When Do You Stop Translating Into English In Your Head?

When you learn Japanese, you want to think in Japanese. Regardless of the method you follow, Japanese-only is always the ultimate goal. Yet sometimes it feels that English is inescapable. No matter how much you tell yourself not to translate into English, you still do it. This becomes especially annoying when you enter J-J, and you are fighting a hard battle to eliminate English from you life.

When Do You Stop Translating Into English In Your Head

The good news

There isn’t anything you need to specifically do to eliminate the inner English translations.

Here is what happens:

J-E English confusion struggles

Even from the beginning, despite the obviously present English crutch, you would like it if you could use it and quickly forget it. Japanese sentence structure and grammar is very different from English. Because of this, it starts to get confusing to understand everything in English in your head.

Vocabulary for the most part is no problem, but putting it together in a cohesive order is a different story.

J-J English elimination struggles

English is the last thing you want to deal with, yet you face two challenges:

1. Even when you read the Japanese-only definition, you semi-automatically, and often frustratingly try to decide what the word means in English.

2. When you don’t immediately associate with the English equivalent, you start to jumble the various English parts together, and arrange them in an order that sort of makes sense. You sometimes only kind of get what the word means. Those jumbled parts don’t translate into a proper English sentence, but you get the general English idea.

Why this is all natural

In J-E, Japanese is still new. Your brain has been working with you for a while now. In helping you understand things, it likes efficiency. You know English pretty damn well. You think your brain isn’t going to use that to help you out?

In J-J, the same problem still exists. Your brain understands the J-J struggle, and is still looking for the easiest solution: English. Even when you can’t find the exact English word or meaning, it can give you an English estimate.

Then things change

The more Japanese you encounter and deal with on a daily basis, the more your brain realizes you need this. Yes, English has been a great shortcut. It makes the most sense as English is so hardwired in. But technically it isn’t the most efficient route. You still have to translate from Japanese to English, instead of just understanding in Japanese.

To reach the point where your brain finds understanding the Japanese meaning by itself to be most efficient, your brain has to understand that need. To get to this need, you need more Japanese. A lot more.

This starts off slow in J-E, because you still don’t have much Japanese down and the English is right there. But in J-J, you will be quick to notice a change, and one that should remove your worries.

That jumbled mess of English you have for definitions is not efficient. Your brain can figure this out quickly. Every time you see a word, how long do you think that awkward English translation will remain. The only logical solution is that it won’t. You can replace that confusing mess with just one Japanese word. Efficiency at its best.

Let it sort itself out

Everyone faces the “translating to English phase.” It varies by person but it is a long phase. But ask anyone who gets really good at Japanese whether they still translate in their head when they do something in Japanese. Then ask them when that transition happened and how they did it.

More Japanese + More time = Everything Is Great



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Adam

Adam

Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese. On a quest to become 日本語王 (king of the Japanese language).

Comments

When Do You Stop Translating Into English In Your Head? — 34 Comments

  1. Self-rated as somewhere in the high 50s, I’ve found mixed results at replacing English. When I know the Japanese vocabulary really well, I don’t need English references. When I’m working with complex subject matter, I often do still (mentally) translate to English.

    As you said, it’s about what’s “easier” — in many cases, the Japanese word itself is easier and it’s a small matter to make room in my memory for it. For other cases, especially specialized legal, stock trading, or astrology terms I’ve encountered in The One Deck, it really is easier to just map to English (words like the FTC, mark-to-market, lien, or Capricorn) for example.

    I’ve found it’s easiest not to be bothered if there’s a high fidelity between the English and Japanese meaning of the term. If it’s approximate, the English must be culled immediately. The rest I trust will fall away as time (and the process) grinds on.

    Of course, I’m in an odd position in that my Japanese environment is minimal — limited to on the bus, at home during my one hour of free-time each night, and daily conversations with one Japanese coworker — so your mileage may vary. If I was living in Japan (my first visit will be in 2015) I’d be culling these English lingerers a lot faster.

    In any case, I’d say ideally no more than 5% of your passive vocabulary should require translation when you’re deep in J-J land. Any more than that and you may have (like I did for a time) relied too heavily on the Google Translate app to deliver that facile initial understanding.

    • Technical vocabulary can be an interesting mix because sometimes you don’t have that strong of a grasp of the word even in English, leaving you with a stronger Japanese connection.

