Monday, March 4, 2013

Is subconsciously translating from your native language to your target language hindering you? I doubt it

I'll get to that chart in a bit, but first let me relate a little anecdote. A while back a Japanese friend of mine had me give a speech at his wedding. He wanted me to do it both in Japanese and then in English; the vast majority of his guests were Japanese speakers, but there were a handful who only spoke English and I was the only speaker who they'd be able to understand. So I was giving the exact same speech in Japanese and then in English.

My usual method for giving a speech is having a list of points I want to cover and then just making sure I hit them as I speak; the purpose of the list is only to remind me of what I want to say and not to provide me with the actual words. As this speech was going to be in both Japanese and then in English, I was language agnostic when preparing the list and it ended up being a hodgepodge of both languages. Here's a sample:

① same high school, 教科書に載ってない言葉

② invited me to his house

③ vegetarian: 食べれる大盛りのパスタ

Even if you speak Japanese, that will probably only make vague sense to you, but for me it directed me right to what I was going to cover in the speech.

After giving the speech, a few people who spoke both Japanese and English enough to understand what I had said in both came up to me and asked me how I had managed to make the speeches so similar in both languages—nuances, jokes, etc., were all exactly spot on in each language (a wholly separate matter is how some jokes worked better in one language than the other, but I digress). Their assumption was that I had translated it word for word and committed it to memory. In fact, I had used my little list to simply point my memory to a concept and then just expressed that concept however it should be expressed in the appropriate language.

And that gets me to Arkady Zilberman and his concept that "we think in a code language of images and associations".

Arkady lays out this idea in a guest post on Kirsten Winkler's blog:

We don’t think in our native language; we think in a code language of images and associations (this language we use in our dreams) which is connected to the native language. So it creates the illusion that we think in a mother tongue. People who speak fluently in a few languages have a rare ability to connect the code language of thoughts and feelings to different speech centers in the brain.
That seems to explain nicely what I did with that speech. Although I only call myself "fluent" in Japanese reluctantly, within the confines of the vocabulary I know I certainly am fluent, so I'm pretty sure I've got this "speech center" he speaks of for Japanese. So, for the speech, the notes directed me to this "code language" which I then processed through the relevant speech centers for each version of the speech. Since the underlying code language was exactly the same, the speech came out pretty much exactly the same in both versions.

Arkady goes on to apply this to what he sees as the problem of most language learners:

In my opinion, most adults cannot escape from the habit of subconscious translation into their native language. In other words, they try to add a foreign language to the existing native language speech center.
So to get back to the graphic at the top, this is how a fluent speaker will process language:

A speaker will interpret non-linguistic input (an image, a concept, etc.) directly in the code language. If it's then going to be expressed linguistically in some way, it'll go through a speech center to become output (speaking or writing). Linguistic input (listening or reading) travels in the other direction; it comes in via the appropriate speech center to be interpreted as code language.

On the other hand, this is Arkady's take on how a non-fluent speaker will process a language:

So the big difference is that there's no foreign-language speech center and the foreign language is interpreted through the native language before making it back to the code language. The inefficiencies this entails are obvious when you're considering actively translating something in your head, but he holds that they are also a substantial impediment even when it's done subconsciously and you don't think you're translating.

While I think these concepts are true when describing a complete language-learning noob and someone who's already fluent, I think the concept is much grayer than either "you are" or "you are not" going via your native language. Rather, it's a gradual process to go from one chart to the other.

When you first start learning a foreign language, you certainly are interpreting it via your native language. However, piece by piece, vocabulary from your target language is getting to the point where that trip through your native language is unnecessary. For instance, I'm skeptical that a native-English Spanish learner will be processing "¡Hola!" through "Hello!" every time they use it, as it's used so frequently.

Arkady might argue that the translation is just happening subconsciously, but this argument is undercut by words that don't exist in your native language. A great example of this is ごちそうさまでした gochisou sama deshita in Japanese. This is said in Japanese at the end of the meal. It's a formulaic phrase that indicates that you're done eating and, in more formal situations, has a connotation of being thankful. There's just nothing in English that plays the same role.

