Learning a language is a multifaceted process. Vocabulary. Grammar. Idioms. Slang. You need to embrace all of this – and much more – when you learn to speak a new language. Many languages also require you to learn a new alphabet. So, how can translation activities help with this?
Below, I’ll take a look at how translation activities in the language classroom can aid language learning. I’ll also consider how undertaking a translation activity or two at home can also boost your blossoming language skills. Shall we dive in?
Let’s start with some context. It’s widely understood that people learn in different ways. The VARK model asserts that there are four styles of learning: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/writing.
In a language learning setting, the visual learner is likely to absorb information better if it’s presented as charts, diagrams, infographics and the like. The auditory linguist would be better served by conversational language learning. The kinesthetic learner would be more likely to learn from practical, hands-on activities. The reading/writing learner, meanwhile, is likely to thrive when presented with materials that they can read and information that they can write down.
Why is this relevant? Because translation learning will appeal most strongly to the latter group – the reading/writing learners. This is something that those teaching translation activities need to be aware of, as well as those learning the language in question.
All of which is to say that translation teaching can be very effective for some pupils and less so for others. As such, translation in language teaching is best used as one of a range of approaches.
With that caveat out of the way, I want to consider whether translation activities can be an effective way to learn a language. Personally, I believe they can. I’ve engaged in translation lessons in school and also undertaken my own translation activities when learning another new language on my own time. In both situations, I’ve found that translation has helped me to learn in multiple ways. Let’s take a look at a few of these.
Word lists have a time-honoured place in a language learner’s repertoire, when it comes to learning vocab, but they’re certainly not the only way to pick up new words.
When I set about learning to speak Portuguese, one of the first things I did was to browse the bookshop and buy a copy of my favourite Stephen King novel in Portuguese. Then I sat down with my sturdy dictionary and set about translating it.
What I found interesting was that it brought a new dimension to learning new words. I looked up the word ‘deep’ and the word ‘well’ one after the other, and an instant association was formed. Recalling one brought the other to mind every time thereafter. It was the same with other pairs and strings of words, with the associations more deeply ingrained than when I learned simply from lists.
I found that the same translation activity – the novel – helped me to obtain a better grasp of Portuguese grammar. I had a trusty grammar book, which I would read each night before bed, and translating the sentences in the novel helped to embed some of the lessons in that book.
This last point is perhaps a little less specific, but I do feel that learning through a translation activity can also help to build up more of a feel for the language and culture in question. Say in English translation from Portuguese (just because that’s the example I’ve used above – it could, in fact apply to any language pairing), you come across an idiom. In order to translate that appropriately, you have to understand the literal meaning – what each word means – and then the actual meaning – what the idiom is expressing. Then you have to find the equivalent in the target language. It’s an interesting process and one that provides unique insights.
In English, if something is infuriating, we might say that it makes our blood boil. In the same situation in China, the phrase “to belch smoke from the seven orifices of the head” (七窍生烟) would apply instead. This raises some interesting questions for the language learner, the answers to which will aid their understanding of Chinese culture. Which are the seven orifices of the head? Why is smoke associated with anger? (For those who are interested, the seven orifices are the eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth. Scholar Peilei Chen, meanwhile, believes that Western cultures associate anger with liquid as water is seen as the essential element in the West. In China, it is common to see air as the essential element, hence the association of something in the air with anger.)
By working diligently on a translation, discoveries such as this await the keen language learner.
Accepting that translation activities can be an effective language learning method, let’s look at the kinds of activities that can be used.
Translating news stories can be an excellent translation activity to support language learning, as there’s a constant supply of fresh content for you to work with. This activity is also a great way to learn about the current issues and culture of the country whose language you are learning. It also provides the opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on global issues and to see how differently they are reported elsewhere.
When you first start out with this activity, it can be really interesting to compare your translation of a news item with a translation of the same item provided by professionals. There’s a lot of value in seeing where the two translations are similar and where they differ.
There are a couple of ways you can go about this. You could ask a company that provides translation services to provide an example of something they’ve translated, which isn’t covered by an NDA. Then you could translate the original document they provide and see how it stands up to the professional translation. You could also use a crowdsourcing platform that specialises in translation. There are several such platforms out there. Again, you can work with the original article and then see how your translation compares.
