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The Biggest No-no in Language Learning


TRANSLATION: THE BIGGEST NO-NO IN LANGUAGE LEARNING


…and my pet peeve! In fact, most – any decent - teachers’ pet peeve, and for so many reasons that it is hard to know where to begin…


Perhaps at the biggest reason: it doesn’t work! It stops you from progressing and stops you from developing those all-essential language-skills of guessing meaning from context, paraphrasing, compartmentalising, developing ‘a feel’ for the language etc, all the skills necessary for becoming a proficient user of the language. Or even an intermediate user. I have ample experience of teaching students of all aptitudes, attitudes and language backgrounds and with those who can’t break out of the habit of translating, I have seen just two types of outcomes: either getting stuck at a lower-intermediate level (A2-B1) in all 4 skills or, getting to B2-C1 in Reading but only reaching B1 in Writing, Speaking and Listening.


The solution is simple though. To learn swimming, you must get in the water. To learn a language, you must use the target language. Instead of poring over grammar rules in your own language, watching bilingual YouTube channels, using translation-based learning apps or looking up new words in your own language on your phone.


Come on, just think it over, what can a translating app do for you? Give you a possible translation of a particular word in your own language –, not taking into account the context and linguistic environment you found it in! In most cases it’s not likely to work, is it?


WHY SAY ‘NO’ TO TRANSLATION


Let’s just take a look at a very common English word, ’get’. What does it mean in your language? Surely a million things, depending on the sentence, where the meaning of the sentence depends on the context –, ’Get lost!’ vs ‘get lost on the way’. Or the word after it –, collocations, e.g. ‘get home’. Or the preposition that follows it –, phrasal verbs, e.g. ‘get over’, ‘get off’. Or perhaps it’s part of an expression –, e.g. ‘I just want to get this over and done with’. Or it’s an idiom –, e.g. ‘Get a grip!’ Do you get me?


Apart from this, looking for a word in your language doesn’t help you with the register/style of the word. Bilingual translations are often misleading because they give you the wrong idea, the wrong connotation. This is why language learners sometimes come across as unfriendly or rude –, and we all know about first impressions…


Translation won’t help you with the use of the word either. As a learner, you must notice how words behave, what words they go with, you must consider the word-order, structure of the examples. New words must be seen in their ‘natural habitat’, surrounded by the ‘grammar words’ that belong to them (‘the/a/zero article/some/few/any…etc). Which a translating app cannot possibly help you with.


You might think that the more words you can translate into your language in your head, the better you are at the language. Nope! The only thing you are improving is your reading comprehension - on the condition that you realise that words can have multiple meanings and you have worked out how to match meaning to context. But is that your only goal? How about communication? Producing intelligible sentences yourself, and fast? Understanding others? Translation is not going to help you with any of this either.


‘But I’m a beginner! I need translation!’ - I hear you screaming at me. What do you think happens to all those who learn English here in the UK? Starting from scratch, in a mixed-nationality group, using only English? Isn’t it just natural? The same way, it should be natural to learn English in English, wherever you are, and if your teacher thinks otherwise, perhaps time for a change! The most important thing is exposure to the language, so all must be in English from day one, so that you can start picking out words, to start with just a few but then more and more, until you can start tuning into the music and form of the language. How can translation help you with that?


Clearly, it can’t. But good English-English dictionaries can! Such as ‘oxfordlearnersdictionaries’. OALD is online and free, so it’s just a matter of choice!


WHY SAY ‘YES’ TO OALD


  • It gives you the most common meaning of the word first.

  • It gives you the CEFR-level (A1 means very basic-‘a must’, C2-not used much at all)

  • It shows you the use of the word in a sentence.

  • It tells you if a word is a verb/noun/adjective etc.

  • It tells you if it’s countable/uncountable.

  • It tells you if it’s formal/informal.

  • You can hear it pronounced (BrE - AmE).

  • It gives you collocations/example sentences.

  • It highlights any dependent prepositions/phrasal verbs.


In short, it helps you to get into the water…


Happy swimming!




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