You'll Never Be Fluent Translating In Your Head

When thinking about learning a new language, it's common to think about it in terms of "what's the word for this" and "how do I say that", as if all that differentiated one language from another was the words they use to say things. This is a very common fallacy. It's also wrong.

In reality, there's much more involved. It's not just knowing the words, but also knowing how they are pronounced. How they sound. How they are combined. Grammar. Usage. Implications. Subtleties.

There are many aspects of a language that stem from a different thought, the level of thought is where translation has to happen in order to reach fluency.

Learn to think differently

Let's talk about how the brain works. We learn by creating pathways. The first time you do a thing, your brain connects a pathway, and each time you repeat that thing, the pathway is strengthened.

The first thing worth noting is that repeatedly doing something wrong will strengthen a bad habit. The second thing worth noting is that because we're dealing with pathways, shorter is better.

Memorizing words doesn't work, because you're connecting sounds in patterns. When you learn by memorization (eg, in German: car, Das Auto, car, Das Auto, car, Das Auto), the series of action inside your brain is complex:

  1. First, you learn a new word, most commonly by hearing it's sound. For instance, Das Auto.
  2. Next, you hear which English word it means. car
  3. Because you only know the English word, your first connection ties the English word to the new foreign word. Das Auto means "car"
  4. Only then, do you create a (weak!) connection back to the word you just learned. car is Das Auto
  5. After much repetition, your brain has now connected the sound of one word to the sound of another.

This last part is the most important detail to remember: You haven't learned how to describe a car in German, you've learned how to connect a series of sounds in English to a series of sounds in German. That's really bad! Why? Because now, when you want to describe a car in German, your thought process will necessarily involve your mind replaying the audio of the word car, in order to connect to the German equivalent.

3 step translation

But this isn't how you think in English! Describing things in English doesn't involve connectings sounds first. In your native language, you have connected the very concept of a car to the word "car". The physical pathway inside of your actual brain is shorter and has fewer steps.

1 step translation

Learn your new language just like your native language

See an image of a car and learn the words Das Auto. Don't participate in any rote memorization, like the Pimsleur Method and Byki. No matter how innovative their methods of helping you remember things, these programs are fundamentally flawed because they are based on bad assumptions about the human mind. Memorization programs can teach you a lot of words, but they will leave you frutstrated and useless in an actual conversation.

If you think it's hard to take three steps from "car" to "Das Auto", imagine how much more work it will be when you are taking three mental steps for every word in every sentence? Your speech will be painful and slow. But even more painful, you'll have to do that same three-step mental process to convert everything you hear back to English! This is unmanagable!

For this reason, it is essential that you connect a thought with a word — the same thing you do now in English. For things, pictures work well. For feelings, use your imagination. For verbs, you need to truly visualize the action when you hear the word. Connect every new word directly to a thought, and strengthen this short pathway in your brain tissue by repetition.

This is one of the most important things you will ever learn about language learning. It's the reason why some people struggle with new languages while others learn with ease. Those who struggle are playing back slow memorization patterns in their minds, and those who succeed are actually thinking in another language!


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  • Well said, very well said. For this reason I am pleased to say that I hear a lot of things in Chinese that I understand perfectly but struggle if I have to translate them back into English.Recently I was in a Chinese restaurant with my wife (who doesn't know any Chinese) she wanted to know some things about the food and I asked the waiter in Chinese for her, chatting to waiter felt natural but translating his answers back to English for my wife felt awkward. I think most people who successfully manage to not make strong connections between new language words and their mother language will have similar unexpected problems translating back from the target language, this is probably a good thing.Do you find the same?

  • Yes, I've found the same to be true. The trick is that you can't expect to translate word-for-word. Translation has to be done on a thought-by-thought basis. For example, Russians say "at me strong hunger", Phillipinos say "hungry-me is a lot," and Spanish-speakers say "I have much hunger," but in each case it should to be translated as "I'm really hungry!"

  • How do you undo the process of translating in your brain? I hate, hate, hate that habit of mine, but I don't know how to break myself of it. I try to be aware of what I'm doing with German, but every time I check in with my brain, I find myself translating as I go. Hate it!

  • I am reminded of Yoda, when he said "you must first un-learn what you have learned..."The best analogy I can think of for the brain is this: imagine a forest, or a field, or some other natural landscape. You live on one side of that landscape and you work on the other side, and every day you cross that forest or field or whatever it is.In the beginning, on day one, every step you take is uncharted. It's all new, all exploration. You're not really learning anything, except for the experience. And the next day, you may set out from the same place and in the same direction, but your feet will land in different places.Over time, though, after weeks, or months, or years, the ground starts to clear where you have walked. Eventually, a path is formed. You can follow that path without thinking, and you know it very well.And the hard part is that every time you have to go to or from work, your instinct will be to take that path again! Starting a new path will be more difficult, and less certain. Taking the old path is much easier.That's what it looks like right now inside your brain. But now, you've had a glimpse from above, a bird's eye view, and you can see that path is really long and winding, and it's definitely not the best way to get between home and work. :)So first, you have to decide to walk in that short, straight line. Even though you have to go through all the brush and all the tall grass, and it's not as easy, it's what you have to do. And after you do it enough, you'll start to clear a new path that works much better. And over time, you'll start to see weeds and grass begin to grow up around that old path. But it takes time!It's not easy to unlearn that which you have learned.Now, how do you do that, regarding a language... you have to find the way to associate a though with a word, or a phrase, or whatever. Thoughts are the shortest, fastest pieces of information in your brain. You have a thought that means "hunger" and a thought that means "helicopter" and a thought that means "yellow"... you need to attach these thoughts to the words you hear and see... and the only way to do that effectively is to experience the thought while you experience the word.As a child, when your mother fed you breakfast, she would put some eggs on a spoon and put them into your mouth and say "do you want some eggs? yeah? you like eggs? eggs are good." And over time, your brain connected that sound ("eggs") with the food you were being given. And the same goes for almost everything you learned in your childhood years.So when you're in the shower, talk to yourself. Say, "Ich dusche. Was mache ich? Jetzt dusche Ich!" At the sink, talk to yourself. Say "Was mache ich jetzt? Mich wasche die Hände. Meine Hände mich wasche." etc.Look at things of certain colors while saying the colors. Do actions (or at least think about those actions) while saying what they are. Don't be embarrassed, all you're doing is cramming into a short amount of time the same thing you did over a lifetime in English.You have to do this a lot, because you're clearing a new path. The same thing every day, even. And it's going to be hard, and your mind will resist, because you have to unlearn a different way. But you'll get it, and it will come to you.One of the best habits you can form as a language learner is the habit of talking to yourself all the time.... asking yourself "what am I doing now?".... telling yourself what this is, or that is, or what you think about it.Again, it may feel crazy or silly to talk to yourself, but the point is talking, and associating those sounds with the thoughts that accompany them. Say what you think, talk about your opinions, talk, talk, talk.

