When learning a language on your own for the first time, it’s hard to know what path to follow.
There are so many popular methods, strategies, and learning pathways out there that most people just pick the first method they find and start learning. This works well for a while, but most people soon find that the method they’re using is too boring, too stressful, or simply too abstract, and unable to help them use their target language productively.
What if there were a better way? What if you could find a tried-and-tested method that is:
- Well-organized, and structured according to the major language skills?
- Capable of helping you memorize words and sentences easily and naturally?
- Able to develop your ability to think directly in your target language?
- Built upon a foundation of stress-free feedback?
- Both fun and rewarding?
Fortunately, there’s no need to wonder. Today, I’ll be sharing with you some of the foundational concepts of that method—the very same method I’ve used to learn 10 out of the 14 languages I speak!
This article is part two in a series on how to start learning a new language. By now, I’ll assume you have read the first article of the series and picked up a high-quality beginner resource based on the recommendations I made there. But if you haven’t read it yet, go check it out now.
Once you have your beginner resource in hand, you can start working on the one activity that will be the backbone of all of your future language learning success—building skills!
This is an important detail that often gets overlooked, because language learning is, first and foremost, about acquiring skills. About learning how to read, write, speak, and listen, along with all of the countless subskills that any competent language speaker has in his or her toolbox.
In traditional classroom settings, the development of skills often gets overlooked in favor of facts. Facts in the form of conjugation tables, word lists, grammar explanations, the names of verb tenses, and so on. All of these things are related to language, but it’s important to realize that knowing these things has nothing to do with speaking and using a language productively.
For example, did you ever consult a verb table when learning your native language?
I don’t think so!
So my method, the method I’m going to be talking to you about today, doesn’t waste your time with such things. Instead, I’ll be teaching you how to use translation to develop a core of authentic language skills—the very skills that native speakers of your target language use each and every day!
Let’s dive in:
Step 1: Gain a Deep Understanding of the Content
In Part 1 of this series, I spoke at length about the importance of bilingual texts (affiliate), and in particular, bilingual dialogues (affiliate) with accompanying audio files. Now, if you’ve followed my advice, the resource you’ve chosen contains many of these dialogues, which you’ll now be using to begin learning your target language.
In this first step, the goal is to learn how to take these beginner dialogues—which should come in both your native and target languages—and use them to develop a deep understanding of what the target language version of the dialogue actually means.
As an absolute beginner, the first skills you’ll need to develop are listening and reading. That way, you’ll be able to interpret the sounds of your target language, and decipher the written language used to represent those sounds.
Luckily, your bilingual dialogues should have everything you need to start listening and reading quickly.
Once you get comfortable with following along with the text and audio, you can develop a deeper understanding of the content of the dialogue in a number of ways. For example:
- Read the target language text and listen to the audio at the same time
- Read the text in your target language only, without audio
- Read the text in your native language only
- Read the text out loud in your target language
- Compare both the target language and native language versions of the dialogue, and use the accompanying grammar notes to clarify any details you did not originally understand.
Completing these activities will help you progressively gain a deeper and deeper understanding of what any given dialogue in your coursebook actually means.
At this stage, focus solely on grasping what the dialogue means—don’t worry about translation or memorization yet. Those will come later.
Step 2: Translate the Text into Your Native Language
Now that you understand what the target language version of your dialogue is supposed to mean, we’re going to complete our first translation step—taking the target language text and translating it into your native language.
Since your chosen beginner resource likely comes with a native-language translation of the dialogue already, you might be curious why this is necessary.
The answer is personalization. Your brain is more likely to memorize information that it deems important or personally meaningful to you. Straight out of your textbook, the dialogue you’ve been working on probably doesn’t have much personal relevance. Someone else wrote the dialogue, so it’s not something that’s unique to you or your circumstances.
By taking the target language dialogue, and using what you’ve learned so far to translate that dialogue into your own words, you’re doing two things:
- Creating a unique, more personal, and more memorable version of the dialogue
- Paying deeper attention to the content and structure of the original dialogue, so you can translate it faithfully into your own language.
Together, these two steps will help further solidify your knowledge of the dialogue, and make it much easier to memorize the words and phrases it contains.
At this point, it’s important to consider how you’ll perform this translation, and where you’ll keep it. For most people, I recommend either:
- Writing the translation by hand into a dedicated language notebook
- Typing the translation and saving it using software like Google Docs, or Evernote.
Personally, I enjoy typing my translations into a Google Doc. Typing allows me to complete the process quite quickly, and doing so in word-processing software allows me to move and reformat things easily.
Step 3: Translate the Text Back into Your Target Language
Now for the final step. You’re going to take your personalized, native language version of the original dialogue, and translate it back into your target language.
This is the most powerful step of this entire process, since it provides a number of key benefits:
- It tests your brain’s ability to recall what it learned in the earlier two steps
- It tests your ability to form phrases and sentences in your target language
- It compels you to think directly in your target language, so that your final sentences convey the correct meaning
So, where do we start, how do we actually do this?
First, we actually start by waiting.
Once you’ve completed the native language translation in the last step, it’s best to wait anywhere from 24 to 48 hours before translating your dialogue back into your target language.
Why should you wait? Because waiting helps you forget!
And why should you forget? Because information that is forgotten and then later recalled will actually create stronger memories than information that was never forgotten at all in the first place.
Traditional schooling teaches us that forgetting is a bad thing, but neuroscience research has shown that forgetting plays this fundamental part in memorization. To repeat, if we forget something and then are reminded of what we’ve forgotten, we will remember it better in the future.
By waiting a day or two to complete your second translation step, you’ll be taking advantage of this important neural mechanism.
Once you’re ready to translate back, here’s what you should keep in mind:
- Translate sentence by sentence
- Read your entire native language version of each sentence first, and then attempt to convey the meaning of that sentence into your target language. Avoid translating word-by-word, if possible.
- If you find that you’ve forgotten a word or phrase, try to wrack your brain for three to ten seconds, and try hard to remember it. If you still can’t remember after that time, leave a blank space in your translation, and look it up later. Once you look them up, those forgotten words and phrases will be more strongly remembered going forward.
When you’ve finished this “reverse translation” step to the best of your ability, you can compare your new target language version with the original version in your coursebook. This step provides the “stress-free” feedback I hinted at earlier, as it helps you observe the kinds of mistakes you make in the language, as well as the kinds of things you’re more likely to both forget and remember.
So there you have it!
These are the three key steps that will help you start learning any language through translation.
To recap, those steps are:
- Gain a deep understanding of the content
- Translate the text into your native language
- Translate the text back into your target language
These steps are a distillation of the method I’ve used to learn ten of the fourteen languages I speak today. If you put them to use, and do so often, you’ll quickly begin to read, understand, and think in your target language—even as a beginner!
If you’d like to learn more about this method—including, among other things, the powerful learning plan that will help you rotate through these activities consistently and efficiently—click here to check out my brand-new online course, which will teach you everything you need to know about putting my Bidirectional Translation to work for you, so you, too, can learn any language!
Written by Luca Lampariello