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Translation direction

  Tags: Translation
 Language Learning Forum : Learning Techniques, Methods & Strategies Post Reply
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Korea, SouthRegistered users can see my Skype Name
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 Message 1 of 46
2012 04 March at 3:41pm | IP Logged 
Translation direction is crucial when learning a new language in my opinion. I believe the best direction is from NL to TL. Unfortunately, most textbook writers and other language educators do not think so. They encourage learners to translate from TL to NL. If you look at textbooks and other language teaching materials like LingQ, the majority of them have the TL sentence first and then the NL underneath. This trains the learner to translate from the TL to the NL. By making a small switch, moving the NL sentence above the TL, a lot changes. The learner starts to think and express themselves in the TL. With the other direction, from TL to NL, the learner is practicing thinking in and expressing themselves in the NL.

Things need to be explicitly stated. Translations should not be placed on the last page of the chapter or at the end of the book, as they are in many language books (and even omitted altogether in many cases). Authors do this thinking that by hiding the translations they are helping the learner. Not so. They are confusing the learner, making them feel discouraged and overwhelmed. Not only do they have to decipher the grammar of a sentence they have to look up all the words they do not know (often no definition key is given in these textbooks and the learner spends much time looking up words in a dictionary). Their job becomes one of a cryptographer. No wonder lots of people give up learning in the early stages. And no surprise many people find it a struggle to learn a second language even after years of studying the language.

Not much has been written about this in the field of linguistics as far as I am aware. So I just wanted to put this out there as a hypothesis of mine. I think that this subject is not given the attention it deserves.

The best language books are the ones that have the word-for-word literal NL translation underneath the TL as well as the natural-sounding NL translation. With these translations present, grammar explanations become almost redundant. I also think this is how kids learn to be fluent in their native languages. There are so many clues in the context-rich environment available to them that it is relatively easy for them (I am comparing them to adult language learners who are not in an immersion environment) to understand what they hear. It is like they have the "NL translations" in front of them. They simply ignore the language that is much beyond their level of understanding. They do not carry dictionaries with them to look up words they do not know as adults do. But even so they will eventually understand the more complex sentences. Adults are in a different situation mostly. They may be pushed to try and understand language that is well beyond their level of comprehension. Often the first thing beginners see when they open a textbook for beginners is a solid block of text in the TL and no accompanying NL translation. The definition list is often short or non-existent.

Edited by Balliballi on 2012 04 March at 4:25pm

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Senior Member
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 Message 2 of 46
2012 04 March at 4:45pm | IP Logged 
What are you talking about? Most textbooks and teachers advise to avoid translating.
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Senior Member
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 Message 3 of 46
2012 04 March at 5:30pm | IP Logged 
Translating, either way, was my biggest stumbling block to learning Spanish. Once I got out of the habit of translating my progress got much faster. I personally don't think translating in either direction is a good idea.
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 Message 4 of 46
2012 04 March at 6:27pm | IP Logged 
Balliballi wrote:

They encourage learners to translate from TL to NL. If you look at textbooks and other language teaching materials like LingQ, the majority of them have the TL sentence first and then the NL underneath. This trains the learner to translate from the TL to the NL.

You've probably misunderstood the reason why they put TL first NL next.
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Andrew C
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 Message 5 of 46
2012 04 March at 6:54pm | IP Logged 
I think having a translation available is very useful for learners. Having a literal L1 translation as well as a more natural L1 translation, as the OP suggests, is great.

If parallel texts are used, instead of interlinear translations, the problem of which text (i.e. L1 or L2) takes priority is avoided. If parallel texts are not possible, I would prefer the L2 first, as it is good to at least try to understand it before seeing the L1.

To learn from a text without translation (or a dictionary, which you use to look up a translation) is almost impossible.
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atama warui
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 Message 6 of 46
2012 04 March at 7:24pm | IP Logged 
I too think that translating keeps you from thinking in the target language. It's a bad idea, either way.
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 Message 7 of 46
2012 04 March at 7:53pm | IP Logged 
LaughingChimp wrote:
What are you talking about? Most textbooks and teachers advise to avoid translating.

In my experience, this isn't true. But I'm a native English speaker, so our perspectives are very different. Almost
every textbook I've ever used has had translation, and most of my teachers have used it to some extent.

It's sort of a fad today to talk about the evils of translation. And obviously everyone has to wean themselves off of it
eventually. But people have been successfully using translation in language learning for thousands of years, and we
don't learn languages any better today than they did in the past.
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Korea, SouthRegistered users can see my Skype Name
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 Message 8 of 46
2012 05 March at 12:33am | IP Logged 
Perhaps "translation" is not the best word to use. Perhaps "thinking direction" is closer to what I mean.

