Think in another language without translating – Chris Parker
It is possible to “think in a foreign language” without “translating?”
Learning and speaking Chinese for more than 8 years has given me plenty of time to think about the process of how I and other people learn foreign languages. One of the things I have become aware of is to what extent “learning naturally by immersing yourself in a language” works. Is it possible to speak a foreign language “ naturally ” rather than having to consciously “translate” from your native language? This article is my answer to this question.
My own language study background
I have had a mixed background with languages. When I was at school I took every opportunity I could to study French, Spanish and Russian, but it wasn't until I decided to study Chinese at university that I really studied a language intensively for a long period of time. I have also spent a couple of years in China, and my work has also included translation and training as a simultaneous interpreter from Chinese to English. I have gone through long language learning processes myself.
Understanding how you learn to speak a language
When you start learning a foreign language, everything appears completely new to you, except the words that you might recognise from your own language or other languages you have learned. Your brain has to get used to a completely new set of sounds, a new vocabulary, and new ways of putting sentences together. You have to try hard to pick out words from the stream of information that you don't understand. The process of learning to speak a foreign language is similar. At the beginning, you might learn some simple phrases which you will have to pull out of your brain when you want to talk, or you might have practised certain types of sentences or grammar patterns, which you have to think about and form slowly. In comparison with your native tongue, the foreign language seems very unnatural , and it is not the thing you “ think of first .” Students will often ask, “How do you say …. in X language?” which shows how much they are falling back on their native language , “to make things make sense” or “as a place to start from.”
In fact, there is nothing wrong with this. I believe is that it is fine to include English, or your native language in language courses, or to use it as a reference. That's what I did when I designed my own beginner's Chinese course – Survive in Chinese. Of course, the courses which claim to teach you “the way a child learns” using just pictures and no translations also work, but I have always found it quicker at the beginning to learn through contrast with my native language , and sometimes from translations. After all, as adults, we have already learned a language once before, and I believe it is completely possible to use this to our advantage.
Sometimes, “translating” can cut short the path to “speaking”
When I was learning Chinese, I didn't just take English as a reference, I bought a handful of books designed for Chinese people to study English, which had English texts translated in full into Chinese. This way, I had the two languages side by side , and I built on my basic ability to express the ideas I could express in English in Chinese. Much later, when I trained as an interpreter, “translating” became a skill that I had to master, as accurately as possible, and part of my job. But there was a potential problem: was I “really learning to speak Chinese?” or was I just getting better at “ translating English in my head ?”
The process from “translating in your head” to “speaking more naturally” is one that most language learners have to go through. Even if you are not consciously thinking from your native language, you are still affected by the “interference” it causes when you are speaking a foreign language.
Let me give you a few examples of this at the beginner level. An English speaker learning Chinese who wants to ask “Can I have a class of water?” might come up with “我可以有一杯水吗,” which is an attempt to translate the English sentence extremely literally, and is wrong in Chinese. A correct way to put it might be “能给我一杯水吗?” Likewise, if an English speaker wanted to say “Do you have my watch?” in Chinese, he might think it was “你有我的手表吗?” which is an attempt to force English into Chinese. A natural way to ask the question could be “我的手表在你那边吗?” Another funny example is that for almost two years I thought the phrase for blow your nose in Chinese was “吹鼻子” which is a literal translation that makes no sense in Chinese. Later I found out it should be “擤鼻子.” Either people had been too reluctant to correct me all that time or I had just completely confused them!
It is not just words that English speakers sometimes try to “force” into Chinese, but also grammatical concepts. Because English has rigid tenses, learners can sometimes try to make Chinese grammar “work more like English grammar,” for example by adding “了” every time they think something has happened in the past or “将会” or something similar when they think something is happening in the future, which can create very unnatural or “grammar textbook” sounding Chinese . Part of the learning process is breaking away from very rigid “textbook” structures when you are speaking and trying to get a “feel” for the language as it is really used.
So, given these kind of differences, how did I breach the gap to speaking “natural Chinese?”
Getting more “input” and learning to spot your own mistakes
Even though trying to speak a lot of Chinese and doing a lot of translation gave me a great way to get started and I think it also cut down the time it took me to get fluent, there was still something that was missing: a lot of input and exposure to the language . Worse still, even if I was speaking “unnatural Chinese,” I didn't necessarily know it at first. That's why I started to expose myself to a lot of Chinese – watching TV series, listening to the radio, watching the news, reading novels, and just paying attention to other people when they spoke in conversations. Also, when I was learning interpreting, I also listened to hours of speeches in Chinese on loads of different topics, which taught me a formal style of how to speak and a lot of vocabulary.
Slowly, when I was speaking myself, I started to realise that there were things that I had been hearing that had been saying wrong. I started to realise “what sounded weird” and how I might be able to express things more authentically . I also heard some things that I had been pronouncing wrong, and some tones which I had not been getting right. In short: I got a much better “feel for the language” and learnt to correct myself.
The journey from “translating” to “speaking naturally”
Without actually starting to “translate the language first” when I was speaking, I would never have produced these errors, and without listening to the language for hours over a very long period of time, I would never have realised “what it was supposed to be like” and been able to correct the errors. This process will carry on for me, as I continue to learn new things. I still remind myself that I have been speaking English for more than 20 years, and I have only spoken Chinese for eight or so. Of course my English is going to be stronger and more dominant.
So, to go back to my original question, I think it is completely possible to learn a language “naturally, without translation,” but that might not be the quickest way in. To me, it is a process that you will benefit from much more later, but don't let that worry you; the process of naturalising yourself is an amazing journey . It might even open up your mind or change your life. It will take time, but why would you want to cut that journey short?