Language Learning, Avoiding Translation And Cognitive Speed

By Jamie McSloy / June 15, 2017
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Language Learning, Avoiding Translation And Cognitive Speed

Every so often, I feel like going completely off topic.

In yesterday’s topic, I decided to browse Twitter and Ed Latimore set me off on a tangent about copywriting and inaction.

Today, I was writing a straight article about copywriting – and how you can simplify your life by categorising copy based on the stage of the sales funnel it’s in. (Check back tomorrow for that one.)

Yet again though, I decided to browse Twitter and Ed Latimore prompted my brain to go in a different direction.

His Tweet:

“You can speed up your comprehension of a foreign language if you stop trying to make exact translations when you hear or read.

Now if you’re Twitter inclined, you can read my replies. Be warned though; I’m rubbish at Twitter. The character limits kill me, because as regular readers know, I do love to use too many words.

Anyway, linguistics is something I’m passionate about and language learning is a particular hobby (and sometimes part-time business) of mine, and so I know a thing or two about translation and language learning.

(Time Out: If you’re enjoying this article, then you should probably sign up to my mailing list, where I give out ideas and business tricks that I don’t share publicly. Click here, fill out your details and get yourself on the list! You won’t leave this page.

Now Back To The Regular Programming Schedule…)

Today’s article will explore this, give some recommendations I’m too useless to explain on Twitter, and then I’ll try and broadly apply it to the rest of the world for all you guys that don’t care about this nerd stuff.

Cognitive Speed Is Reduced By Translation

Let’s say you’re learning a language. We’ll make it something closely related to English like French to keep things easy.

So, you’re hypothetically rolling through the French countryside. It’s the afternoon, so everything is shut down for the next six hours while the French sleep off working all morning, but it’s all pleasant and there are vinyards everywhere.

It’s beautiful, but you need to find your hotel.

So you pull over and there’s a guy wearing a beret and eating a massive baguette. Now, you don’t do what the average tourist does and shout with increasing volume “Where’s the hotel mate?”

You’ve done Pimsleur or bought a Teach Yourself book three weeks before your holiday, and so you’ve got a basic understanding of the language.

Now, the respectful tourists will pull out their phrasebook and mumble “Where is the hotel please?” and it’s all pretty cringeworthy but it’s technically the language and so natives have to give it a begrudging pass.

The problem is that that all takes forever and it’s a massive pain in the backside.

Now, most people – especially people who teach themselves – think they can fumble through learning a language by simply remembering translations.

This is endemic – and most of the online language learning community does it – and it’s incorrect and bad form.

My point is that if you want to learn a language properly, you can’t translate from L1 to L2. It’s not natural and it’s the cognitive equivalent of pulling up to that guy with the baguette and getting out a mental phrasebook and thumbing through it looking for something that resembles an equivalent in your first language. For every sentence.

Needless to say, this isn’t ideal – but as a few people asked within minutes of me posting my reply on Twitter – how do you learn a language without translating from your L1?

How To Avoid Translation And Cognitive Slow Down

Hopefully I’ve rambling-ly established that the above approach is bad.

Here’s a better approach that’s linguistically better and scientifically more successful but look up your own sources because I’m not your mum and my dinner is in the oven.

Let’s say you want to use your target language in everyday life, but you don’t want to learn it via slowly translating everything.

Here’s the approach you need to take. Bear in mind this is for self-learners who build their own curriculum, a good school will have this built in to their lessons.

Creatively Generating Language Through Exercise

You don’t want to have your anchor for your new target language vocabulary be the same words in your native language. It’s slow. So you need to create new anchors.

How do you do that?

In exactly the same way as you do when you’re a kid.

You learn words firstly through specific imagery: A cat is the black thing that jumps into your garden.

Then through relation of one thing to another: the bank is the building where you get money and it’s next to the grocery store.

Now, as an adult, you need to man up and go through the painful process of learning vocabulary by rote in the early stages of language learning. It hurts your brain, it’s hard and boring, but you just have to deal with it.

Now, once you have your vocabulary compiled, (hopefully by relating the new words to images and not old words) you need to start on the latter thing I mentioned above: building connected “networks” of words.