  2. I don’t really have this problem. When I first started learning Japanese, sure, but after I’ve heard or read a word enough times, as long as I’ve read the meaning somewhere, I don’t think about it in English anymore. I think my brain just treats the words as new vocabulary. Translating in my head takes too long to bother doing that. I can usually read low level manga without thinking of the english unless I run into an unknown word, in which case I look up that word, and once I’ve seen it a few times my brain stops thinking about it in English.

    • I think it hits different people at different times. But I’ve noticed the most issues people have are when they start J-E and then again when they start J-J.

      You are lucky it’s never troubled you!

  3. Though I’m only around level 7, I’ve actually already found that some words don’t require the English translation in my head. This is of course only with the most common of common words, but it is still really cool. I remember this happening when I was learning German as well with numbers (Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier). Even though my German is terrible.
    When I learn a new word or phrase from anime I feel really tempted to try and look it up in English (to know the exact definition). But then I realized, if I can understand it in its Japanese context, then what do I need English for? I guess if you wanted to be sure that no English translations happen the best thing would be pure Japanese immersion. But that method would take way longer so … no thanks.

      • Well the textbooks I ended up using were the “Komm Mit!” ones. I don’t have experience with any others though. I’d say there were fairly decent, I can’t remember how good the sentences were though.

    • As you said this problem does vary by word and grammar, and the further away from an English counterpart, the less trouble.

  4. My native language is (Swiss-)German and I can tell my experiences especially with English and Japanese.

    After some minutes my Mind has adapted to English and I start thinking in English as well… even while I’m writing this text I don’t translate it into German, I just do it.

    In Japanese… well, I’m still struggling with translating in my head but It’s getting better constantly.

    I started from G-E to E-E and now I’m in E-J
    (I decided to use English as my crutch because I found it quite cool to use the new acquired language for the even newer one ^^ eventually I will use Japanese as a cruth for another language, if I ever make it so far, that is)
    and I do it the same way I made the transition from G-E to E-E: I read and listen a lot. Especially reading is so useful to get rid of this annyoing translations you’re doing the whole time. Because the more you read the more your brain gets used to think in your target language. Listening is a useful task as well. However, listening needs a lot more of skill than reading (Books may be the exception, since they use a large amount of vocabulary), so it will take longer to achieve the same thing with listening I think (Only in terms of making the transition from E-J to J-J. To improve your listening comprehension, listening a lot is indeed the best solution)

    In brief stop worry about those things. When I was learning English I always moaned about this and that. I thought I’d never be able to understand a simple conversation. Now I can understand, write and speak English quite comfortable. Sure it’s not perfect but I never had the attention to become perfect in English. I didn’t choose English because I loved the language so much but let’s be honest… English is so damn useful. Even as a crutch for learning another language English is way more useful than German (Although there’s a bunch of stuff in German too). However I enjoyed learning English and I ceased to push forward after I’ve acquired it for 2 years. Now I changed to Japanese 〜1.4 years ago.
    Japanese is my real love but I’m so glad to have English in reserve… because… without understanding English I would never have been able to grasp the stuff on this website!

    Well… I should go back to my “in brief” ^^
    In Brief, don’t worry to much! I did it in English and it just slowed my whole progress down. Just enjoy and let the things come to you… you’ll see… soon you’ll talk and read quite ペラペラ in Japanese and enjoy things like Anime as if it always was natural :)

    And don’t blame my English! I mean, come on, have you ever seen a child aged 2 yeras old who wrote such a text like I did? :P

    • Good input! The “don’t worry so much,” is such an important piece of advice, but often hard to follow when you are in the thick of the struggle.

  5. I think I separated English from Japanese really early. Being fully monolingual I feel is a different thing than not translating the Japanese in your head. It really helps that Japanese is so different from English grammar wise. I think that actually made it easier to learn.

    I don’t remember ever translating Japanese in my head. I definitely remember translating French in my head in high school, so know what it’s like. I’m sure of course there was some point I did. And even when Japanese was a “separate” language for me, for a long time it helped to translate it into English in order to confirm with a native speaker that I’m getting the meaning.

    Now, I’ve hit a place where I need to actually translate…as a translator, haha. Just today in class, my Japanese American Internment professor asked if anyone knew the word 我慢 and I immediately raised my hand. I mean, I use it all the time, like 我慢できない! But I raised my hand too quickly, because I didn’t know an English word for it! But translating and learning Japanese are different skills. You can be great at Japanese, but still be a bad translator.

