Saturday, December 12, 2009

what does it mean to learn a language without translations?

The conversation still continues over in the channel comments of algworld's YouTube channel. I think part of the reason that some people think languages are always learned through translation is because of a misunderstanding of what it means to learn languages without translations. I had a brief talk with my webcam to explain a point about this, and my computer graciously offered to record it for me. So without further ado, I give you that resulting video!

Please let me know if my speech makes sense, if I get my point across or not. Thank you!


  1. I wonder, though - does it make a difference which language you learn the meaning of a target language word in?

    I think it matters more how it was stored. If I learn the meaning of a French word through hearing an explanation of it in French, at some point I'm going to recognize the concept as being similar to something I already know. "Oh, that's X," I'll think. So although the entry method was French, the storage method may still be English.

    I think that the way a new word is stored depends mostly on how well it correlates with ones you already know. Scientific and economic concepts are likely to be very similar in two languages, and in that case mentally storing the target language word along with your native language version is just more economical. On the other end of the spectrum are words and phrases that accompany cultural concepts that just don't exist in your native language. Thinking of these in terms of their translation equivalents can be highly detrimental.

    The one positive I can say about learning words in your target language is that it's increasing your overall input from that language. Assuming that you have an hour's worth of time to spend studying language, you're better off sticking with the target for the entire hour rather than spending 30 minutes of it reading or listening to explanations in your target language. But I can't get on board with the way of thinking that classifies all "translation" as bad.

  2. I don't think that you'll always have to think about the word's translations if you expose yourself to enough real L2. Like, I'm learning Japanese, and I first learned words like ありがとう with an English translation. Now, it seems really odd if I make the comparison. The meaning registers quicker than the English, and in fact, the English never even comes up. The same goes for the handful of words that I learned with a bilingual dictionary. Even so, those words had to be experienced many times in real life in order for this to happen. So, I don't think there was any harm done.

    So, maybe there's more to bridging the gap than you're really letting out. For example, You said it's better to go Meaning > L2 Word > L1 Word, or L2 Word > Meaning > L1 Word if you ever make a connection to your L1 in the first place. As opposed to L2 Word > L1 Word > Meaning. But, for the latter, in my experience, it quickly shifts from L2 Word > Meaning > L1 Word, where it eventually becomes more of a hassle to remember the L1, and so it becomes dropped. In this example, Meaning > L2 Word and L2 Word > Meaning are the same, in that one may represent output (Meaning > L2 Word), and the other, input (L2 Word > Meaning).

    But I mean, either way, I think as long as you're pronouncing and using words and phrases correctly, along with body language and intonation, there's really no difference between you and native user of your L2.

    Ultimately, I don't think it matters how words are learned, some ways are just more effective for the individual than others. Given enough time, input of real L2 will resolve all issues.

  3. @1, Aaron, you are bringing up a different topic than what this post or my video was about. Never did I talk about learning words through an explanation in the target language. Nor did I mention my opinion about whether or not learning through translations is good or bad. That could be a topic for another post.

    @2, I didn't say which is better when needing to translate. And I did not mention making a chain reference of word to meaning to word, or any such complicated process. Next time, I will try to better explain the issue I was addressing. The other things you talk about are off-topic for this post since I never mentioned them. They would, however, make good topics for future posts.

    Thank you all for commenting.

  4. I agree with you Keith.
    It's kind of:
    "Don't use words to find out the meaning of sentences. Use sentences to find out the meaning of words."


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