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Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

While language "teachers" and "students" alike seem to feel that translation is a helpful and necessary part of learning a language, "translation" is usually counterproductive and discouraging.

Not For Beginners
First, translation is a high-level skill. It requires a very high command of both languages involved, gained after years in the language. Even then a person may know both languages well, and still come up with unintelligible "translations."

Translation is a special skill, which requires cultural insights, awareness of nuances of language and slang, colloquialisms and special usages.

In basic learning, "translation" usually refers to a fairly literal rendering of words, usually from the target language into the learner's native language. This may help understanding, but does not help production. To develop skills in production, the learner must produce!

Stuck in English
I think learners like to translate, frankly, because they don't think they really "know" what it means until they get it into English! But then they are translating rather than learning! Reading then discussing in the target language for comprehension is more productive.

"Translation" limits the target language to English, or remolds the other language to English. There is little one-to-one correspondence of vocabulary or grammar.  Structures don't match.

Cultural Assumptions
The cultural assumptions or social requirements don't match. The need is rather to remold the learner's thoughts and needs into the other language, not modify the other language into our foreign language!

Breaking Out of English Prison
The speakers of the target language know what it means without ever having to know English! The way they "know" arises from their cultural context. Thus it seems reasonable that for the learner to "know" in the same way, we must focus on the cultural context, on the social situation, on the communication event.  

In that case, English fades from importance. The meaning is in the event Thus learning and practicing are most effective when the whole communication event is involved.

Feeling the Meaning
Meaning is in the usage, related to the cultural assumptions and the social context I suggest a dynamic approach to learning, getting into the native context in order to know dynamically what it "means."

Leave the pencils and the dictionaries at home.  Develop a "feel" for the word, not just an intellectual "word" meaning.


Originally published in the "Techniques" series in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, June 1992.
This version posted 28 October 2005

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1992, 2005
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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