    So now I’m reconnecting English and Japanese for my job. But it’s still different. Japanese is still a separate language for me, now I just have to bridge it to English for English speakers. There are so many ways to translate something anyhow. So it’s more of an art.

    I feel learning how to stop translating into English in your head also transfers as a skill when you learn another language. You can do it immediately. At least that’s been my experience.

    • Yup, it can be strange how you have to come back to English for translation work. And the more specific and technical the translation, the more you need the exact English translation as it appears in the dictionary.

  6. I have not made the switch just yet I want to but I am taking he N2 in December and I don’t think it will help in that short of a time period. But I do have a question if I am using a text book how do yo do J-J sentences?

    • Same way as always except with the unknown words coming from that textbook. Sentence with one unknown word (could be an example sentence from the textbook, or if that sample sentence has too many unknowns, find a sample sentence on Twitter or something). If the textbook is all Japanese, you can take their definition, or if it is a J-E textbook, you can just use an online dictionary.

  7. “To reach the point where your brain finds understanding the Japanese meaning by itself to be most efficient, your brain has to understand that need. ”

    I’ve honestly always been skeptical of this line of thinking. Even with the need, if I don’t know what “understand the Japanese meaning by itself” translates into (and I never have), I’m just going to be stumbling along in English as usual. I got it pretty bad when I tried LR reading. All the advice said that because listening doesn’t give you time to translate, it would force me to stop and just accept Japanese on its own terms. But not knowing what that entailed, I ended up translating in my head anyway and getting lost in the reading. It’s not just something you figure out, even if there’s the need to do so.

    • Everyone is skeptical when they are in the middle of it. It’s either hard to believe based on your own experience or a feeling that “maybe others can do it but I can’t.” Hopefully some of the comments here can help show you how others have also dealt with it.

      And I disagree with the idea that listening prevents English translation in your head. The translation still goes on, giving you less time to keep up with what is being said.

  8. I still do J-E cards because it’s very time consuming to make J-J ones and I’d rather use that time actually studying. However, I generally don’t use any mental English when working with Japanese: maybe it’s because I do a lot of conversing, or because I keep a journal in Japanese.
    (I’m taking the JLPT N2 this year, although I’m not sure I’ll pass because I haven’t had as much study time as I’d like—I’m a full time student and the JLPT is the day before Finals Week starts.)

    • I can’t argue that they don’t take time!

      Sounds like you’ve found what works for you though. Good luck on the JLPT!

      • I keep planning to; I am thinking of actually doing it with my next book deck since I downloaded some Japanese dictionary apps. However, if it’s too time-consuming or frustrating I might just stick with the method I know works.

    • I feel the same way I have not been studying as much as I should Which JLPT test are you taking? I am taking N2.

      • N2; I have been doing pretty good with learning all the vocab but I’m worried about the reading comprehension. I’m still bad without furigana especially if it’s anything technical.

  9. I have all english “hidden” on my anki cards using the hidden functionality in Anki.

    Basically I will read the Japanese pause for 2-3 seconds and then click to the next card. If I sit there looking at the card any longer than that then my brain will start to drift into English.

    On new cards that I just cant figure out the meaning of I click on the hidden field to reveal the English translation. Even when I do this though, I ‘take the English with a grain of salt’ and just use it to get the general jist.

    Once my brain has been imprinted with the ‘general jist’ of the sentence very rarely (if ever) do I look at the English translation again.

  10. If you get to the point where you can flawlessly translate between english and japanese in your head, that is brilliant. There is no need to discard English. English is there to map concepts or things to words, those same concepts or ideas exist in japanese but are expressed differently, and occasionally with slightly different nuance. You are much better off using something that you already understand (like English or your Native language) to learn new japanese words. Not only does it save time but it makes learning easier, as you have a set of concrete meanings to attach to a word which you can then flesh out by exposure to how it’s really used in native material.

    • There’s no such thing as translating flawlessly. By its very nature, translation is a process that produces imperfect results. The only reason humans are able to do it properly (when machines cannot), is because they process the translation by way of their sense of “Meaning”. You can think of “Meaning” as the underlying feelings that exist within you independent of language. If you have to first go from one language to another, and *then* try to guess the speaker’s “Meaning” based on the translated speech, that mental process is going to take longer and you’re far more likely to misunderstand.

