Published: Sep 12, 2022 | By: Lucas Weaver
Fluency in language learning by definition refers to being able to speak a language fluidly without having to stop and think of words all the time.
The main obstacle that stands in the way of English speaking fluency for most people is translation. No, not vocabulary. Translation!
Why? Because to get to the level of being “Fluent”, you have to have a pretty high level of English speaking skills in the first place. If you’re already at a high level, chances are that not knowing enough words is not what’s keeping you from progressing. Most likely it's your inability to think of those words and apply them when you need them.
The reason why translation is such a problem is because it adds an extra step in your speaking process that doesn’t necessarily need to be there once you get to a high enough level. Instead of going from A – – – – -> B which is thinking to speaking, you go from:
A- – – – – > B – – – – – > C.
Let’s get Zen for a moment here.
Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle in his world-famous book The Power of Now refers to words as “signposts.” Words are not the objects themselves, they just point to objects.
“You don’t need to know the word ‘honey’ to understand the sweetness of the taste to which it points. You only need to taste honey.”
Honey has an essence or a “beingness” to it. So does everything on this earth. When you think about honey, you don’t necessarily need to think of the word honey.
The Dutch word for honey is “honing.” So, therefore, when you are speaking in English, do you really need to think the word honing and then translate it into honey?
No! You really don’t. Your brain first conjures up the essence of honey. The sweetness, the stickiness, the smell, and probably the picture of a bear (I’m looking at you Winnie the Pooh.)
Your brain is smart like that. It uses language as a tool to communicate about honey with other people who have that same essence of honey in their mind. But your brain doesn’t need you to think “essence of honey – – > honing – – > honey.
When you repeat the same bad habit of translating words that you learned when you were just beginning to learn a language, you are doing yourself a disservice.
In the beginning, you are almost forced to use translation to learn a new language. You don’t know any words in the new language!
Translation can also lead to errors when attempting to speak your second language by literally translating phrases, articles, and prepositions from your native language, as many of these parts of speech don’t directly transfer.
Some language learning programs like Rosetta Stone try to teach you from scratch using pictures of the objects that the words represent, and then teaching you the new word from the new language, without ever prompting you to say or think of the word in your native language.
With this approach, they are trying to prevent you from ever forming the habit of translation. However, the majority of learners don’t learn English in this way. They learn first by translating.
This is perfectly okay in the beginning, however, when you find that your English speaking skills are at a high enough level that you don’t really need to translate anymore, make the conscious effort to break your habit of translation. It will help you improve your fluency and be more comfortable in your conversation skills.
In all of our private English lessons we focus on helping you strengthen your English language skills so you stop translating. We want you thinking in English when you're in our courses. Sometimes in the middle of a lesson a teacher might ask you "What language where you thinking in just now?". This is a moment for you to reflect and observe your current habits.
Moving on from translation isn't voodoo magic. It starts to normally occur once you've built up enough of a vocabulary in your target language that you are learning. Sometimes, however, you already have the necessary vocabulary, you just need a little push to help you break free from your own language.
It’s always a great day for me when I begin to see students in our online English courses stop translating and begin thinking in English. It usually happens around lesson six or later, after an extended period of only speaking practice. I begin to see students enter into a long period where their words flow so quickly and smoothly that they almost forget they’re not speaking their native language.
That, for me, is a thing of real beauty.
If you want your English skills to get to that level where you feel just as comfortable and confident; do yourself a favor and try to stop translating as soon as you can.
Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.