Learning English as a Foreign Language: Don’t Translate: I

Why Should You Stop Translating When You Learn English as a Second Language?

by Owen Fourie

Part One

If you are reading this as an ESL or EFL student, perhaps you are looking for a way to improve your use of English.

The purpose of this article is to help anyone involved in ESL learning or instruction to avoid translation in the learning process.

I shall address this to ESL students, but anyone interested in this subject can benefit.

Remove the burden of translation

By removing the burden of translation from English to your mother tongue and back to English, you are giving yourself less work. You will learn to express yourself in English more easily.

By far, the best way to learn English is to have the opportunity to live with an English-speaking family for a summer. If that can be arranged, have an agreement with them

  • that you will not speak your native language in all the time you are with them;
  • that everything you see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and experience will be vocabulary for you;
  • that they will help you to take this vocabulary and express your meaning in correctly structured sentences.

Learn as a young child learns

Whatever your situation might be, it is better to learn as a young child learns his mother tongue.

  • Listen to the sounds of the words and the way the words are put together.
  • Associate some words (the nouns) with people and animals and things.
  • Associate other words (the verbs) with actions.
  • Do not translate!
  • Try not to use your native language while you are learning English.
  • Regard the language you are learning as the only language.
  • Develop the habit of thinking in English. This will become easier as you practice it.
  • Think of English words you have learned.
  • Think of the right words to use in a particular situation.
  • Think of the correct structure to express a complete thought.
  • Express that thought. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. This will improve with practice. English speakers are willing to help you to improve.
  • Gain confidence.
  • Increase fluency. It will come more readily as you refuse to translate.
  • Express your thoughts in simple, basic English as a young child does.
  • Don’t seek to impress people by trying to use a more advanced vocabulary.
  • Relax! Don’t run before you can walk; don’t walk before you can crawl. Give yourself a chance to develop.
  • Practice daily by listening to English, reading it, writing it, and speaking it, without translating it.
  • Use more advanced vocabulary and structure as you gain in your understanding and grasp of English. Do this gradually.
  • Be warned. This can be a long process. It requires you to be patient and devoted to learning and practicing daily. If you can spend time away from your home and native language, it will shorten the process. If you can completely immerse yourself in an English situation, it will not take long to become fluent in English.

In the concluding part of this article, we’ll look at how necessary it is to think in English and at how important it is to keep to the structure of a second language.


Your comments, observations, and questions would be most welcome. If you are learning or teaching English as a second language, tell us about your experiences, frustrations, and solutions.

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