Who hasn’t been guilty of this at least once in their language learning experience: You either try to translate a sentence from your own language into your target language, or you try to do word-by-word translation of the target language into your own language. Guilty? I know I have been!
Well, as you might have found out by now, this very often just doesn’t work. While it might work better with some languages that are closely related to yours and while translation is sometimes okay and even necessary to some degree, you should approach the whole process completely differently.
Let me tell you how.
You have to think of the sentence as a riddle to solve.
The first thing you have to do, is change the way you view a sentence you don’t understand. Most people get frustrated when they don’t understand a sentence. I get excited. Why? Because I see that sentence as a riddle.
Viewing words and sentences you don’t understand as riddles to solve makes the whole language learning process more pleasant and more exciting. That is why I love learning languages. I love to solve a riddle! Don’t you?
So, in case you’re out of practice solving riddles, here’s how to go about it.
When trying to understand a sentence in your target language.
1. Focus on the main words
Look at the individual pieces of information you know (or understand). Typically, they will be what I like to call “main words”. By “main words”, I mean the “long words” such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. They are usually quite easy to spot because they are usually the “longer” words in your sentence. They are also typically the ones you have on your flashcards. So chances are, you often already know many of these words in a sentence or text.
2. Connect to create meaning
The issue most people face here, is to know how these words connect to form a meaning. Because in between these words, there are usually a few “mini words”, for example conjunctions like but, too, and, etc. They are sometimes hard to understand or define, because we can’t really associate them with any visual or tangible concept (which also makes them harder to learn and to remember).
The key to success, is to now try to assemble these words in a way that makes sense and creates meaning.
3. Use the context to guess
Your job now, is to guess how the “main words” coordinate in a manner that will make sense in the context. That is why context is so important. You must absolutely work within context at all times when reading or listening to something. This will often help you guess the meaning of the sentence correctly.
This system works especially well when you start conversing with people in your target language. Very often, you will hear words you know but by the time you remember their meaning, the person already finished speaking and moved on to something different.
This is where the guessing part plays a huge role. It’s a time saver. You focus on the main words you know and fill in the blanks. Sometimes you will be right, sometimes you won’t. The key in language learning is to have a high tolerance of incomprehension.
4. Have a high tolerance of incomprehension
I say this all the time. Unless you are willing to miss out on information or to get the information partially (or sometimes even completely) wrong, you will just stand in your own way trying to learn the language because it will simply take you forever to make things out and you will most likely become totally discouraged at some point, if not give up altogether. You don’t want that to happen.
So, let’s sum up:
- Focus on the main words of the sentence
- Try to connect and rearrange these words in a way that makes sense and creates meaning
- Always create that guess within the context
- Have a high tolerance of incomprehension but don’t automatically assume your end guess is wrong
When trying to say something in the target language
1. Forget about grammar
Ah, the loooong seconds everybody waits to hear what you have to say and you just can’t form a sentence because you’re focusing so hard on getting it exactly right! It is better to say a sentence quickly and wrongly than you try to say it correctly and fumble your words the whole time.
I’m sure you have experienced it the other way round: someone is trying to tell you something in English (or another language that is your mother tongue) and here is what you have to listen to: “I…er…I am….er….organize….er….a…er…a party….er….tomorrow….er…my brother he….er….he marry….” Anyway. You get the picture.
When you have to constantly listen to such a flow, you eventually tune out. Be honest. Everyone does. You either forget the beginning of the sentence because it’s taking the person so long to finish it or, if you are a truly kind and patient soul, you will make an effort to listen and follow but you will be completely exhausted by the end of the conversation.
I’ve been there. If you haven’t – it’s high time you met with some foreigners who are learning English!
Try not to be that learner. It’s a lot more pleasant for natives to hear you make mistakes than to listen to endless pauses, errs and self-corrections. Leave that for the classroom.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes when you speak. Also, remember that there are often different correct ways of saying something, so don’t worry about getting the “exact” sentence “exactly right”.
Most people will make an effort to understand what you said. Their minds will be on auto-correct much like Microsoft Word and often they will ask to make sure they got your meaning right. Rely on their in-built, native, auto-corrector to take the pressure off of you to say everything correctly!
2. Work with the tools you have!
Translating word for word is frustrating because most of the time it just doesn’t sound very natural. Plus, you are complicating the whole process by stumbling upon words you don’t know in your target language.
Instead, look at your language arsenal as a toolbox you progressively fill with new tools for handiwork you have to do. If you need a screwdriver but you don’t have one in your toolbox, you can use the knife you have there.
There’s a reason there are synonyms in the language, so make use of it! You don’t have to know the word for “vessel”, just use “ship”.
3. Keep it short and simple
Keep your sentences short and simple. Here’s how to do it.
Think about what MESSAGE you want to share. Then mentally look into your vocab toolbox to see if there is a word there you know that is either an exact match or a close match/substitute.
For example, if you want to say you don’t have a watch, but you don’t know the word for watch, look if you know another related word, like “hour”. So, instead of saying, you don’t have a watch, you can now say you don’t have the time.
It’s very close and will convey the same message or a message close to it. If you don’t know the words you need, you can draw or mimic them. If you do know them, great! You can tap your wrist and say, “I don’t have…” People fill in the blanks even when they are talking to someone who speaks their native language. Even men and women do that!
When a woman says, “There’s nothing left to eat in the pantry!” a man will hear something like, “You do not take care of me.” (Correct me if I’m wrong guys, I’m still learning! :D). If a man says, “I don’t want to go out tonight.” A woman will hear, “I don’t want to spend a good time with you.” Ugh. WHY??! Well, that’s just the way it is.
So remembering, that even in your own language you interpret verbal messages differently depending on what gender you are and are speaking to, should take the pressure off of you when saying something in another language. (NB: There can even be misunderstandings from man to man or woman to woman!)
The person WILL fill in the gaps and interpret it according to the context, how well they know you and how much they know about the subject you are talking about.
4. Final advice
In EVERY circumstance where you are not sure: JUST ASK!
No one will be offended and it will often help you to stay out of needless trouble and misunderstandings.
Rephrase, “recap” to the other person what you have heard and how you interpreted their words to make sure you have not only heard but understood correctly. You will be surprised at how often you miss the mark to some degree.
Hopefully, this will greatly improve your communication on all levels, as well as the knowledge and understanding you have of others!
To your success,