      What you’re advocating is to think like this-
      Japanese-English-Meaning

      And what AdShap’s advocating is to think like this-
      Japanese-Meaning-English

      Everyone starts the first way. Making the jump to the second way is scary. It’s very hard to accept the superficiality of one’s native language. That the familiar words of their internal monologue are a mere interface used to understand what’s actually happening in their head.

      I didn’t even realize it was happening until I found myself reading Japanese, and feeling emotional responses to it *before* I had the chance to translate. I saw Adam’s silly sentence card “あたしが犬だったら楽しいでしょ!” and I laughed. And then I was confused – why did I laugh? I translated it. Oh, that’s kinda funny, but how did I know that before I translated it? It was really freaky – like growing another limb or something. It took time for me to fully accept that I was starting to read and understand things completely independent of English.

      Now, yes, it’s true that the same feelings and meanings mostly exist in English. It’s true that I was using J-E cards (with minimal English) when the above-mentioned process began to happen. But my point is that the value of J-J, at earlier levels, is *not* about understanding nuanced distinctions. It’s about building up your ability to “think” in Japanese. It’s gravity x100 power-training for your Japanese-Meaning connection.

      “But you can accomplish that with English-based study, too”

      Yes, you can, but it’s MUCH slower. This is my third time studying a foreign language. I put five years into Spanish the “traditional” way, and never got anywhere close to the level of intuitive understanding I have with Japanese after one year. I can read a Spanish newspaper, but I’ve never once had an emotional reaction to something I read in Spanish *before* mentally translating it to English. My reading speed and comprehension never got anywhere near the level they are with Japanese now. I’m not at all hesitant to directly attribute that difference to studying Japanese while relying on as little English as humanly possible.

      Ultimately, everyone’s learning journey is their own. You have to do what works for you, and nobody can tell you otherwise. Just try to keep in mind that other peoples’ methods can still be valid, even if they don’t necessarily make sense to you.

      • Any translation or definition is imperfect though, including defining a word in the language itself (i.e. J-J definitions).

        • That’s why “Meaning” is so important. You want to build a direct connection between a Japanese word and an associated sense of Meaning, and relying too heavily on English slows down that process. The object of studying with Japanese definitions, at least initially, is to train your brain to let go of English as a crutch and focus on building that Word-Meaning connection in a more direct way.

          That doesn’t mean those definitions are flawless. That’s going to be an issue even in your native language. I just got into an argument with my wife the other night about the meaning of the phrase “take a break” (in reference to watching a TV show). To me it meant that I’m done for now, but I might want to watch more later. To her it meant “wait for me, because I’m absolutely going to watch more with you before we go to sleep”.

          Rather than the definition, what’s really important is the connection. If I say “Pizza”, you can picture a Pizza in your head. Depending on the circumstances, it may even make you crave Pizza, or feel hungry in general. The word has a particular “meaning” to you, with associated images and feelings.

          When you hear loanwords like “Saké” or “Ramen” or “Karaoke”, you don’t have to translate them. You know them for what they are, and they evoke appropriate images and feelings. The more words you’re able to do that with, the more natural your interactions with the language become. The more intuitive it becomes to think in that language, and express your thoughts and feelings to others.

      • Bit of the dark arts replying to an old post… But interesting topic, really.
        From a linguistics perspective, something Steven Pinker talks about in his book (the language instinct) is the presence of a kind of ‘mentalese’ in the mind, almost alongside and separate to the language faculty. Instead of thinking in said language, we think in this pre-word ‘mentalese’, and then map these thoughts to, say English. Language is a symbol set, and so its really useful for organising thoughts and ideas. I agree with matt v and say that you really want to go from meaning to language and back again, not language – language – meaning.

        I haven’t seen any research yet from the linguistics world about trying to go Japanese to Japanese as soon as possible to prevent above problem, or even if translation first would be your natural process for the L2 if you completely stacked it onto your L1.

        Its sounds pretty logical though to say leaving behind L1 as soon as possible is the best way. As I finish off my degree I will delve more into language acquisition and come back here and tell some stories. I wouldn’t be where I am without JALUP. You all rock.