Or you could just take a simple noun that no one knows in the learner's native tongue. 法被 happi in Japanese is one example. It's a piece of clothing, of a certain shape and look, that's worn at festivals in Japan. (Wikipedia calls it a coat, but I'd say it's more of a shirt.) Trying to process a word like this through your native tongue would be utterly pointless as there's just no corresponding word. Even a person just starting out with Japanese that came across this word would just be forced to learn it without any influence from his or her native tongue. So, if we assume that every language has some things that your native tongue does not have, then it will be impossible to subconsciously translate 100% of your target language via your native language.

Let's turn back to the slightly tougher question then: words that do have a sufficiently corresponding word in your native language. When still relatively new to a language, I would agree with Arkady; you will be processing this through your native language (or some other language you know, but let's leave that wrinkle aside). But what is your native language in this case but a stand-in for the code language? Given that a code language cannot be written in words, your use of the native language is really just a link to the actual meaning of the word in code language.

In other words, your use of your native language to remember a word in your target language is nothing more than a mnemonic device to remember the actual meaning of that word in the code language. And just like with any other mnemonic, once the link you're trying to establish has been sufficiently established, you won't need the mnemonic device any longer and it will gradually fade away into oblivion.

To put that in terms of the above charts, the tool used to make the link (the word in your native tongue in your native-language speech center) eventually won't be necessary; you'll just remember the link between the word in your target language (in your foreign-language speech center) and the actual meaning (in code language). Word by word, you'll build a your very own language center, as demonstrated by this crappy GIF animation, showing how you move from one chart to the next:

Arkady goes on to say that 95% of adults lose their ability to connect foreign-language words directly with code language. As the use of native-language words is nothing more than a mnemonic (and typically a powerful mnemonic), I find this assertion particularly dubious (wholly aside from the other times I've discussed why kids have no particular edge in language learning). If he had said that 95% of language learners use some crappy, inefficient method of language learning (*cough* classes *cough*) and get poor results, then I might be on board.

Arkady has made a product based on his take on language learning called Language Bridge. Tune in next week for my mini review of that.

5 comments:

  1.  Differences
    between one's native language and English in pronunciation, grammar,
    vocabulary and stylistic usage should not be ignored by foreign learners
    living and learning English in non-English speaking countries to master
    English thoroughly. When learning and using English foreign learners
    cannot but notice those differences between English and their native
    language. Knowledge of those differences by foreign learners of English
    is essential for understanding correct forms, meaning and use of English
    grammar and for vocabulary usage to reduce making mistakes in English
    as much as possible, especially in fine tricky points of English
    grammar, vocabulary and stylistic usage. Native language interference
    when learning and using English by foreign learners is a natural thing
    equally as translation is a natural language activity in human
    communication. Therefore native language interference when learning and
    using English cannot be prevented or eliminated until English has been
    mastered by foreign learners as good as their native language. Knowledge
    of phonetic, grammatical, lexical and stylistic differences between
    English and one's native language weakens natural native language
    interference when learning and using English.
    Would most foreign
    learners of English especially beginners prefer bilingual English
    learning courses to monolingual English courses?

    In the setting when a native ESL teacher teaches
    English to students from various ethnic backgrounds all explanations of
    English pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary have to be done in English
    only at English classes. As you know there are monolingual English
    courses for learning and practising all four skills in one course in
    each lesson (listening, speaking, reading and writing alongside
    pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary). Four skills English courses
    include textbooks with audio and video recordings for all levels
    including for beginners and are suitable for self-study as well. There
    are also monolingual online English learning courses.Would most
    foreign learners of English especially beginners prefer bilingual
    English learning courses to monolingual English courses? Which are more
    effective, more time-consuming and harder to master the material? Is
    there convincing evidence to support one's claims?

