Lost in translation.

This is something that novice learners should do their best to avoid doing.

Back when I was in university, when I was studying English harder than most people in the world (or so I believed), I would often choose some phrase books that introduced idiomatic English phrases or those Japanese phrases that were hard to translate into English. I was happy to learn such phrases like “Chemistry is right.””We got good vibes.” etc.

It was possible for someone like me who had already learned most of the basics of the English language. I already knew syntactical structures of the English language, built the vocabulary large enough to read TIME magazine articles without using dictionaries. I was just interested to know more phrases  that I had often found hard to put into English and vice versa.

However, in retrospect, I would not have been successful in acquiring those phrases had I not learned enough of other aspects of the language. It would have been like learning something without knowing the real meaning of it or like a kid who tried to use a big word in his daily conversation.

Quite a few Japanese people seem to be learning that way, though. They find it pleasing enough to learn one phrase and use it in front of a native speaker (mostly their teacher), but they cannot develop the conversation any more now that they have completed a big task. I will not even try to stop them from such a positive rote learning (I would name it this way), but I would like them to think … what benefits do they have in the process of learning one rarely necessary phrase after another? Novice or intermediate or even advanced learners have lots of other things to do: vocabulary building (most words comprising the lower parts of the pyramid), listening and speaking, summary writing, presentation, and last but not least, preparation for the TOEFL. There is no room for studying such phrase books to cut in.

I know it is just fun, and this joy motivates you to learn more. However, if you keep learning from these phrase books, you may find yourself less flexible in expressing yourself, because as you study these books, you will believe that there is one English expression corresponding to one Japanese expression, which, as it turns out, is an illusion. That is when you feel lost in translation.


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