  • My roommate linked to 52languages, and from there I came here, and I think this is probably the best find of my semester. I'm currently learning Chinese (first semester) and have been trying the flashcards method, but I found it incredibly boring and not having much benefit. I even just this evening downloaded one of those SRS flashcard programs, because it feels so productive. I know I'm in trouble though because I can't converse in Chinese at all, even though I know several hundred "dictionary words", I'll call them. I'm just thankful I came across your site before I really got too far, now I'll be able to shift back with much less effort than if I had gone a full year. Thanks for the thoughts, they resonate with my intuition and intellect.

  • Thanks for the great comment!

  • I find this really interesting, because I did this by "accident" when I first started learning Japanese. Before college, I spent 3 months teaching myself the rudiments of Japanese. Basic grammar, hiragana, and kanji. But when I first started learning the hiragana, all I could think was "if I always think THROUGH english to japanese, will I ever be able to read as fast in Japanese as in English? No way."So, for 3 pretty intense days, I studied hiragana for 5-6 hours a day. I looked at the "english" sound once, and then "thought" the SOUND, not the letter, and did my best to equate each Japanese symbol directly to a sound. At the end of the 3 days, I ended up with a 2 day migraine, no joke. Hey, re-training your brain can be painful, lol. I still wince when I think of that migraine ^^;;I'm 5 years into my Japanese language study, and while I might be average in comprehension/speaking, I know I'm above average in reading. I literally CANNOT read romaji - it makes no sense to me. I can read around 30 pages an hour of a basic novel (not manga) in Japanese, and am close to as fluent in hiragana as I am in English (of course, the more difficult kanji in a passage, the slower I go - that is more comprehension/un-known vocab.) Obviously, that's slower than I read in English, but I've been reading English for 22 years. I'm still an "5th grader" in Japanese. I'm confident I'll just get faster.   No one I knew in school learned hiragana the way I did. Most of then didn't think it was that important - hey, Kanji's the hard part, right? But to this day, when ever I meet someone at the same relative level as me, I read faster and more naturally.So, yeah - I agree with you 100%

  • This is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. Your level is much higher than that of others because you learned it the right way.  Thanks so much for the comment! 

  • Thank you so much! I have been studying Spanish for 5 years now and this is the first year we have to actually listen to tapes and answer questions. I have been so confused because I try translating it and I get some of if- yet, I miss the next part of the story; it is also tedious work and I have not improved my listening. In the past, the teachers would say easy things...como estas? como te llamas? That I just naturally understood what it meant. But listening to these tapes about anything has made me rethink listening in Spanish. I have been trying to answer this question from all angles and the other sites have not really helped. I will try this technique! Thank you.

  • I noticed this was tripping me up, so I've been trying hard not to do it. That's why I was so averse to using flashcards with English on one side and Spanish on the other. To learn my vocabulary instead I've been making my own cards with a just a picture on one side and the Spanish word and some sample sentences on the other.

  • Excellent article and precisely the fastest route.
    I just returned from 20 days in Spain, starting with no Spanish.
    Fortunately most of my Spanish contacts feel ashamed about their English.
    Good for me!
    By consciously avoiding vocabulary lists and grammar books, but just listening very intensely, I could have a 5-10 minute conversation after the tenth day. It sounded horrible but we could understand each other!
    Having said that, I question the assumption of "thought" and "neural pathways" as you used them in the article.
    I think we also have to include the idea of a fully connected field.
    In other words there are no separate objects in existence, just as there are no separate thoughts in our brain.
    They are always connected with a multitude of complex meanings.
    If you start to contemplate this then you'll find your relationship to new words during a conversation changes.
    If you want more in this direction then check out www.effectiveINenglish.com

  • Vielen Dank . Ich habe diese Methode mit dem Lernen Englisch gemacht, und ich fragte michm msnchmal, ob das dumm ist. Aber nach einigen Monaten bemerkte ich, dass mein Englisch viel besser wurde. Zurzeit lerne ich Deutsch, ich habe aber ganz vergessen , diese Methode wieder zu verwenden. Ich stimme dir ganz zu, dass man mit sich selbst spricht, ist es eine der besten Methode, um eine fremde Sprache zu lernen, seitdem es sehr natütlich ist.

  • Hi how I could find all of your blog posts ?

  • You're speaking right straight to where many people often fall at. As input so output.

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