Interpersonal Communication vs. Translation and Academic Fluency

In Linguistics and Language Learning on November 25, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Two types of fluency are at complete odds in the brain and may require two distinct styles of training.

By Antonio Graceffo


When I learned German, living in a dormitory in Germany, I made a rigid schedule of reading novels in German, watching TV, and talking to native speakers. I never used a dictionary or kept vocabulary lists. If I didn’t understand something in a film or a book, I just let it go. The same words or concepts would reoccur later, in other books or movies, and I would eventually learn these concepts. By the end of one year, I could understand 80 – 90% of a movie or a novel, and I spoke well.


Or so I thought.


My American classmate, Frank, who is now a high ranking professional translator warned me. “You think you understand, but you don’t.”


I didn’t know what Frank meant at the time. When I started working as a translator, I found that I made a lot of mistakes, particularly that I had a lot of omissions. I wasn’t sure why. So, I kept reading and watching German movies, and trusted that I would improve.


Frank suggested that I open the books and write grammar and translation exercises. I argued that the professional translations I was doing were practice enough. I thought I just needed time. So, I stayed with my method, hoping to prove Frank wrong.


Insanity is defined as doing what we have always done and expecting to get different results.


Obviously, I never reached true academic fluency in German.


Fast forward fifteen years. Now, I am studying Chinese in ROC. When I started, I only learned speaking. I tried the same rules as before, whatever I don’t understand, I will just ignore. Eventually, my speaking got a level that impressed native speakers. But I still couldn’t read and couldn’t understand most of what I heard on TV.


Once I made the decision to reach academic fluency, translation, in Chinese, and began intently studying the reading and writing, I suddenly understood the mistakes I had made in the past.


The method I used for German, and in the beginning of my Chinese studies, is called the natural way, or the core novel method. It goes by a hundred other names, all of which tend to center on the concept of natural language. The idea is, children learn their native tongue naturally. They don’t make vocabulary lists. They don’t do exercises. They simply hear or read the language. What they don’t understand is ok, they will get it next time.


This natural type approach has been the way English has been taught for years, breaking away form the old grammar translation method. The advantage of natural approach is that it builds interpersonal fluency, the ability to talk with or communicate with people in the foreign language. For most people, this is what they need, and the method works just fine for them.


The problem for translators, or those seeking academic fluency is that these natural methods teach you to ignore words that you don’t know, or to “guess” based on context. You are taught to use intuition in understanding and to take linguistic chances, when producing language. Good enough is good enough.


These natural methods don’t work well for translation or academic fluency because in translation you need to focus on every single word. The nuances and slight differences in meaning are important and need to be understood and translated correctly.


After years of natural acquisition, it is possible that the learner will no longer hear those words that he doesn’t know. This is why, when you tell your foreign co-worker, “bring me all of the boxes in excess of 10KGs,” he brings you all of the boxes. He didn’t know the words “in excess of,” so he ignored them and took his best guess.


Natural methods suggest that language is for communication, and that focusing on the words and grammar, the nuts and bolts, gets in the way of communication. This is absolutely true. If you are trying to think of verb tenses and terminal “s” when speaking, you will not speak fluidly, and worse, you won’t hear the next thing being said, and will fall behind.


And, as said before, for most people, communication is the goal, so these type of natural approaches will produce communication faster than grammar translation or other book and grammar methods. But, the speaker will never reach full fluency.

For translators, the goal is not communication. The communication already exists in the source text. Now, the translator needs to convert that text, exactly, into the target language. If he ignores the words he doesn’t know, the translation will be wrong.


In Chinese, the time pronoun “zai,” can mean again. But, a separate character, with the same phonetic pronunciation, “zai” can be the progressive, such as, “I am eating.” Yet another “zai” can give the implication of having waited a long time for someone and they have finally arrived. Granted, the difference is minimal for interpersonal communication. He is arriving or he just arrived but he is late… But, what if it was a letter of complaint that the customer sent to the company? Then it because a very distinct difference.  

The kids who grow up in English schools in Taiwan are always taught not to translate, which is more of a natural approach. We have all had teachers tell us, at some time or another, “don’t translate in your head, think in the foreign language.” The result is people understand, or think they understand a written text. They can even answer all of thee comprehension questions correctly, but when asked to translate it, they draw a blank.

As one of my linguist friends, David Long of the ALG method put it, “Their brain just isn’t wired that way. The pathways just aren’t there.”

David went on to say, “My experience with translation for ALG students is that it’s an almost completely different mode than what our students are in. The problem seems to be in the fact that by learning to understand a new language without linking it to your other language(s), those links never really form. On the other hand, the problem with ‘learning by linking’ is that the ‘real’ meanings and their facets are never able to be learned because they’re blocked by the linkings.”

The question I asked next was, if translation is the goal, is interpersonal communication or listening and speaking even remotely important? For Chinese, I spend all of my time writing, but perhaps for translation, this is what one needs. The best translation professor we had in Germany, Dr. Kiraly, was an American whose spoken German was competent, but never flashy, and where possible, he always spoke English. But, he was the best German to English translator. I googled his name recently and found that he has become somewhat famous, speaking at conferences around the world.

In analyzing my experience with German language, David had this to say. “I would consider that the basis you had in conversational German would be foundational. Then, a formal linking up, would be required to be a top translator.”


This supports my own, new, theory, which is that a natural approach would probably helpful, if not necessary, as a basis. After the student has learned to speak and communicate, then he could change gears and start to learn translation. I often believed that if I went back to school now, to study German translation, I would be in good stead to learn, because my prior knowledge and experience with the language are so large. The same is turning out to be true of Chinese. The high degree of speaking I had when I began my formal, written study, have been invaluable in learning to read and write characters.


David is a strong supporter of natural method, and in particular ALG. I don’t disagree with him. There is something magical about a method where you sit in class, listening for one thousand hours and then suddenly start speaking well.


“I don’t think that a person can accurately translate without the foundation that an ALG type approach offers.” Said David. “The exception is in contract type areas where great care is taken to be exacting in any language. In such situations, there isn’t much room for double meanings or cultural differences of expression.”


David tells his students that cultural understanding is perhaps more important than prior knowledge of a language when it comes to learning to communicate. He believes that this is true for all but the most sophisticated type of academic work.

I think I am further convinced that my earlier article, “Emersion Sandwich and a Side of Rice,” is right. I think we need to start out with a natural, communicative approach, such as ALG. This would give the student a good foundation of understanding and vocabulary, as well as a model for pronunciation. At some point, the student would need to decide what his goal is. If he wants to be a translator, he should switch to a nuts and bolts approach. If he wants to be a good communicator he could continue with the natural method.


Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at See his vieos on youtub.


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