Sunday, April 18, 2010

Problems of Translation in Language Learning

When you listen to a Michel Thomas program, you spend a lot of time translating phrases from English to the language you are learning. And yet, when you're done, there's a lot that you can say comfortably, including phrases of your own devising. It occurred to me the other day why this should be so. It turns out that yet another aspect of the Michel Thomas programs that can get pretty irritating at first blush serves a purpose:

When Thomas introduces present tense verbs, he always makes a point of talking about how English uses "do" and "don't" with the verb or "am" and "is" to express things that other languages express with the simple present. For example, we say "Do you speak French?" The French just say, "Parlez-vous français?" We say, "I am leaving." The Spanish say, "Salgo." Thomas spends a fair amount of time trying to trick his students into making mistakes by attempting to use the English structures in the language they're learning, until they finally give up translating word by word and end up using the structures he's been drilling them to use.

It is a paradox, but by his constant harping on the errors that arise from literal translation, Thomas creates a course where the students spend 90% of their time translating phrases from English to the target language and end by being able to speak without translating. At least this is my experience - by the end of the course, the structures are ingrained, as are the meanings they imply in a more abstract sense. You end by knowing that in German, if you want someone to do something you start out "Wollen Sie..." and you talk about what you're going to do by starting with "ich werde..." and you cringe at the thought of considering the fact that the verb in English is "will" in both cases because you've been hit over the head so many times with the fact that if you think about what you're translating, not what you want to convey, you're going to get it wrong. By his use of situational translation and his direct addressing of the problems of literal translation, Thomas teaches you to use phrases and structures on auto-pilot when, in a target language only course you might well have recourse to translating in your own mind without realizing the problems you're creating for yourself.

The problem of translation, and the genius of Thomas' approach occur to me because of another curiosity I stumbled upon the other day: the phenomenon of staying in the target language when you speak but translating when you listen. This is something that was a problem for me in graduate school for French literature: I knew exactly what I was saying and I knew enough French to say it reasonably effectively (some of my professors may have disagreed on this last point). However, I did not have the same confidence that I understood precisely the point my professors were trying to make or that I fully grasped why an author had said something one way, rather than another. As a result, I subconsciously would be stopping myself every six or seven sentences to find an English equivalent of a distinction I couldn't quite make in French. I soon stopped because 1) it didn't work and 2) it was tiring. But I didn't take this decision of my own will; it's more that I gave in to the fact of imperfect understanding.

A lot of people talk about the importance of speaking a new language early, and of learning to think in the language. And one of the things that you hear is that you've got to get out there and speak, you've got to use the words you can and use the feedback you get. But with listening, it's different. People can't get in your head to know what you're thinking, so unless your answers are painfully slow or totally irrelevant to what was being discussed, they have no idea what's going on with your listening process? Do you even know? It's recently occurred to me that I can say lots of things in Uzbek, but I have a helluva time understanding an Uzbek song for which I haven't found the lyrics and done a translation. The problem? Even if I feel exactly what the line said, I can't think fast enough to translate it into English to make sure I "really understood."

I'm not sure how common this problem is, but I have met other people who do experience the same problem - thinking that they might not have understood something till they've translated it into English to make sure - and who therefore speak more easily than they listen. If you're having this problem, listen to the radio. Watch movies without subtitles. Do whatever you can to get used to listening to things you don't understand, and in lieu of getting transcripts or re-listening till you get it, try to develop an attitude that sometimes speech comes at you and all you can have is what you get right here and now. That way, when you're in a conversation with someone who talks too fast or above your level, you can listen for concepts, ideas and the direction of thought instead of getting bogged down trying to understand everything. In other words, don't sit around listening to the same thing twenty times, double-checking transcripts and asking follow-up questions till you're sure you know how to listen perfectly: Get out there and start listening to your target language now!


Anonymous Amelia said...

"Even if I feel exactly what the line said, I can't think fast enough to translate it into English to make sure I "really understood.”

Well, I can identify with that. Sometimes you understand every word in the sentence and still not know what the sentence means. :-) I think it’s worse the less related your L1 and L2 are. I know my students and I often noticed this problem between English and Hungarian.

Like you said, a lot of it’s just psychological. You have to be willing to listen even when you hardly understand a single word. (Thank heavens for music!) Keep building your vocabulary and working on grammar and eventually what you hear will start to “clear up.” More and more words and whole phrases will pop out at you. Actually I think that's one of the most fun things about learning another language.

Another thing that can help is doing some detailed work on how sounds blend in speech. An example would be someone learning French working on liaisons. Varies by language, of course.

1:27 AM  

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