Translation , Local Language And Language Learning

Translation , Local Language And Language Learning

“You know, some of us, first translate from our local language to English and then to French” (Beginner French Student)

“When I first started out learning French all I knew how to say was “Bonjour” a greeting but as time went on I captured enough words to help me construct a sentence, so often I would first make the statement in my mother tongue within my mind and then look for the appropriate pieces of words in French to put together to make my verbal communication. It’s fun!” (Eyangu James, Beginner French student)

“Learning French was a bit of a challenge because I always made sense of sentences in English first and I feared to make mistakes. However, as I moved from the beginners’ class, I deliberately made an effort to “think” in French and the focus moved more on ensuring that I could communicate even with the grammatical errors without translating to English. Once the fear was gone, learning French becomes easier.” (Joanita Kemigisha, Intermediary French student)

This is how some students are managing to integrate the French language by applying translation (according to UNESCO (2013:14), it’s the expression of the same idea in several languages) during their learning process.

It is challenging to realize the mental effort used by the learners to integrate a foreign European language. I had hardly imagined that some learners had to think first in their native language / mother tongue, and then translate it to English before communicating in French (See the table below for the example on passé compose). Is it an obstacle or an advantage to their learning,  knowing that most of the time, learners speak French only during the training period, and sometimes English at their work place and then the local language almost all the time ( even at their offices).


It is important to first know that, as beginners, it is very normal to process as they are doing and contrary to what they think, it can help to create links between languages. But the more they move into the intermediary and advanced levels; they will think more and more in French. For this, they have to overcome the fear of making a mistake like Ms Joanita did.

Secondly, to understand that, to learn a foreign European language , emphasis should be put on action and vocabulary for language competence and that grammar comes occasionally.

Thirdly, it is also crucial to know that there are very smart people when it comes to learning languages (women learn faster than men and children faster than adults). How do they do that? They are simply immersed in the learned language. Actually, they can communicate even without knowing the grammar and the complexity of the sentences used. Therefore they are less focused on grammar than vocabulary.

The transfer of linguistic competences from the local to the foreign European language can be very helpful to understand what personal strategies are used by learners to integrate a foreign language. However, it becomes challenging when learners try to focus too much on grammar and if they are afraid of making mistakes.

By Ngaté Hervé-Boris, Psychologist/ Language and Cross-Cultural Trainer.

[1] Mostly spoken in the central region of Uganda

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