Shocking Stat: 45% of Californians Don’t Speak English at Home

Rush Limbaugh, America’s Anchorman and Doctor of Democracy, is known as the pioneer of AM radio. Limbaugh revolutionized the media and political landscape with his unprecedented combination o f serious discussion of political, cultural and social issues along with satirical and biting humor.

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How to Learn English Fast: The Language Hacker’s Method

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If you want to get fluent in English, you’re in luck. It’s the second most spoken language in the world. So you won’t have to look very hard to find lots of English resources and lots of chances to practise both spoken and written English.

What if you want to learn English fast? Then there are some steps you should follow so that you don’t waste any of your precious study time or lose interest in studying.

Let’s get to it! Here are my 9 steps for how to learn English fast.

Step 1: Find a Good GREAT Reason to Learn English

Are you surprised that the first step isn’t about how to learn English words or grammar? Don’t be! Finding your Big Why is much more important than knowing which words to learn (“the what”) or the best study methods for English (“the how”).

Before “the what” or “the how”, start with “the why”. Get a pen right now, or open a text document on your computer, and write down why you want to be fluent in English.

Don’t write a reason just because it sounds cool. Really think about why learning English is important to you. You don’t have to show it to anyone. Just make sure that your reason is great enough to motivate you throughout your English mission. The more motivated you are to study English, the easier English will be to learn.

During the remaining eight steps in this article, if you ever find that you’re losing interest in studying English, come back to this step and remind yourself why learning English is a great idea.

Step 2: Decide Exactly What You Want to Do in English — And When You Want to Do It

I’ve studied a lot of languages in the past 15 years. I’ve learned that I make much faster progress when I have a clear goal in mind than I do when I’m just studying aimlessly.

In this step, take the same sheet of paper you used in step one. Write down exactly what you want to achieve, and when. If you’re reading this article, then you probably want to learn English fast. In that case, your goal should be ambitious. Even if you’re not in a big hurry to get fluent, make your goal clear and specific. Here are some examples of bad (unclear) and good (clear and specific) goals:

Bad Goals

Good Goals

Notice how the bad goals have no time limit. When do you want to complete your goal? This is important. If you have a time limit, then you can evaluate your progress during your studies and figure out if you need to change your routine to meet your goal. Each of the good goals has a very clear deadline.

The bad goals also don’t include a clear measure of success. What do you mean by “fluently”? Which university do you want to attend and what are the English requirements there? If you want English friends or romantic partners, what do you want to talk to them about?

Before you move on to step 3, write down a clear, well-defined goal that you want to achieve in English.

Step 3: Find English Resources that are Just a Little Bit Challenging

If you want to learn English fast, this step is key.

If your English is still basic or lower intermediate (for example, if you find this article a little bit difficult to read), then don’t try to read the New York Times yet! It will only discourage you. Instead, look at resources such as VOA Special English News where you can listen to news stories in clear, slow English.

Make sure your study resources aren’t too easy, either. If you’re an intermediate English speaker, reading children’s storybooks or Wikipedia in Simple English might make you feel confident if you understand every word. But in fact, you’re just wasting your time. Are you really learning English if you’re only seeing words you already know?

The perfect English resources will be just easy enough that you can understand the basic ideas without looking up any words in the dictionary, but difficult enough that you have to look up several words if you want to understand everything in detail.

Try out as many different English resources as you can. Discard the ones that are too easy or too hard, and keep using the ones that are just right for your level.

Step 4: Find English Resources that Match Your Goal

Make sure everything you do in your English studies brings you closer to your goal.

If your goal is to talk with native English speakers about films, then watch English films. If you want to pass an English exam so you can study abroad, get a tutor who’s qualified to prepare you for that exam. If you just want to learn how to have casual conversations in English, then go to meetups and language exchanges where you can chat about everyday topics.

This is why it’s so important to have a good, clear goal. If you aren’t sure where you want to be in three months, six months or next year, then you won’t know where to start looking for good practice material.

Step 5: Learn New English Words — Lots of Them!

