Why translating your target language won’t help you learn

Why translating your target language won’t help you learn

by Andrea Byaruhanga

Updated November 9, 2022

When you start learning a language, it’s hard to avoid translating vocabulary. After all, when you don’t know what anything means, you have to start somewhere. And sure, sometimes translation works just fine. In many cases, you can translate simple sentences word-for-word and the meaning remains the same. But you should stop the translation habit as soon as possible!

Don’t translate your target language

Your target language is entirely different from your first language, and you should treat it that way. It grew from different cultural norms and contexts. Truly learning and understanding how to use a language goes far beyond translation.

Instead of translating, it’s more useful to figure out how the words and expressions are used in a specific context. You need to learn to think in your target language. Thinking in your first language and then converting those words won’t get you far. 

Let’s discuss a few reasons why it’s better to start from scratch when you’re learning a new language!

The Best Languages in the World

Translating is slow

Translation apps can be useful if you’re a true beginner or if you just can’t find the right word. But is it practical to use your translator for whole conversations? Definitely not!

In a conversation, you should be listening to the other speaker’s ideas and responding in a meaningful way. How will you have time to do that if you’re busy translating? 

The person you’re speaking with is going to get pretty bored if you have to stop and use your translator every time you want to say something—or understand what they’re saying. 

But what if you were able to memorise a long list of translations? Well, it would still take time to think of a word in your first language and change it into the target language, or vice versa.

All that translation would be exhausting and almost impossible to continue in longer conversations.

How to Learn a Language at Home

Direct translations don’t always work

This might come as a surprise, but . . . all languages are different! Word order and verb tenses are just a couple of things that vary between languages. Even those languages that come from similar roots have unique slang and idioms, as well as multiple meanings for the same word. 

So what? Well, this means that even the best translation app might not be able to help you with context-specific expressions and long, unique sentences. Why? Because translation is often done literally and word-for-word.

Check out this example:

Let’s translate the English phrasal verb “Sit down.” In French, you get: “Asseyez-vous.” Does this mean that “asseyez” = “sit”? Yes! So far, so good. Then, does “vous” = “down”? No, actually. “Vous” means “you.” So, “Sit down” basically translates to “Sit you.” 

As you can see, languages are structured differently and correct translation can’t always be done word-for-word.

With straightforward expressions like “Sit down,” you’ll be okay. But people don’t always speak in short, easy-to-understand phrases. At some point, the unique sentences you hear (or the ideas you’re trying to express) will be hard to translate. 

Best Tips to Learn a New Language

You’ll never truly be fluent

This idea is closely connected to the first two. Fluency is the idea that you can speak a language easily, smoothly, and correctly.  

By stopping to think of a translation or use an app, you’ll never be able to express your ideas spontaneously. The flow of your conversations will be halted and unnatural, and you won’t connect with your conversation partners. And if you can’t connect, you won’t be communicating effectively. 

You’ll also have trouble in situations where someone is giving a lot of information quickly (like a business meeting or a university lecture). How will you be able to keep up and participate if you’re focused on translating?

Real learning comes from immersing yourself and actually thinking in your target language—not thinking in your first language and then translating. 

What’s the Best Way to Learn with Lingoda?

Think differently 

Stop treating languages as exact copies of one another! To reach your goals, train yourself to think in your target language every time you practice.

Related articles