This is another part of 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 post about back translation, you should go back and check out the previous posts in the series:
- My CRAZY 5am Language Routine
- Core Study Time In Your Language Routine
- Core Study Sequences: Listening Comprehension
- Core Study Sequences: Lesson Preparation
- Core Study Sequences: Glossika Language Training
- Core Study Sequences: Studying Dialogues
- Core Study Sequences: Transcribing Audio
Speaking of core study time, I've discovered that reading stories daily in my target language is the best way to learn fast while having fun.
That's why my courses teach you through StoryLearning®, a fun and effective method that gets you fluent thanks to stories, not rules. Find out more and claim your free 7-day trial of the course of your choice.
Push Yourself Further With Back 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.
What is Back Translation?
Back translation, also known as reverse language 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!
How To Use the Back Translation Method In 6 Steps
Step 1: Find A Text
Find a short article or another piece of writing in your target language that is more or less ‘at your level'; neither too challenging nor too easy. It could be a recording, but choose something that is already transcribed so you don't have to spend time on that.
Make sure that you're comfortable with most of the grammatical usage in the text – if there's a lot of grammar that you don't understand, choose something else.
Note: it doesn't matter if there is unknown vocabulary – we're focusing on grammar here.
Step 2: Translate
Translate the text into your mother tongue on a separate piece of paper.
Do not translate word-for-word; focus on capturing the real meaning as closely as possible, as if you were translating a novel. Use a dictionary for unknown words. You shouldn't have too much trouble figuring out any meaning, because you've chosen something where you understand the grammar. Right? 🙂
(Note: If there's a really interesting text that's beyond your level, like an article on a blog, you could always use a website translation services company to do it for you… just to get you started!)
Step 3: Take A Break
You now have a short text written in your mother tongue. Put it aside and take a rest!
Step 4: Find A Hiding Place
Put the original text (the one in the target language) away in a drawer where you won't see it.
Step 5: Translate Again!
Now, working from your translation, translate the text back into the target language, without referring to the original! Use a dictionary as much as you need, but don't, whatever you do, refer to the original.
Step 6: Compare
When finished, compare the two versions in the target language: the original and your fresh (re)translation. Focus on the grammatical differences between the two. Where you have expressed something differently to the original, look at the differences in grammar.
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
Reverse Translation: Why It Works
Depending on the difficulty of the text that you chose relative to your level, there may be a few differences or there may be many. Chances are there will be a lot.
The reason is simple – our understanding is often much better than what we can produce on our own. What these difference before you show is the areas of grammar you are less capable in and need to brush up!
Now you can dust off your grammar reference book and read up on those areas!
What Text Should I Use When I Reverse Translate?
The mistake most people make with this activity is to work with a text that's too long.
Doing an entire backward 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
Check the YouTube video at the beginning of this post for some back translation examples.
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!