Before learning a language you must learn to translate.

I’ve spent the best part of this year learning Chinese, which is my first new language after English. Here is a list of a few lessons that I’ve learned along the way as a fresher in language learning.

1. Before learning a language you must learn to translate.

Sound unintuitive? Every time I learnt a new word, or grammer I found myself searching for accurate English to serve as a translation so I could use the word correctly. Actually this is harder than it sounds, especially for languages with no common roots with English such as Chinese. Sometimes no single word or sentence can accurately translate foreign language, so context is very important when learning to translate your second language. I am always quite excited and surprised to discover a word in Chinese that can be accurately and plainly translated into a single English word, particularly verbs and adjectives. It is especially exciting when that word coincidentally sounds similar, for example in the case of 就 (ch: joe – en: Just) and 所以 (soyee – ch: So).

2. Don’t trust single word translations.

This includes translations given by teachers, dictionaries, books, and especially online tools. I find many single word translations misleading or incorrect. This is not surprising as authors and teachers are not so familiar with your language. More importantly, single words are often inadequate to describe the complicated and subtle implications of a foreign word. Translate in your own head and only trust the translations you make.

3. Repeat Repeat Repeat!

It can be frustrating to forget what you learnt yesterday, but such experiences are inevitable when you learn anything new. There is no other way to engrain new words and grammar than repetition. It might take up to 30 uses of a new word to properly embed it in long term memory, so don’t be afraid when you forget language, just pick yourself up and keep repeating!

4. Tell stories.

We remember stories, not words, and in telling them exercise a creative part of the brain which helps engrain new words and their context in our long term memory.

5. Use tools.

We live in an age of mobile apps and Internet, and as such language learning is definitely being transformed. Every learner’s needs and patterns are different, and all was needed in my case was a few suggestions about what is possible now:

  • Mobile dictionary apps
  • Mobile translation apps
  • Google translate (uses mobile internet to get an OK translation for you)
  • Flashcard apps for your computer
  • Mobile flashcard apps
  • Mobile language learning apps, for example lonely planet which gives you common phrases, including audio
  • Language Podcasts
  • Language learning tapes (now CDs or mp3s)

6. Bootstrap as early as you can.

In programming we have a term ‘bootstrapping’ which means software which once started can continue to build itself without relying on other tools and is self sufficient. When you can incorporate this philosophy into your language learning you are doing well. For example, instead of consistently referring back to your first language to learn new words and phrases, use parts of the new language you’ve already learned as a reference point for new material. After all, your second language wasn’t intended to be a translation of yours, but a self contained and complete form of communication in itself.

7. Find teachers who speak your first language badly.

This effectively forces you to bootstrap, and encourages you to practice what you already know in basic conversation with them. It also ensures the translations you learn are the ones you make, and are therefore more accurate.

8. Love it.

This probably goes without saying, but enjoying learning and using a second language really helps improve efficiency. I feel quite lucky to be able to take some time out to do this while my fiance works here in Beijing!

  1. I just read this article on the new Oxford English-Chinese dictionary. Even they agree that translation is never about word-word conversion:

    http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2010/08/25/oxford-readies-giant-chinese-english-dictionary/

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