I’ve met too many English learners who put all their effort into perfecting their accent and grammar. They’re already trying to sound like a Wall St. stock trader or a BBC Brit, before they know enough vocabulary to talk about these subjects.

This is a mistake. Your English will take you much farther if you have a wide vocabulary than it will if you speak with a perfect accent but don’t know very many words. Most English speakers in the world speak English as a second language. Nearly all of them speak it with a foreign accent. So we native English speakers are used to hearing foreign accents, and we don’t mind it at all.

Perfect grammar also isn’t as important as vocabulary at first. Lots of native English speakers haven’t mastered English grammar, and they get by just fine. You can still be fluent in English and make some grammar mistakes. But you can’t be fluent if you only know a few words.

What you can say makes a bigger impact than how perfectly you say it. Even the president of the EU speaks English with a foreign accent! So don’t worry about it. You can still go very far in life even if you don’t sound like a native English speaker.

6. Speak! Speak! Speak! Speak English!

No amount of listening, reading or writing practice will make you a good English speaker. If you want to speak English, you need to practise speaking it.

The easiest way to do this is to take English lessons at home on Skype. Start by searching for tutors on italki. If you don’t have money for tutors, you can search for conversation partners to do a free language exchange. A language exchange is a conversation that you have with a native English speaker who wants to learn your native language. You take turns talking in English and your native language.

There is no substitute for speaking practice. Do it as often as you can.

7. Practise Your English Every Day

Daily practice is important for a few reasons.

It keeps you motivated

If you do something every day, it will become a habit. Once you create a habit, you’ll be motivated to continue it.

It saves time

When you only study once or twice a week, you forget a lot of the new things you learned in your previous study session. So you have to waste a lot of your valuable study time reviewing things you’ve already learned. If you study every day, material that you learned the day before will be fresh in your mind, which means you’ll spend less time in review.

You can skip a day without big consequences

If you decide to study for a little while each day, then it’s not a big deal if you have to miss a day of studying for some reason. But if you study for a long time once or twice a week, then missing a day means losing a lot more study time.

Try to practise all four skills every day: reading, listening, speaking and writing. If you don’t have time to do all four, then I recommend at least speaking and listening.

8. Make Time to Actively Study English

Reading online in English, watching English TV, and having English conversations will all help you use what you’ve learned. But you still need to set aside active studying time each day. This is time where you do flashcard drills, quizzes, lessons with a teacher or other structured study. This way, you’ll be sure that you’re really learning new material instead of only reusing things you already know.

9. Make Mistakes! Fail Fast and Fail Often

Failure is an essential part of language learning. Mistakes are actually a really easy way to improve your English.

If you’re like me, you were probably taught that mistakes are bad. That might be true if you’re an engineer, but not if you’re an English learner. You’ll never speak English fluently if you’re too afraid to make mistakes while you learn. The more mistakes you make, the sooner you’ll be corrected, and so you’ll learn faster.

Don’t be worried about looking foolish when you talk to native English speakers. Most English speakers don’t speak any other languages. So we’re very impressed when foreigners communicate with us in English, even if they make mistakes. If you make a genuine attempt, English speakers will be more than happy to help and encourage you. Try it and see!

Above All, Don’t Give Up

I know you can learn English fluently. How do I know? Because millions and millions of people all over the world have proven that it can be done. The more you practise, make mistakes, and speak, the faster you’ll get fluent in English. So why not start today?

And finally… One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months
Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish
Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

View all posts by Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months
Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish
Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Start speaking your target language from day 1 with confidence!

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Language Hacking French: How to Learn French, the Faster Way

From 27th September, my new book Language Hacking French is available in bookstores all around the world.

Get your copy tout de suite!

What’s the deal with language hacking?

Language hacking is all about looking for the faster, smarter ways to learn languages. I’ve been sharing and developing my ideas on language hacking ever since I launched Fluent in 3 Months in 2009

Now, for the first time, I’ve developed Language Hacking into a series of beginner courses for language learners, published with Teach Yourself.

Language Hacking: French is a conversation course that starts at ground zero, and helps you speak from day 1.

In other words, it’s all about learning French by speaking French.

