1133322692-4731If I could cut your head open and throw in just vocabulary in a second language, but not just a couple of words, all the terms a language has, and link each one of them to the translation in your own language, the result will only be a terrible headache and zero speaking competence! Translating is not your target, understanding is.

We, poor little grown-ups, are always in the wrong side of everything. When I wrote about the 5 five things babies do very well and we don’t, I deliberately left translating apart.

I promise this is one of the most important things you must learn in order to keep learning and learning non-stop, and my daily challenge in class, convincing my students not to translate. Can you imagine a baby translating to babbling language when you teach them to say “water”?

Words and concepts do not have a logic match

I have drawn the picture below a couple of hundred times in my classes, showing a very clear or unclear relationship between words and the concept they express. I think a drawing on my whiteboard is still the best way to tell you this even when we are surfing the web.


The picture represents the mental concept we all have in our minds. Some have legs, others wheels, but we all know what they are and how they’re used. But there was a time we didn’t know anything about it, and we learnt the concept by observing and imitating. One day, they told us that was called “a chair”, and chair it was for the rest of the days. We joined the word and concept as if they were one, but they’re still two different things. If you mum had told you that was a rock, you’d be calling it rock these days and there wouldn’t be any difference in the concept itself.

If I am to teach you Spanish, and I tell you that is a “silla”, I want you to link the concept and the new word the same way you did in your mother tongue, but YOU decide to fight against the logic and forces of nature, and decide to include a third step.

Chair –> Silla –> Concept of the object

That is as intelligent as getting into the habit of sweeping the floor of your house before you have to go to the toilet. Do it and apart from wasting your time, you’ll end up with wet pants.

We’re no robots

But translating in order to feel secure while studying a language is not the worst, I would say our most important mistake is to believe our memory is good enough to remember the list of words a language has not by logic, but just linking them to our language terms. Memory is not that good!

Do you want to know why so many people think translating is the only way things should be done? Basically because that’s what they were told. Too many people have become rich lying about incredible self-study courses, TV shows or radio podcasts. These, of course, are all based on translating, as teaching in only one language can only be done by human interaction. So when they sell a miraculously learning course they translate everything so you feel comfortable, you pay, and you get scammed.

If you want to learn then go to classes, travel, socialize or apply this blog’s lessons, but don’t spend your money on self-rubbish courses. That could only work if we were robots and we stored concepts in a hard disk. But human brain works differently, as memories are built each time from scratch, not remembered photographically.

There is another reason, we tend to feel scared when we do not know where we’re heading and when we don’t understand, well, you should know at this stage you’re doing it wrong as a baby would not do it like that.

Thanks for reading, more to come on this issue.

Keep Thinking!

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  1. The translating process will be even more complicated when we have to transfer culture word which is probably very different to each other. I like your blog. I am a language person.


    1. Thank you for your comment Ida.

      Translating cultural facts can prove to be impossible or nearly. We can obviously translate any concept from one language to another, even though we might get a bit lost in translation when it comes to its full meaning or connotations.

      Many people translate and have it as their job which they do great, but I wanted to point out the fact that we don’t need translating in order to learn a new language. Translating is something different from learning!


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