In the early stages of learning a foreign language, translating new words into your own language is a natural part of the language learning process. However, there comes a point where you will find that this strategy is holding you back and preventing you becoming fluent.
If you always try to translate what you hear in English in to your own language, you’ll find that it slows you down, your interaction is not spontaneous and conversations continue without you because you are too distracted translating what you’ve heard and miss the rest.
When speaking, if you start by trying to translate your native language into English, you risk sounding very unnatural. English sentence structure is very different from most other languages which makes translating accurately tricky and awkward. Often, there is no direct translation anyway because each language has its own way of phrasing things that is specific to that particular language.
Clearly, translating everything is going to impact negatively on your fluency in English and prevent you progressing. And if you become too reliant on this way of understanding early on, you may find it a difficult habit to break later. The key is to train yourself to think in English from the very start!
Here are my top 3 tips for doing that.
Immerse yourself in English
‘Immerse’ means to surround yourself with English. Use every opportunity you have to listen to or read English. When you are at home doing any task that does not need your 100% concentration, such as cooking, washing up, etc, have the TV or radio on in the background so that you are exposing yourself to conversational English. Even if you are not actively listening, your brain will unconsciously be processing English and you will be tuning in to pronunciation, accents and how natural English sounds.
Through active listening, where you consciously pay attention to what you are hearing, you will pick up new vocabulary and chunks of language, such as phrases and expressions that are unique to English.
Read a lot in English and take note of these chunks of language, rather than focussing on words in isolation. Learning language chunks will help your fluency because you will be able to recall that specific phrase when needed, rather than trying to construct a sentence from scratch.
Think in English
Everyday, as a matter of routine, start to think in English by mentally talking to yourself. In every activity you do, talk yourself through what you are doing – eg. when you are driving: “I’m going down this road to the traffic lights. Now I’m preparing to turn left. The car in front of me is red.”
Throughout your day, observe other people and tell yourself what they are doing – eg. “That man is walking down the street. He looks sad. Maybe he has had an argument with his wife.”
Have imaginary conversations in your head. Ask yourself questions then answer them. Think of ways to keep the conversation going in a spontaneous way, as if it involved two or more people!
Speak in English
Speaking out loud to yourself in the language that you are leaning is a crucial step in learning to think in that language. Isn’t that the way we learn our own, first language? So, in just the same ways that I suggested above for thinking in English, you can actually speak your thoughts aloud.
Don’t worry about making mistakes – it does not matter. It’s far better to get practice in English by speaking and making mistakes than to not speak in English because you’re scared of making mistakes! Also, speaking aloud will help you become aware of your own errors and to gain more confidence in your ability to produce language and pronounce it naturally.
There are two other points to remember when you are actively studying English, if you want to get away from relying on translation.
- Use a monolingual dictionary, ie. an English-English dictionary. This way you will learn to read and understand definitions in English and you will associate words with concepts rather than words in your native language. You will be thinking in English!
- Record new vocabulary using images rather than translating it. That way, when you are trying to remember the word in the future, your brain will ‘see’ the picture and automatically recall the English word, not your own word.
The key to success is to incorporate these three tips into your daily routine and to do them as often as you can throughout your day until thinking in English becomes automatic.