Rather than go in-depth on how language hacking works (you can read more about that here), I thought I’d give you a sneak peek inside the new course, so you can try out some French hacks for yourself.

I’ve included that page numbers so when you get your own copy of the course (order here) you can look them up for yourself.

Read on for a sneak preview of ten key language hacks from Language Hacking: French.

1. Get a Head-start With Words You Already Know (page 10)

French and English of words in common. In fact, linguists estimate that up to one third of the English language is directly influenced by French. Thanks, Norman Conquest! (Too soon?)

Words that have identical or near-identical spelling, and the same meaning in two languages are called cognates. There’s not enough room here to list all the words that English and French have in common. But here are a few simple rules to help you figure out how to determine which English words are likely to have a cognate in French:

2. Learn French Vocab Faster with Memory Hooks (page 24)

Memory hooks are all about linking new vocabulary to powerful images, ideas or even sounds. That way you can memorize a lot of new words in a very short time.

Here’s an example. Back in university, a friend of mine overheard some economics students studying for an exam. One student said to the other, “Know how to remember the four types of unemployment? Just imagine a guy throwing up on the wall of a building on a hot day. He’s vomiting, so his food is being recycled, so that’s ‘cyclical’. It’s a hot day, so that’s ‘seasonal’. He threw up on a building, so that’s ‘structural’. And the vomit sticks to the wall, so that’s ‘frictional’. And there you have it, all four types of unemployment!”

If this image sounds kind of gross, it’s supposed to. Because this student used such shocking imagery, my friend never forgot this story, and it happened years ago!

You can use the same technique to memorize French vocab.

An easy way of doing this is to look for an English word that sounds like the French word you’re trying to learn. For example, suppose you want to learn that sur means “on” in French. Are there any English words that sound like “sur”. What about “syrup”? And where do you usually put your syrup bottle when you’re having pancakes? On the table. So to remember that “sur” means “on”, picture a bottle of syrup on the table.

Memory hooks work best when you create them yourself. Try to come up with a funny, shocking, or dramatic sound or image to connect a new French word to its meaning. It might sound like hard work at first, but it’s really not. Soon it will become second nature. Then you won’t have to worry anymore about hearing a French word that you know you’ve heard before, but can’t quite remember.

3, Learn French Word Genders with this Simple Trick (page 59)

Learn just two rules about word endings in French, and you can guess the gender of new words and have a pretty good chance of being right.

Of course there are exceptions, but don’t worry about those for now. You can learn them as you go. The more you speak, the more you’ll hear the exceptions, and eventually, you’ll just get a “feel” for the gender. This is how native French speakers figure out the gender of less-common words that they’re not sure of.

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to figure out whether the noun the word refers to is inherently masculine or feminine. This doesn’t work. There is no relationship between the gender of the noun and the gender of the object it refers to. The gender of words can even change from country to country. For example, in France, the word “job” is “le job”, but in Quebec, it’s “la job”!

4. Five Booster Verbs so You Can Say Almost Anything (page 82)

When you’re talking in French, the last thing you want to do is pause every few words to remember how to conjugate your verbs.

You can use verbs even before you learn to conjugate them by rephrasing your sentence using one of the following five “booster” verbs. You can use all of these verbs with another verb in its dictionary form – no conjugation required.

Aimer (for interests)

Instead of trying to remember the “je” form of every verb for every activity you’re interested in, just use aimer (“to like”) plus the verb in its dictionary form.

For example: “I play baseball” can become “J’aime jouer au baseball” (I like to play baseball). “I go out every weekend” can become “J’aime sortir chaque weekend” (I like to go out every weekend).

Aller (for future plans)

Use aller (“to go”) to talk about what you’re doing in the near future. For example:

Vouloir (for intentions)

Vouloir (to want) is a great verb to use when you intend to do something but can’t remember the “je” form of the activity you want to do. For example: “I’m seeing the movie tomorrow” can become “Je veux voir le film demain” (“I want to see the film tomorrow”).

