics on utilizing Google for natural English development.
You can even look things up on the Google Image search if you can’t find a very specific industry term, and the images will definitely reveal the true meaning of the word.
Do anything but using Google Translate!
5. Stop Trying to Figure Out Meaning of Individual Words By All Means
The perfectionist within you might be saying – “You definitely need to look up the word ‘pang’, how else you’ll know how exactly the expression ‘pangs of conscience’ translates into your language?
The realist within you should turn around and respond to it by saying – “Who cares? Just knowing that ‘pangs of conscience’ means feeling guilty about something is enough!”
Get rid of the perfectionist within you.
If you listen to other foreigners around you, you’ll realize this habit is so popular that everyone thinks it’s actually normal to translate EVERY word and try to grasp 101% of what we’re hearing or reading in English.
When I mention the concept of just ACCEPTING meaning of phrases and not trying to dig very deep into individual words, some of my fellow foreigners look at me as if I just said something nonsensical, something totally stupid. Or maybe they think I’m trying to pretend to be better than I am.
Whatever the case may be, I know for a fact that if you constantly try to make sense of each and every word you come across, you’ll start analyzing the English language TOO MUCH.
Next thing you know – you start overanalyzing your speech when you speak with other English speakers, but you’re none the wiser as to why it’s happening…
It’s because you’re dissecting the English language as if it were a lab-rat and then you’re trying to speak by sticking all those bits – individual words – together!
That’s not how fluent English happens, my friend, so better STOP TRANSLATING ALTOGETHER and you’ll improve your English faster than you ever thought possible! 😉
Thanks for reading,
DISCLAIMER: Please bear in mind that every single word in this article is written having an intermediate/advanced foreign English speaker in mind. So it goes without saying that arguments like “But how can I watch TV in English with subtitles if I don’t understand anything?” aren’t really valid because at the very least you can READ the subtitles. Same goes with pretty much any advice in this article – your vocabulary is pretty large BY DEFAULT as an intermediate/advanced foreign English speaker for you to be able to understand MOST of what’s written or SAID and the rest is just a matter of instinctive learning, guess-work and quick Google searches!
P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!
P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!
P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!