I can also personally attest to the benefits of translating a foreign language novel – or even just a chapter or two. It’s an interesting and enjoyable way to learn a language, whether you’re working with a favourite book or with one that’s entirely new to you.
If you’re more of a singer than a reader, why not search online for song lyrics and have a go at translating those? You can always sing your translation to yourself as you complete each line or verse, to see how it sounds.
Can translation activities be effective for learning every language? That’s an interesting question. I believe that they can, yes, but that they can be more effective at different stages of the language learning journey.
If you’re using translation activities to try and boost your understanding of grammar, for example, then translating foreign language texts after you already have a basic grasp of the fundamentals is likely to be of greater benefit than if you have no knowledge of the language’s grammar at all.
Languages that use different writing systems can introduce added complexity as well. Having basic knowledge of how to read the language you’re learning will mean you can progress much faster with translation activities than if you’re staring at a page full of a script that means nothing at all to you.
Let’s take a look at some of the languages that translation activities can help you learn – and why learning those tongues might be beneficial. In fact, if you want to explore in more depth why it’s beneficial to learn certain languages, why not check out the post below?
Read more: 15 Best Languages to Learn
English is the most widely spoken language in the world, with well over a billion people speaking it either natively or as a second (or third, or fourth…) language. It is used as a lingua franca in many places and has become the basis of many a pidgin language over the years (you can click the link below to read more about pidgin languages).
As such, there’s plenty of reason to use translation activities in the language classroom when learning English. They can help to build vocab while also supporting understanding of the building blocks of grammar. The chance to learn English by translation is one that can really help as part of a broad package of language-learning approaches.
Read more: Pidgin Languages: The Evolution and Examples of a Pidgin Language
Mandarin Chinese is the world’s most natively spoken language, with 918 million first language speakers. That equates to around 11.9% of the total global population.
Translation learning can be very useful when it comes to learning hanzi (Chinese characters). Once you’ve begun to learn a few characters, why not try to translate a children’s book from Mandarin to English, to see how you get on? You could also test your hanzi writing skills by translating a simple children’s book from English to Mandarin.
Like English, Spanish is used as a lingua franca in many places, as well as being natively spoken by some 480 million people. You can read more about where it’s spoken via the link below.
Translation lessons can be very helpful when it comes to learning Spanish. They can help to embed vocabulary into the learner’s mind and support the development of an excellent sense of the language and its flow.
Read more: Spanish Speaking Countries
Translators already speak at least two languages – their careers depend on them doing so. But does this mean that translators are well positioned to learn even more languages? Certainly, translators have a natural aptitude for language and a deep understanding of the concepts that underpin it. But while some go on to become polyglots, speaking multiple languages, others prefer to stick with speaking just two.
That said, speaking two languages can often make it easier to learn a third language (whether you spend your time among translation professionals or are simply learning for your own personal interest). The process of learning an additional language will feel more familiar if you’ve already learnt a second, and you’ll go into it with a realistic expectation of what’s involved, including how much effort you will need to put in.
On the whole, between their aptitude for language learning and understanding of the process, I believe that translators are well primed for learning additional languages. (I would love to hear others’ thoughts on this too, so please feel free to leave a comment below and share your views.)
If you’re ready to give translation learning a try, it’s time to devise your personal approach to it. The best strategy here is to focus your translation activities around your own interests. Are you a bookworm? A news junkie? A karaoke superstar? Then novels, newspaper stories or song lyrics might be the way forward. You could also work on translating anything from social media posts (these are great for helping you understand slang and internet shorthand) to papers in medical journals (ideal if your ultimate goal is to work in the healthcare sector).
The range of written materials on offer is simply vast. There are 129,864,880 books in the world and more than 1.7 billion websites. That should give you plenty of options to work with, no matter which subject matter interests you most.
Undertaking a translation activity as a method of language learning can reap big rewards. How much benefit you derive from doing so may well be impacted by your preferred learning style, as well as by the other language learning activities that you engage in. Ultimately, it’s about finding the right combination of translation activities and other learning methods that works for you. And remember – language learning is something to be enjoyed, so experiment and have some fun on your linguistic journey.
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