Devoir (for obligations)

If the activity you want to talk about is an obligation, you can rephrase your sentence using devoir (to have to). For example:

“I’m working tomorrow” can become “Je dois travailler demain” (“I have to work tomorrow”).
“I’m writing this article for Friday” can become “Je dois écrire cet article pour vendredi” (“I have to write this article for Friday”).

Pouvoir (for possibilities)

Use pouvoir (to be able to) for clarifying that you ‘can’ or ‘are able to’ do something. For instance, the verb recevoir (to receive) can be quite tricky to get right, so you could say:

“Je peux recevoir la lettre ici” (“I can receive the letter here”)

5. Pronounce Words You Haven’t Even Learned Yet (page 97)

All those silent letters in French that make it difficult to spell words correctly are actually good news for your pronunciation.

For all regular -er verbs, the je, tu, il/elle, and ils/elles forms are pronounced exactly the same way. For example, the verb visiter in je visite, tu visites, il/elle visite, and ils/elles visitent sounds the same each time.

For -ir and -re verbs, they’re pronounced the same in the je, tu and il/elle forms.

Any time you hear a new regular verb in French, even if you’ve never seen it written down, you’ll already be able to pronounce at least three forms: je, tu, il/elle, and (for -er verbs) ils/elles. So when it comes to speaking French, most of the heavy lifting will already be done for you!

6. Sound More Fluent with Conversation Connectors (page 130)

Conversation connectors are words or short phrases that we all use when we want to soften what we say, elaborate on an idea, or transition smoothly between topics in a conversation.

They make conversations sound more natural, and keep them from fizzling out prematurely.

Learn these conversation connectors and watch how much better your French conversations flow:

You’ll find plenty more conversational connectors inside Language Hacking French.

7. Time Travel – Talk About the Past and Future Using the Present Tense (page 152)

French is well-known for its common use of the present tense even when talking about the past. Documentary films, for example, will narrate historical events using the present tense. People also do it every day when telling stories and anecdotes.

You can do the same thing when talking about the past and future in your French conversations.

For a story in the past, start by giving the setting (“So last week, I’m reading in the park, minding my own business…”), and then tell the rest of your story using the present tense.

For the future, you can just add a time indicator to your sentence to show when the action will take place. For example:

8. The Rephrasing Technique for Talking Your Way Through Complicated Sentences (page 178)

Even in your native language, you might struggle from time to time to express an idea precisely the right way. This is even more of a struggle in French, a language you don’t yet speak fluently.

Don’t worry – the elaborate, nuanced phrases you’re used to in your native language will come eventually in French. But for now, just let it go. Communication should be your first priority. Embellishing what you say is secondary.

Figure out the main idea of your sentence, and say that instead. For example, if you want to say, “I’m looking for a flatmate that speaks French and wants to rent the room for at least 12 months”, you could simplify it to “J’ai besoin d’un coloc. 12 mois. On va parler français ensemble !” (I need a flatmate. 12 months. We’ll speak French together!”).

9. Make the Most of Hidden Moments to Get French Immersion for the Long Term (page 204)

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “To establish just how much time you waste, get someone to follow you around all day and watch what you’re doing.”

Instead of taking such a drastic step, simply take a good hard look at your typical day. Add up all the “idle minutes” you find yourself with. Riding the bus, waiting for a slow lift, standing in line in the supermarket, zoning out during TV commercials (and watching a lot of TV in the first place!)… These are all time-killers, and they can really add up.

Take advantage of these hidden moments to squeeze in some French practice. Pull out your phone and study some French flashcards. Listen to a French song or read a page or paragraph of a French book.

Are you genuinely short on time some days? Then change your browser or operating system to French. That way you’ll get exposure to the language every time you use your computer.

10. Develop a Cheat Sheet to Go into ‘Autopilot’ During Your First Conversation (page 210)

Language Hacking French is all about helping you have real life conversations with native French speakers.

Too many language learners delay this step. They think: “I won’t know what to say!”, “What if the other person asks me a question I don’t understand?” and “I’m too nervous”.

These feelings are all completely normal.

A cheat sheet will help you with all of them. Write down the phrases that you want to use during your conversation, and you’ll always have something to say. Make a list of “survival phrases” so you can ask the other person to repeat what they just said, or to tell them that you don’t understand. Having these phrases handy will automatically make you a lot less nervous.

