Translation as a Language Learning Tool

Claire Handscombe

For years, translation has been seen as “bad” by some language teachers. I disagree.

At university, we learned Spanish mainly through a textbook called An Essential Course in Modern Spanish, by H Ramsden. It consisted of a grammar section followed by sentences and sentences to translate like my cat is bigger than your cat, but mine is brown and yours is white. You may scoff, but I could not have asked for a better basis in the language. Hello and what’s your name? are easy to look up, but sentences like those in the book gave me a firm foundation in the language – and if you want more than just a smattering of holiday phrases, a firm foundation is essential. By the end of the year, those of us who'd come to university with beginner level Spanish had grammar that was stronger than those of the people who’d come to university with an A Level and hadn't encountered the pleasures of H. Ramsden. (Their vocabulary was wider, as that is something that is usually acquired over time and they had been learning for longer. We soon caught up after a year in Spain, though.)

It could just be that I learned well through translation because my mind happens to function well that way. It could also be that it’s a method that works.

In my experience, learners want to know the translation of a new word into their own language. I did, too. It’s how our brains process language, after about the age of seven.

As you progress, you will need to rely less and less on your mother tongue. In fact, you can’t always: the many words for snow in the Eskimo language would all be translated snow in English. And how would you say tapas in English? Often, there isn’t a direct equivalent, no matter how much my students (particularly the beginners) would like there to be one. This is where the “feel” for the language and its subtleties come in. (But you can get a long way without that “feel”, so don’t write yourself off if you don’t seem to have it, or to have it yet.)

So it’s also useful to write without resorting to translation – to try and train yourself as much as possible to think in that language, which will be structured quite differently from your own. There is a danger that, without guidance, translation becomes a word-for-word exercise, and that doesn’t work, even for some very basic sentences. My name is Claire does not translate as Mon nom est Claire, which would be the word-for-word version, but as Je m’appelle Claire, which actually means I call myself Claire. Something that sounds natural in one language doesn’t always in another.

But it’s often by trial and error that you find this out, which is what makes translation a useful tool in language learning.


Google Translate is not a dictionary. Do not use it as a learning tool.

Many words have different words and meanings. Automatic translators pick one seemingly at random and assemble them with more-than-questionable grammar. A dictionary gives you them all, and you choose the one which works in the context you have. Yes, it’s harder work. It’s also more likely to be right. Remember those “nuances” we mentioned a while back, and the “feel” for the language? Computers do not have any of those.

There’s good news, though. Back in the stone age when I was at university, we had to look up each word in a physical paper dictionary – which easily took two minutes per word. Believe me, you get fed up of this really quite easily. (That said, I do recommend paper dictionaries if you have the patience – Collins being a good option, not least because they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, tailored to different levels of study.) But these days, there are some great online dictionaries – chief among which is, used by translators worldwide. As well as definitions and translations, there’s an option to hear the word pronounced and there are forums for discussing words you are not sure of. There’s a wordreference app, too, so there’s really no excuse to use anything else.

Photo by Edurne Chopeitia on Unsplash

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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