Core Study Sequences: Reverse Translation

This is Part 7 in a series of articles in which I show you exactly how I’m learning foreign languages every day, and today is about transcribing audio.

In these articles I talk about how I’m using my Core Study Time – a 30-45 minute period at the start of every day which I set aside for intensive study.

Before you read this, you should go back and check out the previous posts in the series:

  1. My CRAZY 5am Language Routine
  2. Core Study Time In Your Language Routine
  3. Core Study Sequences Part 1: Listening Comprehension
  4. Core Study Sequences Part 2: Learning Vocabulary
  5. Core Study Sequences Part 3: Lesson Preparation
  6. Core Study Sequences Part 4: Glossika Language Training
  7. Core Study Sequences Part 5: Studying Dialogues
  8. Core Study Sequences Part 6: Transcribing Audio

Push Yourself Further With Reverse Translation

Do you ever get the feeling in your language learning that you’re always learning new things…

But never really mastering the things you’ve already learnt?

It’s a common problem.

There’s always more to learn, after all.

But language schools are often the worst culprits, teaching a fixed curriculum at a fixed pace, regardless of whether the students master the contents or not.

The hallmark of a successful language learner is someone who takes responsibility for her own progress.

In order to take responsibility, you’ve got to be good at identifying areas for improvement.

And the activity I want to introduce to you today is – bar none – the best way to quickly (and brutally) uncover your language weaknesses.

The Process

Reverse Translation is an activity in which you translate a text from the target language…into English (or your mother tongue)…and back into the target language again!

  • Step 1: Find a short text in your target language
  • Step 2: Translate it into English
  • Step 3: Cover up the original text
  • Step 4: Translate your English version back into the target language as best you can

The main aim of this activity is to highlight the “gap” between your ability to understand concepts in your target language, and to produce concepts in your target language.

What does this mean?

Well, assuming you pick a text that isn’t too difficult (i.e. that you can understand), you shouldn’t have too much trouble translating it into English.

You will, however, run into problems translating it back into the target language.

The difficulty doesn’t come in the vocabulary (you may well be able to remember the words themselves).

The difficulty comes in the grammar – you will forget the details, and struggle with accurately expressing the meaning in your target language.

All is finally revealed when you eventually compare your “reverse” translation with the original translation!

Everything you get wrong – the discrepancies between the two versions – exposes, as clear as the light of day, everything you haven’t mastered yet!

There’s nowhere to hide with this activity!

Where Does The Learning Happen?

After completing the reverse translation itself, you might feel exhausted!

But, it’s vital you don’t stop there!

The real learning opportunity comes from the analysis of the differences between your version and the original version. 

If you call it a day right after finishing the translations, you put yourself through all that hard work for nothing!

  • Compare both versions side-by-side
  • Highlight all the bits you got wrong (or that could be improved)
  • Highlight those bits in the original text
  • Write out those original sentences a few times, say them aloud, come up with some variations on the grammar that’s being used… just spend a bit of time with them and notice what caused the confusion in the first place
  • If there’s a grammar point that’s causing you particular difficulty, you might like to go back to your textbook and brush up on it a bit more

What Text Should I Use For The Translation?

The mistake most people make with this activity is to work with a text that’s too long.

Doing an entire reverse translation of a long text will completely wipe you out, so I suggest you start with something really small and manageable:

  • Grab a textbook or something you’re reading at the moment (not too hard!)
  • Find an interesting chapter
  • Choose an interesting paragraph (3-6 sentences long)
  • Use that

After doing this exercise once, you’ll have a much better idea of what kind of difficulty or length will work best for you in the future.

Lastly… don’t forget to have fun!

Would you use this routine yourself? What problems would you have?

Please share this post on Facebook or Twitter if you found it useful, then leave me your comments or questions below!

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

Got a question? I'll answer it on the podcast! Just click here!

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  • “The hallmark of a successful language learner is someone who takes responsibility for her own progress.”

    This is so well put, Olly! So true for all aspects of life in which we seek progress.

    Cool technique and thanks for the continued language goodness.

  • Victor Cortez

    Olly, but it’s better to, after translating to L1 the first time, give it some time before trying to translate back to L2 right?! In the video it looked like it should be done right after…

    • Well, I would usually translate a longer passage than what I showed in the video. In that case, by the time you get to the end, you’ve usually forgotten the beginning, so it works better.

      But sure, leaving a bit of time is a good thing!

  • Hi Olly, really interesting technique, I loved it. However I wouldn’t use it to practice a language in the begining stages of learning or to develop fluency. I would use it in some advance environment: like “training” to be a translator… well it’s just my opinion. What are your thoughts Olly? would you use it for the basic stages? … Loved the video 😀

    • Well I wouldn’t use it as a complete beginner, but at all stages after that, for sure. It’s not a translation training device. (Bear in mind you don’t typically translate into a foreign language.)

      It’s great for developing fluency because you get direct practice at constructing sentences in the language, and the ability to check your work.