I like to divide my cheat sheet into four sections:

Keep the cheat sheet handy during your conversation. Refer to it as often as you need to, and Voilà! You’ve just had your first real-life conversation with a native French speaker!

Want to Speak French – the Faster Way?

I hope you’ve found these French hacks helpful.

Language Hacking French takes you step-by-step through speaking French.

From the day you pick up the course, you’ll learn how to speak French in real life situations.

One early tester of Language Hacking French recently wrote:

Prior to this, my French was nonexistent when it came to speaking. I wouldn’t speak French to anyone. But this book has really given me the confidence to speak French with its useful hacks and the personal scripts that you develop throughout the book

Order your copy of Language Hacking French today.

And finally… One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months
Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish
Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

View all posts by Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months
Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish
Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Start speaking your target language from day 1 with confidence!

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You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote | Hacking Chinese

My first semester at the Graduate Institute for Teaching Chinese a Second Language here at NTNU in Taipei, Taiwan is coming to a close. For the past two years, my long-term goal for learning Chinese has been to survive a program like this, taught in Chinese mainly for native speakers. Entering the program, some question marks remained, and even though this post won’t be about my first semester here (I will write about that later), I will talk about one of those question marks: Writing Chinese characters (by hand).

Although this program is report and paper heavy, it still has several in-class exams which require handwriting skills good enough to put down in writing whatever I’ve learnt throughout the semester. This means that I’ve spent some serious time learning to write characters and that I have re-examined the entire process of learning to write by hand. The conclusion I present here is the result of around five years of learning characters:

You can’t learn to write Chinese characters by rote

Note: If you want to skip the background, click here to scroll down.

This needs some clarifications. First, when I say “you”, I mean an adult who is learning Chinese as a second language. I can already hear people say “but how do native speakers do it, they don’t use fancy mnemonics?” I’m going to reply to this with another question: Do you know how long it takes for native speakers to learn how to write Chinese? We’re talking about at least a dozen years, filled with more writing-heavy homework than most Westerners can imagine. It should also be mentioned that it’s not uncommon even for educated native speakers to forget how to write some characters they really should know how to write.

Therefore, looking at what native speakers do to learn Chinese characters is completely irrelevant for us. It’s simply not on the menu unless you want to spend the rest of your life acquiring what is actually possible to achieve in a few years if you do it correctly. So, in future, anytime you see a comparison between native speaking children and adult foreigners, you should be very, very cautious, because the upcoming conclusion is probably useless. We are neither children nor native speakers. Our study methods should reflect this fact.

Handwriting from the adult foreigners point of view

As some of you might know, I wrote an article about the importance of handwriting in November and concluded that it is important up to a point, but usually not a goal in itself. Regardless of why we want to be able to write by hand (everybody should learn at least the most common one thousand characters or so), it’s essential that we use methods that actually yield long-term results. What I see most students do is short-term oriented studying which might get you past the next exam, but it will not enable you to actually learn the characters. Some people aim for the medium term using SRS. This is good, but it’s not good enough. This is what this article is about.

Using SRS is essential, but it’s far from enough

I’m usually very positive about using spaced repetition software to learn languages, even though I did write an article earlier this month about the dangers of relying too much on SRS. Learning to write characters is perhaps one of the best examples of how good SRS is. Let me explain why before I move on to the really important bit, i.e. why this isn’t enough.

Spaced repetition software allows us to review things in a structured manner, making sure that we remember what we have learnt (or at least 90% of it). However, if we review these things in our daily lives, we don’t really need SRS to achieve that. For instance, if you live in China, you don’t need SRS to learn everyday words, because you hear them all the time. This is natural spaced repetition and it works very well. The same is true if you rely on very high volumes of listening and reading. In short, this is why massive input can mostly replace SRS.

