Translating is a great way to learn vocabulary, right? This post might make you think again.

Most of us language learners think that translating helps us to save time when we learn new vocabulary and grammar structures, but I think we need to evaluate if this, in fact, is an effective use of our study time. We use translation to learn new words or simple grammar concepts and this can be ok when starting out to learn a language, but what you need to realize is that when we translate we are committing two fatal errors.

  1. Not exposing ourselves to language
  2. Not consolidating long-term memory

The best way to learn a language is through immersion. This is a proven fact and the best way to learn a language is to surround ourself by it and use it consistently. Translating takes us out of this state of immersion and therefore impedes progress. The best way to learn is to expose ourselves to the language and learn it through contexts and experiences, but this, of course, requieres time and a decent opportunity to do so. What we need to do is have realistic expectations and not try to master a language in a month, this is impossible, no matter how good you are at it!

When we translate, we stop thinking in the target language. This makes us feel uncomfortable when speaking and using the language.

When we translate words and phrases, we also need to know that this could be a poor way of learning them as this type of learning is not very long-lasting and is likely to be forgotten very quickly. We do not retain what we translate and this is a problem in the learning of a new language. As we do not commit translated words well to memory, it is a terrible use of our time because we are, in effect, wasting it. What we want to do is use strategies that will help us to remember things forever and also make us feel comfortable when we use the language.

There is an important myth in language learning. It stated that children are sponges because of the plasticity of their brains and therefore learn more quickly than adults. This has been disproven in various academic studies and it has been demonstrated that if you expose a child and an adult to a language for the same amount of hours, the adult will always come out on top. The reason for this though is that children usually get more exposure to a language and find it easier to learn without translating.

The truth about translation is that it is hard and in reality, it is a completely different skill to learning a language. This is why translators need to study and practice for a really long time. Translating actually requieres a really high level in both of the languages to be able to get the intricate differences in meaning across and, therefore, is much harder than just using one language. If you think about it well, translating is like doing twice the amount of work, so we need to stop doing it as soon as possible. A great way to do it is with our 5+ rule.

A key part of language learning is confidence. If you feel comfortable and sure that you can use a language well, you will feel more relaxed and able to communicate effectively. Obviously, the best way to do this is to use the least amount of effort possible to achieve our goals. This is why we need to learn to think in the language we are using to avoid overloading ourselves and feeling overwhelmed. Translation is not a good way to become comfortable when using a language.

So next time you think about translating vocabulary, just think, is this a good use of my time and will I remember it well in the future.

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