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Guide to Learning Languages, part 2

 Language Learning Forum : Learning Techniques, Methods & Strategies (Topic Closed Topic Closed) Post Reply
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Super Polyglot
Joined 4941 days ago

9078 posts - 16470 votes 
Speaks: Danish*, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, Romanian, Catalan
Studies: Afrikaans, Greek, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Icelandic, Latin, Irish, Lowland Scots, Indonesian, Polish, Croatian
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 Message 9 of 10
15 September 2009 at 10:20pm | IP Logged 
Learning one language through another

Quote from the thread Learning one language through another, 02 July 2009:

There are several issues involved in learning one language through another. The first problem is that for a certain target language you may sometimes find better textbooks, dictionaries and grammars in another language than your native one. And of course this is more likely to hapen if your native language isn't a big one (I as a Dane should know that). However I wouldn't want to do this if I didn't know the base language of those books very well. Learning an unknown language through a badly known language is in my eyes not only a waste of your time, but quite simply a receipt for disaster.

The other issue is the one of interference, which includes that you hear two languages simultaneously in your head while studying a target language through a foreign base language (or maybe even three, because you might also have thoughts running in your native language). This sounds confusing, but I actually have used this language mingling proces consciously in two ways: hyperliteral translations and 'intermediary' languages.

When I have started to study new totally new languages I have found it helpful to make translations where the translation is extremely close to the original, even to the point of including grammatical annotation (I was inspired to do this by the German Kauderwälsch series, but you also see it in some language guides). It is best to do this with bilingual texts where you also have a 'normal' translation to avoid gross misunderstandings, but the point is that you afterwards can read through the target language text in almost normal tempo because the hyperliteral version functions as crutch. This would ideally be performed with your native language as a base, but I normally let the language of the available 'normal' translation decide the language of the hyperliteral translation.

The other technique is to learn a new language through a closely related language which you already knows fairly well, for instance Afrikaans through Dutch or Portuguese through Spanish. The idea is that to get a language activitated in your brain you have to learn to think in it, starting with single words and short phrases and ending up with complete sentences. If you want to kickstart this process then you can use the better known language as a skeleton to which you can attach the words and phrases you learn in your new language in order to get a continuous stream of thinking. Of course there is a grave danger in this, namely that the structures from the better known language become part and parcel of your version of the new language, but if you know what you are doing and stay focused on cutting down on the use of the 'crutch' language then it is in my eyes permissible - for a short time! But most teachers would probably not trust their pupils enough to let them try this technique.

Here is in all all situations I have mentioned so far translations are something that is intended to help newbees. It is only when you are quite advanced that you need to speculate about job opportunities as translator or interpreter, and then of course the rules concerning translations are different.

Edited by Iversen on 28 June 2013 at 2:53pm

4 persons have voted this message useful

Super Polyglot
Joined 4941 days ago

9078 posts - 16470 votes 
Speaks: Danish*, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, Romanian, Catalan
Studies: Afrikaans, Greek, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Icelandic, Latin, Irish, Lowland Scots, Indonesian, Polish, Croatian
Personal Language Map

 Message 10 of 10
28 June 2013 at 2:54pm | IP Logged 
Retranslation as a variation on text copying

Follow-up to " Copying by hand" on the preceding page.
I have for a long time used copying by hand as a learning tool, and as I mentioned on the preceding page I have included lines with a homemade hyperliteral translation in the copy if the language was so new/difficult that I couldn't do a complete semantic integration of all the elements to a purely mental translation in my head while reading. And also if I had so hard a time doing this that I didn't want to start again from scratch in case I returned to the text later.

However this phase has always been fairly short, and after it I just copied the text after having checked all unknown words and murky points of grammar so that I knew the exact meaning while writing.

As many other language learners I have also made free translations from L1 to L2, but mostly to check my level because it has seemed to me to be more relevant to learn to produce new content on the base of my existing knowledge – for instance in order to add to my already bulging multilingual log. Doing a translation of a text from L1 to L2 is harder because somebody else chose the content, and it is frustrating if you take chances and can't check it against an original or get a detailed evaluation. At best this type of exercise serves the purpose of pinpointing weak points in your knowledge of your target language.

To solve these problems I have long ago experimented with a sequence of consisting of a translation from L2 to L1 and then a retranslation back to L2. But this was frustrating because the gap between my skills in translating from L2 into L1 always were way better my skills in translating the other way, and the retranslation rarely matched to original. And if it didn't then I didn't know whether I had made a busload of gross error or just expressed myself in a different way than the original author.

