July 19

The Dangers of Translation


​Last week as you might recall, I set about debunking the idea that learning a second language like English for example, or French or German to native-like levels as an adult is not really possible.

There are a number of practices that you might be doing that will prevent you from ever reaching these levels. So, today what I want to do is look at the first of four practices that I believe hold up this myth. These are like four legs of a table. So each week, I'm going to look at one of the legs and chop away one of the legs so, hopefully, by the end of the fourth week the whole myth will come tumbling down.

You will find a  slightly edited version of the video below it - just to improve how it reads. The content stays much the same.

​There are a number of practices that you might be doing that will prevent you from ever reaching these levels. So, today what I want to do is look at the first of four practices that I believe hold up this myth. These are like four legs of a table. So each week, I'm going to look at one of the legs and chop away one of the legs so, hopefully, by the end of the fourth week the whole myth will come tumbling down.

​Translation has benefits

The first one is that many have a belief translation is a necessary part of learning a new language. Everyone can see its benefits. They don't know a word or something and they look it up and bang you have it. You have the word instantly. It's instant gratification. You feel like you can relax a bit. You feel like you know the language a bit more and so it actually is very alluring, a very tempting thing to do is to translate. So, why on Earth would anybody do anything else differently ?

It seems to me that very few in fact do, so what could be so wrong with it. We’ll look at that into that shortly. But before I do, I want to you to consider a number of, what I will call, irrefutable facts and these are not false facts. 🙂 These are irrefutable. They can't be dispelled. Well, that is what I think anyway! 🙂 You can judge for yourself when you listen to them.

The facts of translation

The first one is - that every language you learn occupies a different physical place in your brain. So, for example, English might be in one area, your first language in another and then another language in a different place. I'm not sure exactly where the places are, but I have seen the brain maps and it's incontrovertible that when a person speaks one language, it lights up in that part of the brain.  There's no other lights going up anywhere else. These lights aren't real lights, of course. It is the energy that gets activated when you are speaking a particular language.

The second irrefutable fact is that when you speak in a new language that you're learning, you have no time to translate and if you are translating with your speaking, you must be speaking very very, very slowly indeed. So anybody who gets to any decent level of competency at all, will recognize that there's no time to translate.

So the second thing is to do with that is the same for listening. If you are listening to somebody, translation is possible.  However, all that will do is take you away from whatever else they're saying. So you really can't be taking the trouble to translate, going back to back with and forth in different parts of the brain at the same time as closely following what they are saying, as translation is a very slow process.

There are people who can do that, translators, However, that is their profession. They've been trained to do that but for the likes of you and me, this is not really possible.  

Now, let’s go back and look at the reasons why it is a good idea to avoid translation as much as possible. Before I look into the reasons, I will say one more thing.

Translation can be necessary

There are times when translation is necessary or advisable, even a good idea. Let's say, you go to a doctor or a lawyer or there's some kind of serious kind of situation you are involved where knowing the exact meaning is essential. Now, using translation here is a tool, not as a way of learning. I will draw a distinction here.

So when you're reading a book you don't need to translate or when you're talking to some of your friends or listening to TV. You don't need to do it, necessarily. However, in some situations you may well need to. So, don't get me wrong, it is sometimes a good idea to do it. 

Reasons to avoid translation

​Now, for the first main reason why translation should be best avoided as much as possible. I want you to consider young kids learning their first language. Now, you may jump and think "Ah, now that’s different - adult learning is different to kids learning.” Well, yeah, of course, I agree.

​But to actually say the two are completely different and ignore what we did as a child, I believe is a big mistake. There are things we should and we need to learn from that experience. Some things we did as children don’t really relate to the life of adults but there are many things that do.

​One of the issues worth looking at ​is that, as a child is learning their first language, they develop certain skills.  Particular skills that enable them to learn that language. So, they develop really good listening skills, not just listening to sounds but to meanings and to develop really good looking and perceptual skills. They learn to look at things really carefully and try to work out the meaning from what actually is going on, not just the language.

