What is your usual process for dealing with unfamiliar words or phrases in a new language? Some people don’t even have to think about how to solve this problem. They whip out the smartphone, open up Google Translate or some similar app, input the words or use the translation detection feature to auto-translate and BOOM, job done.

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It sounds great. It’s a technological solution to an old problem that previously could only be solved with the help of a tutor or a paper dictionary that you had to pore over word by word trying to piece together the meaning. So, what’s wrong with this approach?

Problem – Translation is a Fast Solution that Slows Real Learning

The main problem with using translation in this way is that it slows you own learning. You become dependent on these fast solutions and you forever slow your ability to gain the critical skill that you need in order to learn a language more effectively. That skill is the ability to think in the language that you’re using.

When you are translating, even doing it the old-fashioned way with a dictionary, you are not really thinking about the words you are trying to learn. You are not studying them. You are still thinking in your native language, and you are performing a kind of “transfer,” like a currency exchange, from one language into the next. Doing this will keep you trapped in the mode of only thinking in your own language.

Solution – Learning a Language More Conceptually

The solution to over-relying on translation is to train yourself to have to really understand your new words and start thinking about them in your target language, not in your mother tongue.


Since the majority of language learners will use flashcards at some point in their learning, let’s begin with this. Flashcards are a rudimentary form of translation practice. You read the card in your language and say it back in your target language. This can be an effective method for memorizing single words, but it won’t help you think in the target language.

With flashcards, consider using picture prompts instead of direct words. This is similar to the way Rosetta Stone worked as an concept. You would see pictures of things happening and your first thought would hopefully be in the target language, not in your own language.

From picture prompts, you can also be better inspired to create sentence responses, and not simply translate one single word into another single word.

Abstract Terms

Representing more abstract terms like “truth” can be trickier. Where can you find a picture of “truth”? The challenge of forming image-based abstract vocabulary is just yet another part of better training your brain to think in a new language. By combining images together, you can create a prompt that really stimulates thought as you prepare to say it in your target language. For example, for “truth” you might use a picture of Pinocchio, who having just told a lie now has a long nose. Next to that you could put a red cross image. The red cross represents “not” and Pinocchio represents “lie” – not a lie = truth.

Don’t be afraid to also apply some words or definitions in the target language combined with the images if that makes it easier with some abstract words. As long as you don’t include words in your own language that you simply translate, then you are on the right track.


If you don’t want to use pictures on your flashcards, then you could use explanations or translations instead, but these should be written in the target language, and not your native language. This does two things for you. First of all, it offers you practice in reading your target language. Second, and more importantly, in getting familiar with the definition or explanation of words in whatever language you are studying, you will deepen your knowledge and be able to think about and explain your words using that language.

Translation is for Beginners - Thinking is for Pros

To truly raise your level in a second language, you must be able to get to the stage where you can think in that language. This doesn’t mean that every train of thought you have about everything will be in Russian, French or Chinese, but that you can think about the vocabulary and grammar you know in the terms of those languages. If you have to keep going back to your native language, you’ll never achieve that “shift” in mindset that you need to master another tongue!

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