Lately it has occurred to me that the problems only occured because the time lapse between the two phases was so large that I totally forgot the orginal version, and then it was of course hard to produce a retranslation which matched it 100%. So now I translate the sentences one by one (and look words up etc. in the process), and after each sentence (or two) I retranslate while I still vaguely remember the original and all the new words and grammatical riddle solutions. But on the other hand the chunks should not be too short and easy – they should be precisely so long that I couldn't remember them without the help of my translation, but when looking at this translation the original words should pop up in my mind without to much ado. Effectively this means that it isn't a 'clean' retranslation – it is heavily infused with recall.

(quote from the thread Content + wordlist + anki, opinions/help (slightly amended), 22-23 June 2013 at 8:25pm
As a summary I'll mention the phases I recently have used with my intensive text studies, not because they necessarily all will be necessary, but just to show the progression:

1) copy the text sentence by sentence and write a hyperliteral translation underneath or after each sentence - even if you use a bilingual text. Include grammatical remarks if you have had problems with something. All new words go into one (or two columns) to the right of the paper for later inclusion into a wordlist.

2) same thing, but drop the translation (unless some passage has been so difficult that you want to retain your complete solution).

3) read the original and look up all new words, then write your own translation and try to reconstruct the original with the help of the translation.

4) Drop the copying and the written translations, but keep a sheet of paper or booklet (or even some electronical gadget) within reach for new words and interesting grammatical observations.

The purpose of the hyperliteral translations is to show me exactly what the meaning and role of each element in the original text is. A freer 'idiomatic' translation would have to conform to the rules of the base language, and for some reason my teachers during my school and study years found that important. I don't - the one and only purpose of the translations is to help be to keep the all meanings and grammatical observations in the original text available to me until I can do this trick directly from the original. They are not meant for the prying eyes of literature aficionados.

The Assimil and Kauderwelsch language guides give both a hyperliteral and a 'free' meaning oriented translation. But using hyperliteral translations is enough for me because I normally remember fairly well what I thought when I wrote them down, and can I insert hints in the text if an idiomatic expression seems especially opaque.
I know about Luca's back-and-forth translation method, and if he hadn't recommended doing retranslations I might not have reverted to the technique. However it seems that he uses it for longer texts and with a substantial time lapse between each round. I prefer compressing the whole thing into one process just as I have done with the wordlist method.

Luca Lampariello speaks about retranslation in this video, but there is an ultrashort written summary here:

Four components are required to learn a language:
•     Listening
•     Repeating
•     Writing
•     Translating*
(* Translating from your own language into the target language (the opposite of what people often do) is vital.)
My method allows me to retain 80% of what I study.
(end of quote)

Finally let me summarize my own phases:

In the 'copying and translating' phase (no. 1 above) I look at a sentence in my text, write the unknown words in the right column on a folded sheet of paper (folded to make it more handy) and look them up. Then I copy the text by hand while adding the hyperliteral translation between the lines. Sometimes I have to look more words up than it seemed at first, and sometimes there are tons of new words and grammatical details that deserve a short comment. Then I may have to write the text once more before I feel that I genuinely have mastered it.

In the 'pure copying' phase (no. 1 above) I look at a sentence in my text, write the unknown words in the right column on the folded sheet of paper and look them up. Then I copy the text by hand while making sure that I understand every detail of it. If necessary if look more words up, but at this stage it is rarely necessary to write a sentence twice. I may have however a homemade 'green sheet' with morphology within reach so that I can check endings etc. on the spot.

In the new 'translating and retranslating' phase I look at a sentence in my text, write the unknown words in the right column on the folded sheet of paper and look them up. Then I write not the text itself, but a hyperliteral translation of it on the paper. If necessary I look at the original text to make certain that I understand it, but after that I only look at the hyperliteral translation while writing down the retranslation, and it must be identical to the original. I have actually noticed a bonus effect: having the original sentence 'on hold' in my head gives me almost the sensation of having invented it myself, so I expect that this will have an effect on my active skills which I don't get from the simple copying-while-making-a-translation-in-my-head method. And subjectively I feel it is a harder exercise than phase 2 copying (which still can be done in order to relax)

At stage four it doesn't feel necessary to make text copies, but it can still be worth working in a detailed way with a short snippet of text. In this the paper will still have a right column for new words, but apart from this it will be filled with potentially useful idiomatic expressions, grammatical examples in a concise form and other notes.

Personally I can't see myself doing serious, intensive study of anything without having the possibility to take notes. If I can't take noters then I'll just do extensive activities – which also is necessary and mostly pleasant.


part 1 (about learning languages in general)
part 3 (about grammar studies)
part 4 (about wordlists and vocabulary)
part 5 (about understanding speech and strange languages)


Edited by Iversen on 28 June 2013 at 3:12pm

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