Handwriting requires special attention

Handwriting is unique because even living in an immersion environment typically doesn’t require us to write anywhere near the amounts we need to acquire handwriting by rote. Since we aren’t actually required to write enough (your occasional tests and exams aren’t enough unless they are very broad indeed), SRS is the best way to solve this problem. It helps us space the reviews in an efficient manner and we keep the actual writing to a minimum while still retaining most characters. However…

Just relying on SRS to learn to write characters isn’t enough either

This is what I have fully realised this semester. I have seen the light. Using SRS to learn characters is very good in the medium term (let’s say a week up to a year), but it’s completely useless in the long term. Learning to recognise characters is one thing, but learning to produce them is another kettle of fish altogether. I’ve said before that SRS shouldn’t be rote learning, but I realise now that that article was naive.

This is how most  people use SRS (including myself sometimes):

This is what most people do.
This is rote learning.
This is madness in a long-term perspective.

Trying to brute force characters into your long-term memory this way is not going to work. When the intervals get longer than a year and you don’t write the character by hand in other situations (which you’re unlikely to do), you will forget it again. And again. And again.

It’s incredibly hard to learn something meaningless

The reason we forget characters is that we try to passively cram meaningless data into our brains instead of actively processing the what we try to learn and making it meaningful. We usually fail to learn either because the components (characters or words) are meaningless to us or because the connections between them are too weak. In short, we need:

Learning by rote is possible if we repeat things often enough. I have no mnemonic for 你 or 是, because I’ve written those characters more than a thousand times and I’m not likely to forget them. This is only true for the most common characters, though, the rest you will forget sooner or later if you don’t make learning active and meaningful. It’s a harsh lesson, but I think it’s true. Let me repeat that:

If you, when failing a review don’t spend time to actively study the card you just failed and instead merely rely on repetition to learn what you have forgotten, you will forget again. Actively processing characters and making them meaningful is not just a good method, it’s the only method.

Towards more sensible character writing

Next week, which is also next year, I’m going to launch a challenge. I’m going to try to start a revolution in character writing for adult students. It’s going to mean big changes for some people, but I really think this is essential and I hope people are willing to join.

In short, I will do everything in my power to convert as many of you as possible to a way of learning characters that actually makes sense, that will enable you to learn Chinese, not just for the test next month, but for life.

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How translation to another language can help you learn Chinese | Hacking Chinese

This is a guest article by Julien Leyre of the Marco Polo Project. The publication of this article coincides with the start of this month’s translation challenge, so if you aren’t convinced that translation is a great tool for learning a language, this article is for you! Julien also shares many hands-on tips for making translations easier.

How translation can help you learn Chinese

Remember? Once upon a time, translation used to be the main method for learning a foreign language. But then a new model came into fashion, called the ‘communicative approach’, promoting direct interactions in the target language. This makes sense: most of us are learning Chinese to communicate, not to become professional translators. So why should we bother practicing translation at all?

In preparation for the Hacking Chinese translation Challenge that starts today, this post will talk about translation as a way to learn Mandarin. Now, translating to and from your native language (or one you’re already expert at) are two very different exercises. In a previous post, Olle discussed the benefits of translation to Chinese. What I’ll talk about here is translating from Chinese into your native language.

Translation as active reading

At a very basic level, practicing translation (to your native language) will bring you the same benefits as reading: you will increase your vocabulary, reading speed, grammatical intuition, and overall comprehension. If the text is well chosen, you might even gain some cultural insights in the process.

OK – I get that. But why translate? Let’s put it this way: translation is a form of active reading. In one of his posts, Olle describes different ways to practice ‘listening’, from simple background listening to active engagement with the content. The same distinction applies to reading: you can be more or less active in your practice.

To see how this applies to translation, let’s go back to basics, and start with a definition. Translation consists of creating a piece of text in a target language (in our case, most probably English), which has the same meaning, structure and stylistic characteristics as a given piece in a source language (in our case, Chinese). To do that, not only do you have to read the source text, and make sure you understand all the words in it, but you must also look at difficult or ambiguous constructions, and make sure you clearly understand all of them.

