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How can I speak if I’m not translating directly from my mother tongue?

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

Contrary to what a lot of people think, simultaneous translation isn't required before speaking. In fact, it makes speaking in a new language infinitely harder than it has to be.

As I keep telling my students, a translator is a person who masters both languages equally. And even when they do - and I speak from experience - translation remains very difficult. So why attempt it when you're learning a new language?

Despite being a linguist and language teacher, I don't care for translation. I'd much rather use one language or another, rather than constantly going back and forth between the two. 'Be glad you are not a translator' I tell my students, 'because that's infinitely harder than speaking in a new language!'

You wouldn't believe how often I also tell them that the mistake they've just made was caused by using their mother tongue, not by their not knowing the answer in the language they're learning, which incidentally they invariably know!

When you speak in a new language, your starting point should not be your own mother tongue, but the new language itself. And because you're learning it, initially you won't be able to say as much as you want or as precisely as you want to say it. Also, your sentences will be descriptive at first.

The more your level goes up, the more abstract your sentences are. So to begin with, you need to accept the fact that you can't communicate as fluidly as in the language you've been speaking all your life, which is logical, but that later on you will.

The reason my students translate from their mother tongue into the new language they're learning, is twofold. First - and especially if they were taught in the UK - school has repeatedly asked them to do translation exercises, which I find mind-boggling to say the least.

Secondly, because it's a reflex to reach back to your mother tongue, when struggling to express yourself in a new language. To do so is akin to clinging to the edge of the pool, while trying to swim. You will use a lot of energy in the process, but you won't go anywhere any time soon!

A huge part of the learning curve, when embracing a new language, is to stop expecting it to work exactly the same way as your mother tongue and to stop using the latter when speaking. If you're an English speaker learning a Latin language, such as French or Italian, and using English as your reference point, you will be trying to square a circle and end up thinking, wrongly, that you cannot learn a language.

When you understand the logical system of the language you're studying, and what 'tool' to use, you focus all your attention and energy on engineering sentences using said logic and tools. You don't waste any time in translation. The process is less confusing and difficult, and, crucially, you make progress more quickly.

Don't hesitate to send me your questions.

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