Do You Translate Back Into Your Native Language?

Joe   Wednesday, October 20, 2004, 03:48 GMT
I'm really interested in knowing when those of you who are bi- or multilingual read or hear something, do you process it in your head directly and understand the language without having to translate it back to your native tongue, or do you find yourself having to translate things back in your head before you can understand or say something.

At the moment, I've been studying German for three months (not including the time to prep to start learning it, meaning learning pronunciation and spelling rules), and I think I've been making incredible progress. For some things, I can understand it directly in German, but the more complex it gets the more I find myself trying to translate it into English.

This causes a problem, because there is no direct translation between any language. I keep trying to directly translate things though, and it can become frustrating and impede my progress.

So I'm curious to find out how you all go about it. With experience do you eventually gain the ability to know something without having to think of the native counterpart?
zen guy   Wednesday, October 20, 2004, 05:22 GMT
i just understand it directly. you have to feel the language in order to learn it. i know it sounds very zen and buddhist to say such a thing but it is true, you do have to feel one with the tongue.

i learned german on my own and i too made really good progress. this is perhaps because i've been speaking english for 15 years, but also because i just try to think in the language. i talk to myself in the target language whenever i get the chance, so in order to become good at it, you have to become insanse a little bit.

sometimes i would leave the german online radio stream playing as i went to sleep, so there was subliminal german going on in my head during my sleep. all these things. you reach a threshold where the language starts sounding real to you, words in that language sound like actual things and not just gibberish. then you break the threshold and you wonder why it was that you were unable to understand it before. those are my two pence on the issue anyway.
Mxsmanic   Wednesday, October 20, 2004, 20:21 GMT
Once you learn a language well enough you will have a natural tendency to think in that language. If you don't know the language very well, you'll have a tendency to think complex thoughts in your native language. The more you learn of the foreign language, the more often and the more durably you can think in that language. It happens automatically as your competence in the language increases; however, you can accelerate your learning by making a conscious attempt to think in the target language. Conversely, if you force yourself to translate far beyond the point at which you're capable of thinking in the target language, you'll never become truly fluent (by your own choice).

Remember, when you learn a new language, you're not replacing the language(s) you already know; you are created a larger metalanguage, of which each of the languages you know is one part.

It is routine for me to hear someone say something in French or English and understand it and respond to it (in French or English as well), and yet not be able to remember later which language was used. Not long ago I attended a wedding in a family that was so fully bilingual in French and English that I'm not exactly sure who spoke which language, as any of us could talk to anyone else in either language, and I don't believe anyone paid any attention to which language was being used.
Joe   Wednesday, October 20, 2004, 21:06 GMT
Yeah, see that's the kind of scenario I was thinking of, Mxsmanic. Most get to a point in a language where it becomes just another part of your thought process.

It really is easy to comprehend how someone who has learned one foreign language has an easier time learning others once they get over that first hurdle. Once you open your mind up to thinking in another language, you get over that mental hurdle that initially causes the first stage of language learning to be difficult and akward.

Would you mind elaborating a bit, Mxsmanic, on if you force yourself to translate beyond the point in which you're capable of thinking in the target language you prevent yourself from becoming fluent? I think I understand what you're trying to say, but I'm not sure.

