You finally work up the courage to have a conversation in your target language. The other person starts speaking and your wheels are spinning.
“Vous parlez français… C’est… Comment avez-vous… Est-ce que vous m’avez compris ?”
The words come to you in fragments because you’re translating as much of what they’re saying to you back into your native language to sort out what it all means. And it seems like you’re always two steps behind.
Yes you think before translating it into the “Oui” that comes out of your mouth, even though you only caught a small portion of what was said to you.
The other person stares at you expectantly, assuming that you’ll answer the question you only understood part of.
“Uh,” you stammer, again translating what you’d like to say in your head. “Sorry, can you say it again a bit slower?”
At the end of the conversation, you walk away frustrated. You felt like you didn’t understand anything. That everything you said came out to slow and stilted. That the other person was a saint because they were patient enough with you to endure the conversation. That you had wasted their time.
So you vow to stop translating in your head so that you can have more natural, normal paced conversations and you immediate head to Google to search “how to stop translating in my head” to look for answers.
But here’s the thing.
I don’t think you should worry about it.
Because in my experience, translating in your head is a normal part of learning a new language. And it isn’t a stage you should skip.
Why Translating in Your Head is an Important Milestone as a Learner
I understand why you might want to skip the need to translate in your head. It feels slow and awkward, and it must surely be painful for your conversation partner.
You can’t help but think that you’re doing poorly and it might even feel that translating is an obstacle that obstructs in your path to fluency.
To tell you the truth, it isn’t necessarily an obstacle, but a step towards fluency.
Translating is Actually an Advantage to You as an Adult Learner
Something that is widely discussed in the language learning community is whether children or adults are better language learners. Both stages definitely have their advantages and disadvantages, but in all honesty, being able to create associations and having a previous language to relate things to gives an adult learner a huge advantage.
So why would you want to hinder your progress by eliminating one of your biggest assets?
A lot of people feel that kids have it easy. They don’t have their mother tongue impeding their ability to pick up a language. As an adult, it can feel like your first language is constantly getting in the way of your second or third or fourth. It’s always there, creeping in when you least want or expect it to.
Yes, there are some “hacks” that will get you there faster, but when you constantly try to cut corners, you’ll miss out on some important developmental stages in your language learning.
The #1 Way to Stop Translating in Your Head
Give it time.
Really, that’s it.
Just keep working at your language studies, and before you even realize that it’s happened, you’ll stop translating.
When you focus on it, it becomes this unnecessary obstacle. You obsess over it and notice it more than you need to. Instead, it’s better to just accept it as a normal stage and eventually, you’ll work past it.
But if you really want to stop translating, there are several other techniques you can use to work on it. But the best and most permanent solution is to just keep at your studies. It goes away naturally, and as I said earlier, often before you even realize that you stopped doing it.
If you really want to speed up the process, however, a few of the methods that have worked for other learners include:
1 // Use images instead of translations when studying new vocabulary
Rather than associating a new word with it’s equivalent in your native language, use images. Gabriel Wyner of Fluent Forever is a huge advocate for this method and studies have shown that images help with memory.
2 // Get frequent exposure to the language through reading and listening
The more you surround yourself with your language, the more you’ll grow accustomed to it and the better you’ll get at processing it. And the better you are at processing it, the sooner you’ll move out of the translation stage.
3 // Memorize language chunks rather than individual words
Rather than focusing on individual words and then struggle to piece them together into sentences later, try memorizing “chunks” of language.
This could be things like learning set phrases such as:
- How are you?
- What’s the weather like today?
- How are things going at work?
Or just common fragments of sentences like:
- I think that…
- … and so I decided to…
- Could you tell me…
4 // Practice speaking or narrating without translating
Try to devote a little bit of time each day either thinking or narrating in your target language. This will force you think about and speak about what you’re doing in your target language. Plus, it will quickly show you where the gaps are in your knowledge so that you have something you can work on in the future.
5 // Develop strategies for those moments when the words don’t come to you in your target language (or when you didn’t know what they were to begin with)
These techniques could include things such as:
- Talking around the subject
- Simplifying your sentences or rephrasing them
- Avoid the word by being more general
- Describing the thing you don’t know how to say (for example: a hospital is sick-person-building)
6 // Study consistently
The best way to work through something – anything – you’re struggling with in your target language is to study consistently. Even ten to fifteen minutes a day can do wonders for your language growth. Plus, it keeps the information fresh in your head so that you can access it quickly when needed.
7 // Conditioning
If you know you’re going to have an opportunity to use the language, pre-condition yourself. Do a bit of independent study first, focusing on the types of words and phrases you’ll need for that particular context.
For example, if you’re going to a restaurant, look up the menu online first (Yelp is great if the restaurant doesn’t have a website, a lot of community members photograph the menus). Decide what you’d like to order and practice saying it. You can prepare any other phrases you think would be relevant, too.
In my personal experience, translating in your head isn’t a bad thing. It’s an important stage in your journey as a language learner, so I don’t necessarily think that you need to stop doing it ASAP. Instead, accept that it’s a normal part of your progress and use it as a way to gauge just how far you’ve come (especially when you notice that it’s stopped).
What about you?
How do you feel about translating in your head? What strategies have you used to make it past that stage?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.