As their first language gets better and better, their ability to deduce things, to work things out, to infer things to, to guess things gets better and better as well. These are all skills. They develop these skills.  You will also need to call on these skills if you want to learn any language to high levels.  These skills can be developed from the get-go, from the beginning, or they can be redeveloped later. Whatever stage you're at, you can still work at developing these necessary skills.

I believe it's completely impossible to learn a language to any decent level, short of even a native-like level, if you don't get these skills up and to a really high level. The one way, I believe that can really help you develop these skills is to stop translating. Stop right now. Don't do it anymore. Unless you really need to. That's the one thing that I believe will help you enormously to start to activate this skills.

Now, the second reason.  It is a little bit related to the first, in fact. Let’s say you are learning English, as an example. You're developing the English muscles in your brain, right? That's what you're doing. And so everything you do has to be developing these muscles. Now, if you're actually linking this language, English, to your first language by translating, what you're doing is also setting up these connections, neural pathways as they are called. They are not developing your English muscle! You are building these pathways!

And the more you use the​se pathways, the stronger they become.  And so what happens is that even when you get to a high level, really high level, it still can feel like like you are using your first language.  I hear this time and time again from people and the only reason why that's happening is because they have established these neural pathways. So even though their English is at a really high level, these links are just jumping into use all the time. ​

This basically sets up a feeling in them that they need their first language and it actually creates a lack of confidence in themselves because they know this is not the thing to do, inwardly. And so, these neural pathways that ​are created by translating creates real barriers for evermore.

On a positive note,  I will say is that these pathways can be left to degrade. They can be left to rot away.  And the way you do that is by stopping translating. If you stop translating and stop thinking in your first language and translating into your second, they will gradually disappear. ​ If you don't use it, you lose it. To avoid all this grief in the first place, it’s a really good strategy to not put these pathways into place at all!.

Now again, sometimes you do need them, as I mentioned before. But if you use it once or twice or whenever, it’s not going to set these pathways up. You are just using the tool. It's just fine.

These are, I believe, really powerful reasons to radically reduce the translation activities that you do. 

Alternatives to translation

Now, you may be asking well, “What can I do, if I don't translate?” Well, one thing you'll find if you've been doing a lot of translation is that when you stop it, you'll feel a bit of discomfort. Discomfort is fine. You know, just as we say in English, “suck it up”. It's fine. It's something that you will soon learn to adjust to and what will happen is that you'll find that other parts of your brain, other other parts of you as a person just swing into action. You will start paying more attention, you'll be listening better and you'll be looking at things more closely. Everything starts to improve because you ​aren't using the easy go-to tool (translation).  So, other learning skills have to come into play.

So, your ability to guess, the ability to infer, your ability to deduce things will all improve. Of course, you can always ask the person you are talking to help.

One thing I will say about asking people, is that obviously you can't keep asking them all the time. But, sometimes you can ask for some critical words or issues that come up. The one thing that will help you with this is to ​resist the temptation to ask people to repeat themselves, if you do that.  

Asking somebody, “Could you please say that again?” is saying you haven't heard what they have said. Well, the reality is you probably have heard most of it and it may be that you understand most of it but there's some word or some phrase that has somehow thrown you. That has somehow stopped you.

​One suggestion is to train yourself to say something like, “I'm sorry. I am not quite sure if I got that. Were you saying blah blah blah?”. Now by doing that you're actually showing the person you're listening really attentively. And in fact you had to listen attentively if you're going to say that. This technique forces you to bring into play, to activate what you actually heard. If you get it a little bit wrong, they'll straighten you out or maybe you actually worked out exactly what they were saying.

This is a really powerful way of actually getting you to be more active in your listening and more active in getting people to help you. The people will respect you for that. If you keep asking somebody to please repeat that, please repeat that, it's not a good look. But by using an alternative strategy, such as the one I just suggested, you are actually showing people that you are really attentive and listening. They will appreciate that.

So I hope with all this, I've completely cut one leg off the table so you are a little bit less assured about believing that myth that learning a new language to native-like levels for an adult is not really possible..  

I hope that's been of use and I'll talk to you next time. It's been Andrew Weiler here.

​Here is the audio file in case you prefer to listen to it.


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