Did you initially translate into your first language yourself, and how did you start overcoming that? Like I said, for easier phrases and sentences it comes second nature, but the newer concepts for me I need to think about for a second, and as a result I find myself lapsing into English. I'm getting better though. I mean ultimately I'm only at it for three months, you can't expect to be so far after just that amount of time, and for the amount of time I've been at it plus school and everything, I'm thrilled with where I am.
Verena   Wednesday, October 20, 2004, 21:28 GMT
Actually I never translate a text into my mother tongue,only if it is a VERY difficult text and if I don`t understand the gist .But then I only translate the unknown words not the whole sentence.
Tolkien   Wednesday, October 20, 2004, 21:38 GMT
I speak English and German fluently. I was born in Germany but live and work in England and so have to speak English every day. I do have to translate everything into German in my head, however, because I see things in German, I hear in German, taste, touch and smell in German, and so think in German. Nothing makes sense to me unless it is in German. I hope this answers your question.
Jose   Thursday, October 21, 2004, 00:03 GMT
either you're lying about translating everything into German
or you're lying about speaking English fluently,
I cannot imaging how somehow can possibly speak FLUENTY any language having to translate everything into another language,
people might think you're slow by the time it's going to
take you to answer simple questions like,
What's the time? or Can you hand me that pencil?
by the way,
what's your job?
Tolkien   Thursday, October 21, 2004, 07:49 GMT
I do it with lightning rapidity. I am a civil servant. What's your line?
Miguel   Thursday, October 21, 2004, 11:04 GMT
At the begining nobody can understand the language without translating it into your mother language. but after a while you don't need to translate
Josef   Thursday, October 21, 2004, 14:50 GMT
i'm currently learning german, still a beginner. occasionally i'll read a word or sentence and will immediately think of what it's describing instead of its english equivalent. it's a good feeling. hopefully that'll happen more and more frequently
Steve K   Thursday, October 21, 2004, 16:22 GMT

What do the letters BS convey to you in German?
Lavoisel   Thursday, October 21, 2004, 16:31 GMT
I love what they convey in English. :p
Joe   Thursday, October 21, 2004, 20:59 GMT
For me, I find it more distracting to try and think of the English equivalent for every word than to just listen to and understand it in German. Especially in conversation. What screws that up for me is when I run into several words in a row I don't yet know (which is an inevitability with only three months under my belt) and then have to try and make some sense, and ultimately can do that only by trying to translate it into English. That screws it up even more.

But I can see over time, just like Miguel said, myself relying less on thinking of it in English. Simple phrases come immediately to mind in German without me having to think of what I want to say in English first. So it's natural to assume that as time goes on and you gain more experience, that ability will grow until I can do that with complicated sentences and words. So I'm excited to get to that point!
Mxsmanic   Friday, October 22, 2004, 05:25 GMT
Translation limits competency in a language because you are effectively using only one language, not two. People who persist in mentally translating always speak L2 more poorly, and more slowly.

From the very first moment you begin studying a language, you start to think in that language to some extent. You can encourage this consciously, or you can resist it consciously, thereby dramatically affecting the degree to which you think in the target language … but you cannot completely avoid thinking in the target language, and until you are very fluent, it's very difficult to avoid occasionally translating.

Once you are very fluent, you must constantly force yourself to mentally translate if you still wish to do so. There are only two classes of people who do this, in my experience: people who have very strong linguistic egos (and thus will never achieve native fluency in any language but their own), and interpreters. Interpreters have to be accustomed to mentally translating because their work requires it and it must be done in real time. It's useful for interpreting (and only a handful of people are really good at interpret), but it's bad in every other situation.

Have someone ask you a question in the target language, then answer the question in the target language. Then have him ask you another question, and translate it. If you can answer more quickly than you can translate, you're thinking in the target language; if you can translate more quickly than you can answer, you're thinking in your native language and you are mentally translating.

There's no magic to thinking in a different language. You can learn that "tree" = "arbre" in French, or you can look at a tree and _know_ that it is an "arbre," without worrying about what it is called in any other language. In the latter case, you think directly in French, even if you're a beginner studying that language.

If you learn a word for something in your target language that you don't know in your native language, you're forced to think in the target language. For example, the word "chez" in French has no English translation, and even from the very beginning in my study in French I had no choice but to think in French when using it—no mental translation was possible.
Sanja   Saturday, October 23, 2004, 16:06 GMT
I think when I listen or read English I translate it back into my native language, but it's a very fast process and it all happens in my head, so you can't really catch it. But yes, I agree with Tolkien, I think in my native language and nothing makes sense to me unless it's in my native language, so yes, I think there is a very fast translating process going on in my head.