Whether in the classroom or at home, we’re often satisfied with a superficial, rough, hazy understanding of what we read. Answering a teacher’s questions (or ticking the right HSK box), or even reading aloud, does not really test our deep understanding. We skim over sentences feeling that we got the gist. Translation provides a touchstone: once you’ve got to write an equivalent in your mother tongue, you can check whether you’re actually making sense of what you read – or not.

OK, sure – but I’m nowhere near that level yet, I’m still struggling with the basics. Should I just wait?

Any form of active learning takes energy, and I’m not saying you should spend all your learning time translating, especially if you’re still in early stages. But it doesn’t mean that translation is too hard for you now. In the rest of this post, I’d like to share a few tricks that will help you moderate the difficulty, and find ways of translating that are accessible to you right now.

Choosing the right text is certainly part of the question: how long it is, how intricate the language, whether it’s full of characters you don’t know, or whether it deals with a topic you’re familiar with – all these factors will impact your ability to translate. A word of warning though: I’ve seen many people go for ‘easy’ texts, because they seem more accessible. But there’s a big catch with practicing on ‘easy’ texts only, especially graded texts written explicitly for learners: it may quickly turn out to feel very pointless.

In 2011, I set up an organisation called Marco Polo Project, which proposes translation as a way to help people learn Chinese and understand China. The project was largely inspired by my own experience and frustrations as a language teacher and Mandarin learner. I started learning Chinese in 2008, and after three years, I got tired of the trite textbook. I wanted to discover fresh and authentic writing from China – but I didn’t know where to start.

Our website offers an original selection of new writing from China, and a simple interface to translate as you read. The idea was to bring great writing to learners – intermediate and advanced – encourage them to practice translation as they read, and share their translations with less advanced learners, so they could access these new voices from China in bilingual format.

This is what our translation interface looks like – with source text on the right, and a box to write your translation on the left. Check it out at www. – registration is entirely free.

And in case you’re wondering, Marco Polo Project runs as a non-profit organisation. I hope to grow the community – but it’s not the whole point of me writing this post – there’s other ways you can practice translation. If you don’t want to do that on our website, I still encourage you warmly to exercise on a word document.

Pace yourself – be quick – and skip

I’ve taught translation at various universities. The first thing we tell students is that they absolutely have to carefully read the full text, make sure they understand all the details and really soak in the style, before starting to write their translation. Arguably, that’s how professional translators should work. But I’ll share a dirty secrete with you: that’s not what I’m going to recommend here. Quite the opposite.

If your Chinese is not perfect yet, carefully reading can take a very long time, and it can be frustrating, so frustrating actually that – unless there’s a deadline, or it’s a marked assignment, you’re more likely to give up. If your goal is to practice and learn, and if you’re not getting paid or assessed, then you should make sure the process is fast-paced enough that you get a sense of achievement and progress. There’s a simple way to do that. In my own translation practice, I always translate sentence by sentence as I go, I skip all the difficult passages deliberately – whole sentences and even entire paragraphs, and I always use google translate.

Google translate has very bad reputation, but if your reading skills are just so-so, it can be an amazing tool! It’s easy to use, it’s free, and it allows you to get the meaning of a text and sentence significantly faster and with significantly less effort than a dictionary. But you need to use it carefully. It’s often surprisingly accurate, and sometimes completely off the ball.

Concretely, this is how I would recommend you to use it. Pick a paragraph you want to translate, and paste it into the google translate box. Then split up the sentence by jumping lines after each full stop, for clarity. Look at the suggested translation, comparing it to the Chinese original. If a sentence sounds about right, copy-paste it into Marco Polo Project or your word document, or change a few words here and there to make it sound more idiomatic. You should be able to do that for about half the sentences in your text.

Half the time, however, something will be weird. When that’s the case, break up the sentence into parts by jumping lines after the main verbs, particles or connecting words. When you do that, the software will treat each component separately, and start working like a kind of predictive dictionary. Just break down the parts until you grasp the meaning. When you get it, put the parts back together in the right order, and write down your translation.

If it’s still too hard, just leave it aside until later.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying this is how you should work if you want to be a professional or literary translator. This method will not give you the most thoughtful and elegant translation every time, but it’s quick, simple and satisfying. You don’t have to spend a lot of time searching for vocabulary or stretch your memory to remember what a character means. Half the time, the machine actually does an OK job for you the first time round. Getting that sense of satisfaction, and avoiding boredom or exhaustion, will be a serious advantage for long-term learning success!