In my view, the meaning of the L2 sentence should be presented up front, whether the meaning is represented by written words, spoken words, illustrations, body language or the context of a situation.

I chose written words (L1 translations) because meaning in language materials is often shown in this way.

For optimal and faster language learning, especially with respect to acquiring speaking fluency, meaning should be shown first and made clear.*

Expressing oneself in a foreign language involves "translation" - translation of one's wants, needs, thoughts, intentions and opinions into L2. Translating one's thoughts, wants, needs, etc into L2 should be the primary task of learning a new language. Deciphering the meaning of an L2 sentence should take second place.

Comprehension of a foreign language is important, of course, but if one learns how to express oneself in a foreign language, the task of comprehension is much easier. In fact doing the work of expressing oneself in a foreign language usually obviates the need to learn comprehension as a separate task (if one is able to say "I want to go to the cinema" in L2, chances are one will be able to understand the same sentence when somebody else says it in L2.)

Foreign languages are often taught in text books in the L2 to L1 direction. After learning to translate from L2 to L1 (the learner has to deduce the meaning of L2 sentences, and frequently not many clues are provided to show meaning), the learner has to do native language to target language activities in order to learn how to express themselves in the L2 language, sometimes by themselves.

If L1 to L2 activities are done first, L2 to L1 activities are not needed as much. By eliminating the L2 to L1 step, learning is made more efficient. Alternatively, L1 to L2 activities can be stressed initially in learning, especially in the beginner and intermediate stages. L2 to L1 activities are then introduced later when the learner is more advanced (and more difficult L2 material may be studied more fruitfully at this stage).

L1 to L2 thinking may be why Pimsleur and phrase books are popular, and are regarded by many people as effective learning tools.

Conversely, L2 to L1 thinking may be why Korean students have trouble with English even with years of studying English under their belt. In the Korean educational system, reading comprehension (L2 to L1 thinking) is emphasized. University-entrance English examinations are based on MCQs which test the knowledge of esoteric English words and the finer points of English grammar. English production activities are hardly stressed at all although the authorities are trying to change that a little these days.

From what I have observed, Korean students don't excel in reading comprehension and grammar despite the stress on these things. (Some proof that they are poor in general in reading comprehension are the low scores that Koreans as a group get in TOEFL exams compared to people in other countries; these exams test reading comprehension as well as other things.) They also generally suck at speaking and writing in English, which is to be expected. Grammar is mainly taught by Korean teachers, many of whom (in my experience) do not know much grammar even though they may have degrees in English education. (The ironic thing is that many Koreans pride themselves on having good English grammar knowledge, and you cannot disabuse them of this notion. They spent many years studying English grammar, so, as far as they are concerned, they are good at it. Countless times I have heard Koreans say, "My English speaking is poor but my grammar is very good.") This is because these Korean teachers themselves learned English the L2 to L1 way. Their knowledge of grammar is only "pedagogical", and commonly faulty. (I once worked with a Korean English teacher who had a masters degree in English education from New York University, and I happened to glance at a sheet of grammar exercises she had marked and saw that she had made many mistakes in her marking - about half the questions had been marked incorrectly. She could not write well in English either. She wrote a speech for a student who was entering an English speech contest and almost every sentence in that speech had basic grammatical errors.) They cannot use grammar well in speech and in writing though they may do OK in Korean tests of grammar knowledge (and this is only because they "study to the test"). And I have looked at these tests, and they are not of high utility or quality. They test irrelevant stuff. (These tests would not be acceptable in English-speaking countries.) Most English grammar textbooks used by Korean students in schools and academies are written by Koreans as well. And many of them are of mediocre quality like the tests. Actually, they aren't only mediocre, but strange too ... the textbook equivalent of Konglish - Koreanized English grammar, eg., the textbook may place a lot of emphasis on relatively unimportant points of grammar but not cover in depth important areas of English grammar such as the article. So bad English is perpetuated in this country.

(I am not saying studying reading comprehension and grammar is unimportant. Studying both is indispensable, and educational systems of other countries that stress the opposite, and only teach grammar and reading comprehension in a minimal way have their own problems. The educational systems of these nations produce numerous high school graduates who are almost illiterate. Their writing is barely comprehensible (and we are talking about writing in their native language) - many misspellings, awkward grammar and poor punctuation abound in their writing. I think acquiring BOTH productive and receptive skills is important for language learning. I just think productive skills are more important in the early stages of learning, especially if one wants to acquire speaking fluency early, efficiently and relatively painlessly, and that's the main point of my first post.)

*If one's goal in language-learning is comprehension of written words, say, being able to read newspapers in the target language, then translating from the native language to the target language may not be that important. However, I am of the opinion that NL to TL thinking is still helpful in this situation because NL to TL thinking assists one in acquiring grammar.

Edited by Balliballi on 2012 05 March at 12:34pm

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