    ReplyDelete
  2.  NATIVE LANGUAGE USE IN FOREIGN / SECOND LANGUAGE TEACHING AND LEARNING.
    In my view it is easier for foreign learners,
    especially for absolute beginners to study English through their native
    language explanations of English pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary
    for easier, better and quicker understanding. Non-native teachers of EFL
    know that perfectly well.Of course practice/exercises should be
    done in the English language only. Most ESL/EFL teachers do not exclude
    native language use in the ESL/EFL classroom. Read some interesting
    professional articles on the role of native language in learning
    English: http://www.teachenglishworldwide.com/Articles/Ferrer_mother%20tongue%20in%20the%20classroom.pdf





























    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~ncellis/NickEllis/Publications_files/Implicit%20and%20explicit%20knowledge%20about%20language.pdf







    http://www.brighthubeducation.com/teaching-tips-foreign-languages/42458-language-acquisition-vs-language-learning/


































    http://www.academians.org/Articles/paper7.pdfhttp://esl.fis.edu/parents/advice/intro.htm



































    http://www.usingenglish.com/articles/well-balanced-use-l1-in-class.html




















    http://www.betterlanguageteaching.com/esl-articles/66-lone-in-the-classroom























    http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/articles/mother-tongue-other-tonguehttp://www.streetsmartlanguagelearning.com/2010/05/false-dichotomy-of-your-first-language.html
















































































    http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/forum-topic/using-l1-esl-classroomhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second-language_acquisition
















































































    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_acquisitionhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_language_teaching_terms_and_ideas



























    http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2010/sessions/2010-04-10/l1-efl-classroom-truth - L1 in the EFL classroom: The truth
















































































    http://tesl-ej.org/ej20/f1.htmlHow
    to Save Time and Increase Learning with the Students’ First Language -
    eslarticle.com (The role of native language in learning English)English Only in the EFL Classroom: Worth the Hassle? - eslarticle.com















































































    http://www.totalesl.com/e_articles_detail.php?id=699&pos=18
    http://tru.uni-sz.bg/tsj/Vol8.Suppl.3.2010/B.Lekova.pdfhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_transfer
















































































    http://esl.fis.edu/grammar/langdiff/intro.htm

    ReplyDelete
  3. In my view it is easier for foreign learners,
    especially for absolute beginners to study English through their native
    language explanations of English pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary
    for easier, better and quicker understanding. Non-native teachers of EFL
    know that perfectly well.Of course practice/exercises should be
    done in the English language only. Most ESL/EFL teachers do not exclude
    native language use in the ESL/EFL classroom. I can provide you with links to interesting
    professional articles on the role of native language in learning
    English.

    ReplyDelete
  4. There are two interrelated issues here: translation and
    native language use in both teaching and learning/practicing a
    foreign/second language (let's consider English), both in the classroom
    and in self-study.

    I express my thoughts on these issues from my own experience as an ESL
    teacher and a learner of foreign languages (German, Russian).

    In my
    opinion there is some limited role for native language use and
    translation for teaching for example English as a foreign language to
    foreign learners of English with whom the teacher shares his/her native
    language: for example in explanations of difficult phonetics, grammar
    and vocabulary material to students, in checking comprehension of
    material by the students, to highlight the differences between the
    mother tongue and the foreign language (English) to avoid
    word-for-word translation from one's native language into English (for
    example proper word order in English sentences, meaning and use of set
    phrases and idioms, etc). Translation exercises can be helpful for
    learners to weaken native language interference in learning and in using
    English as a foreign language.

    I'll be doing more exploration on these
    issues as there are numerous professional publications on translation
    and native language use in teaching and learning a second/foreign
    language. A lot of points on these highly contentious issues among
    ESL/EFL specialists must be taken into account to cover these issues
    convincingly and authoritatively. I can provide you with links to some articles on
    translation and native language use in teaching and learning a
    foreign/second language that I found in the past. Please also read my
    own article "The value of oral translation into English" and my thoughts
    on the role of one's native language in learning/practicing a
    second/foreign language (English).

    Think about how useful translation can be for learning and
    practicing vocabulary (especially difficult meanings and use, including
    set phrases, expressions, idioms), grammar differences between one's
    native and foreign language, and for speaking and writing practice with
    important sophisticated content that a learner is unlikely to create on
    one's own.

    ReplyDelete
  5. After learning English through being immersed in a 100000% English environment for 10 years, I still came to the conclusion that: in depth study, quick memorisation of concepts, and the perception of the 'emotional' aspect of a text are much better achieved through using the mother language (at least a few 'anchor words' here and there).

    ReplyDelete