Ready to go further? Try editing your translation

Fast-translation, following the method I described above, will help you go you through large quantities of text. But if you want take it a step further, editing your own translation (or someone else’s) is a great learning exercise.

This google-assisted ‘fast translation’ probably doesn’t read very well, it might be ambiguous, or even contain downright errors and inconsistencies. To start with, I’d suggest you review the translation line by line. Focus on word order, syntax and readability. Try to make your sentences simpler, more rhythmic – but always keeping an eye on the Chinese to check you’re not betraying the meaning. This exercise will double up as vocabulary review. It will teach you to better ‘skim’ over a Chinese text, and make you more familiar with connecting words or syntactic patterns.

As a second step, consider each paragraph as a whole (or even the full text if you’ve got the time), and focus on two particular areas:

And if you want to take it even further, think of style and genre. Where does your source text come from? Is it standard language, or does it deviate from linguistic norms? When you’ve answered these questions, look for elegant, concise and apt equivalents that not only map the meaning of the source text, but also the style. This is a difficult and time-consuming pursuit, not always suitable for intermediate or even early advanced learners. But it’s also a fascinating and beautiful way to gain advanced understanding of the language. If you wish to really develop your reading skills, and appreciate subtle nuances of meaning and style in Chinese, this may be one of the best ways to go.

In conclusion: beyond target language communication, train your linguistic flexibility

There’s a final type of benefit that comes from practicing translation: it will make you more linguistically flexible.

Many language classes are held in the target language entirely, we think of ‘immersion’ as a great way to progress, and the capacity to ‘think in Mandarin’ is seen as a crucial step towards fluency. I’m not rejecting any of this upfront: creating a ‘Mandarin only’ mental environment does increase our capacity to interact with Mandarin speakers and Mandarin content at a reasonable speed.

However, our capacity to switch code from one language to another may suffer in the short term – and in certain contexts, this is a very precious skill. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a concept only came to you in Mandarin, and you started wondering – what’s the word for ‘ganga’, ‘guanxi’ or ‘haixiu’? Outside the context of bilingual classroom, this hesitation may come in the way of clear expression.

As learners of Mandarin, it’s also very likely that we will find ourselves in a mediating position. As beginners, when travelling with friends who don’t speak the language at all, we do all sorts of minor translation – signs, directions, or basic polite interactions. As we reach intermediate and advanced levels, we’ll often have an opportunity to do minor translation tasks – what does this email/sign/article say? More importantly, when we spend significant amounts of time in a Chinese-speaking environment, we’re expected to report on our experiences to friends back home, family, colleagues and partners who do not speak the language.

For this, we must train our capacity to describe the values and world-views of Mandarin speakers in our own native language, and be comfortable shifting code. Translation is probably the best preparation for this task. Beyond practical, professional and social benefits, it will help us integrate all the complex emotional experiences we’ve had in a Chinese environment to the web of long-term emotional journey – and ensure some continuity between our pre-Mandarin selves, and the bizarre animals we’ve become since getting hooked on the language.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, I’ve written elsewhere about the role that translation played in my own intellectual development – and how it nurtures critical thinking, cross-cultural tolerance, and humility. So go check out this piece.

Converted yet? Try it for yourself, and see if translation works for you!

A note on my own background

I’m a French-Australian writer, educator and sinophile. I migrated from Paris to Melbourne in 2008, and I can probably count myself as perfectly fluent in both French and English today. I’ve taught languages and translation at various universities in France and Australia, studied many European languages, and reached various degrees of fluency among six of them – but Mandarin has been my biggest challenge by far.

I’d love to hear more about your experience of translation – don’t hesitate to send me a line at

A big thanks to Julien for this article! I have mainly done translation in the other direction and hadn’t reflected too much about the importance of translating in the other direction, other than making sure that people understood texts read in class, so this article is most welcome to the collection here on Hacking Chinese.

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