Translating and Interpreting to Learn a Language

When developing a skill it’s common to get caught between the intermediate and advanced levels of mastery. Over at Confessions of a Language Addict this topic has been discussed regarding foreign language development. While I’m sure there are numerous ways to get from the intermediate to advanced level of speaking, writing, reading or understanding a language, two acquaintances of mine have used a rather unconventional method from time to time: translation and interpretation.

Isn’t That Counterintuitive?

Yes. At least I think it is counterintuitive but it’s worked for them. One of these people was a friend who needed to work with the Hispanic community in Southern California. He had had an intensive two month Spanish course and then was sent on his way. Getting to the advanced stage of speaking a language is very difficult to do with no language immersion but he was doing his best and getting a long all right. One Sunday at church he was asked to interpret for the Spanish speaking members of the congregation. They would be looking at the speaker while listening to the live interpretation through earphones, similar to the way they do it at the UN.

My friend was quite obviously overwhelmed but the rush of the experience was intoxicating. He was asked to provide this service many times in the future and this made him study up. The speed of the live interpretation got him to stop thinking about how to say things and focus on just saying them quickly enough not to fall behind. It also gave him an excuse that he probably wouldn’t have had otherwise to increase his vocabulary and learn words that weren’t necessarily required for everyday common speech. Later on in his life he had the opportunity to go to South America for a more extended period of time but his advanced level of Spanish allowed him to truly enjoy the experience instead of make him frustrated about not expressing himself well.

Would Professionals Actually Use This Method?

Yes! Dr. Carlos do Amaral Freire was named by Cambridge University as one of the 20th century’s greatest intellectuals. He has studied 115 different languages and has a wonderful poetry anthology where he translated poems from sixty languages into his native Portuguese. While talking to him on the phone the other day, Dr. Freire mentioned to me that translation was a wonderful way to really dig in and learn a language.

I assume that this is due to the necessity to learn vocabulary and expressions that are beyond an intermediate level. At an intermediate level one can usually express one’s needs and wants and the basic idea of whatever one wishes to say. Unfortunately, this can end up making the learner quite lazy. If the need to translate arises it forces the learner to delve deeper and learn more than his or her circumstances would normally require

One Response

  1. For me, translation definitely helps. What I mean by that is simply that reading the same document translated into English and Spanish helped me pick up some good, helpful expressions. Every once in a while I will also try to interpret what I am hearing as I watch “Seinfeld” on TV, although I am either inaccurate in my interpretation or too slow. Nonetheless, it does help me move along quickly with the speakers.

    Also, although I have not yet participated in a complete immersion experience longer than 4 months, I think that would definitely help me overcome the intermediate barrier in Spanish.

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