Danny Gallagher
Learning Article : Why Literal Translations Can Help You Learn A Language

Discuss the Article : Why Literal Translations Can Help You Learn A Language

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Of course, sounding natural is our end goal. But should we throw direct translations out the window? Probably not. Here's why it's important to reverse engineer a language by using direct translations.

Mar 9, 2015 12:00 AM
Comments · 11

Hi! I liked your article. My sense of humour is often very literal, so this appeals to me a lot.

When I teach French with a beginner, and I ask him or her to read something and translate it afterwards, I do that: I tell what each words mean first and then I tell the global meaning, which can be 2 very different things as you know. I think it's important to understand that French (or any other language) is not identical to English.

The differences are not usually very interesting, but sometimes they are quite remarquable. For example, to say you are feeling queasy, you can say "J'ai mal au coeur" (My heart hurt), which makes no sense in English, but shows that the too graphic "I want to puke" can be avoided. If a language is a special club, you now have "insider's information" that allows you to join in. ;-)

March 9, 2015

There is a book about this kind of learning for languages by V. Birkenbihl. She has developed her method of how to use literal traslation for a more natural way of learning, it's a step by step instructions with a space for personal adjustments in a method and modifications. Just search Birkenbihl method on google. 

October 6, 2015

@aegis I agree that it can be taken too far (although understanding that 你好 literally means 'you good' does lead nicely into 你好嗎).  I don't think translations are the end all be all.  Far from it.  If you ask me, I'd say communication is the end all be all, however you can achieve that.

The point that I was trying to make, more than anything, is that you can use translations to reverse-engineer a lanaguage's grammar.  Furthermore, and maybe I didn't stress this enough, I think this type of learning should only be attempted by people who have that way of thinking.  I would never recommend this to my friends who hate grammar with a fiery passion.  But, at least for me, when I break things down, it enables to me a) remember the specific target more easily, b) understand the grammar embedded within, and c) understand the individual constituents (thereby allowing their use outside of that set expression).  So while it may be a 'slower' way of looking at something to begin with, it saves me time in the long run.

Again, I don't think it's the most important thing, I just think it is a sometimes useful trick that more often than not gets overlooked.

March 18, 2015

@Danny Gallagher: While I'm a big fan of translation, and hate it when people like Rosetta Stone tell you to avoid it all costs, I also think you can take it too far. I get that you like literal translations, but I can't tell exactly how much and how often you are advising people to use it. For example, I wouldn't translate "你好" as "you good" on a flashcard. I would recommend learners understand vocabulary, grammar and idioms in the language; that should be enough to remember a sentence correctly. Overtranslating, literally or otherwise, can confuse things and slow them down to an unacceptable speed.


@Caroline L-B:   "My heart hurt" isn't a literal translation of "J'ai mal au coeur".

March 16, 2015

Hey Caroline,


I submitted my article on January 21st.  I hope that helps!  Thanks for the comment!  I'm glad you liked it.


Take care,


March 16, 2015
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Danny Gallagher
Language Skills
Chinese (Mandarin), English, Japanese, Spanish
Learning Language
Chinese (Mandarin), Japanese, Spanish