        P.S. this learning method, the listening, the sentences, anki etc. Is all pretty amazing from a linguistics perspective. I actually think that because of this site and AJATT, we’ll be seeing a new generation of highly capable, even native level speakers and translators/interpreters in the world. Maybe even better than any of those before.

        • You can reply on as old posts as you want haha.

          Interesting concept about mentalese. When you do have the time, definitely do come back with your language acquisition stories.

          And thanks for the kind words about Jalup.

    • One benefit of learning monolingually is that Japanese to Japanese dictionaries are usually more in depth than Japanese to English dictionaries that only offer a few, one word translations. To exclude yourself from Japanese to Japanese dictionaries means you’re leaving out a really good resource.

      If there were a English dictionary that directly translated the definitions of Japanese definitions, then your argument might be stronger. Some nuance would still be lost, but it’d be better than the J-E dictionaries available now. However, I would doubt the accuracy of that dictionary because it’s secondhand. Learning how to understand the source without needing a translation is the most accurate. That’s why, for instance, reading manga in Japanese is so rewarding, because you’re not getting a translated version and don’t have to worry about how accurate it might be.

      But you can surely use the best of both worlds and consult both Japanese to Japanese dictionaries and Japanese to English dictionaries. However, unless your translating for a job, there’s not really any need to use a J-E dictionary if you can use a J-J dictionary, because it becomes redundant. You understand the J-J definition anyways.

      In the beginning, it’s definitely a good idea to use a J-E dictionary for the reason you mentioned, because English gives you a short-cut and you should use what you know. But at some point, you just don’t need English anymore and monolingual learning is more beneficial.

      And I totally second what Matt V. said. Adshap’s post is not about J-J dictionaries and using monolingual sources, it’s about skipping the step in your brain that translates to English in your head before understanding the meaning and just going from Japanese to meaning. I work as a translator, and I go from Japanese to meaning to English to translate for English speakers. But the translations beginners go through are like Matt said, Japanese to English to finally understanding the meaning. It’s just so rewarding to just understand Japanese as it is.

  11. This phenomenon has definitely reduced for me as I’ve plodded through J-J. Though I am still guilty of it from time to time. Especially for some words, old habits seem to die hard. When I start to question whether I really understand a word (normally when I’m tired) I tend to slip back into English.

    It’d be nice to have an article giving some tips on reviewing/ learning new cards. I remember Alexandre pointing out that the definition in reviews should only be used for reference. Information like this really cut down my review times and I don’t think it was listed anywhere on the site and I found it really useful.

    A couple of examples of things I’m not too sure on is reviewing an incorrect card the second time (should I read the definition again? Just the sentence? Neither and just click good?).Another would be not understanding a word during reviews or learning new sentences(j-j) because of a definition word you don’t understand either.It can be frustrating not knowing whether just to click ‘again’ or to use the browse feature (especially during reviews) and search for the linked cards. If I do that for all the words it happens on it becomes a hindrance to review speed and adding. The alternative is just to keep failing that card till the original card comes back round again (which could be a while). These are just examples of things that could be touched on.

    I don’t mind doing what I’m doing (problems and all), it would just be nice to have some clarification on what’s the best route for review/introduction efficiency. I guess I’d just like some more confidence in the way I’m reviewing and learning new cards to be the absolute best way, by being told by someone else way more experienced and has tested these waters already (because I know there will always be issues like these).
    I’m sure there’s other things that I haven’t thought about as well.

    The short of it; if there’s any cool tips or tricks to make my reviewing and introduction of cards more effective and efficient, I’d really appreciate them. Or if there isn’t, it would be nice to know that too so I have peace of mind that the way I go about these tasks is spot on and to keep addressing these problems despite any frustrations!

    it’s not that I feel like I’m doing anything wrong (like when I used to read EVERY DEFINITION), I just want to do what’s best. And sometimes I feel like I’m missing something that could smooth things out.

    Thank you :)

    • I haven’t really written on the topic because the way everyone actually reviews is a very personal choice.

      As a rule of thumb though, you start off with the most you could possibly do and then work your way towards less and less as time progresses.

      The absolute most would be reading the sentence out loud, writing it by hand, then reading the full definition. The absolute least would be briefly skim-reading the sentence, grading yourself, and then moving to the next card.

      However, if you read the sentence, and understand it all, there is no need to read the definition.

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