Exercises For Creative Language Learning

To do this, you need exercises like the following (you can literally use these.)

  1. Explain to a native speaker of your target language (without thinking at all in English) the layout of your town.
  2. Tell a child in your target language a silly story about how your pet dog got lost in the jungle
  3. Try and explain to a hypothetical person (with no English) that your stomach really hurts and you need to get to a hospital but you’re scared because you don’t know if you have the correct insurance for this country.

Now, you can fix and fit those exercises any way you like. The subjects don’t matter. The important thing is that you’re foregoing English where it would be useless and replacing it solely with your second language.

Now, these exercises aren’t one and done. You can continually get better at the same exercise almost infinitely (and you should to test your progress.) Let’s take exercise three.

First run through:

“Tummy hurt. Help. Need doctor. No money.”

This will probably be all you manage with a basic level of vocab.

But after a while and a few run-throughs, you’ll find that you can dramatically increase your complexity until you’re saying things like:

“Hi. I’m a tourist from the United Kingdom. I am having trouble with abdominal pain and it’s impossible to jump or lift my arm. I’m worried that it’s appendicitis. I’m not sure about the fees of procedures for this problem. Can you help me?”

Same exercise, more complexity as you add grammar… no translation required because you’re building on the same blocks you’ve built in earlier iterations.

An Easy Version Anyone Can Do

Some of you will think, “But Jamie that sounds mightily complex and I only know four words.”

Translation-free exercises are still for you, and you can start doing them as soon as you’ve learned the very basics. Here are the easiest iterations possible, using the example of “dogs.”

  1. Set a timer for sixty seconds (this will change as you repeat and get better, but sixty seconds is a lot to start with)
  2. Name all the words you know relating to dogs in your language
  3. Set a voice recorder
  4. Aim for one word every three seconds (so you have no time to translate. In real conversation, this is about the upper limit of what you’ll get away with for a reply without everyone thinking you’re mentally handicapped)
  5. Don’t be too strict on the subject. So “dog” is obviously ok, “collar” is good but “walk” and “park” and “dog + bin” are fine too.
  6. Go back and listen and count up how many words you got

This is an easy exercise with proven metrics – there’s no guess work as to whether you’re getting better or not.

Finally: Real Life

Let’s assume you’re not a language learning nerd. The above sort of “creative exercise” works for pretty much any arena of learning.

All too often, when we’re learning something new; fixing a car, tending your personal finances, basic social skills (not that you guys need that) and the like, we try and fit all the new knowledge into our previous frames of reference.

This is just as slow as using your mental phrasebook to translate to a new language. It’s also how we end up with nerds who think dating is like a computer program or inversely people who think they can shout at their computer to fix itself.

It’s a waste of time and inefficient. Instead, use creative exercises like “How much can you do quickly?” or “What do you know?” because then you’ll be aiding your brain in creating entirely new pathways.

I’ll stop there. One final thing; if you are a language student, you could devote as much as 1/3rd of your language learning time to these sorts of processes.

Look after your brain guys, it’s important.

P.S. This is an off-topic post when compared with the rest of the blog. If anyone is interested in this sort of thing (languages and the like,) let me know. I don’t mind writing more (hopefully more coherent) thoughts about the topic.

  • Kenny T says:

    “Tummy hurt. Help. Need doctor. No money.”

    That’s how you need to write on Twitter Jamie so you don’t go over the character limit.

    • Jamie McSloy says:


      I’ll have to give it a try, Kenny

  • […] when you’re learning one thing – let’s say, a language (and some grammar rule within it) – you shouldn’t make that the only thing you’re learning at […]

  • Graham says:

    Are you into mnemonics Jamie?

    Seems like you know quite a lot about learning in general and language learning in particular.

    It’s definitely an interesting subject, I imagine pretty much everyone would like to increase their rate of learning if they could.

    • Jamie McSloy says:

      Thanks for dropping by Graham.

      Learning strategy is something I’m really interested in, so glad you’re interested in the subject.

      Mnemonics is a good topic and I’ll write about it more. It’s generally useful, but a lot of people go the long way around to get to the short cut with using them. Will write more about this another time!


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