A word represents a concept. Different languages sometimes use different concepts to describe the same matter. In such cases (my impression) the word of one language is often said to "mean" the concept of the other language ("but only in cases XY"). This leaves one with a lot of different meanings of a word, some of which can only be applied in certain situations.

I find this very confusing, and it is something one can only memorize, but not learn by understanding, which I find more effective and more interesting.

I cannot even come up with a good example, because all this confusion seems to be ubiquitous, and I don't even know for any single word whether it actually is an example for what I mean.

Is there any good reason not to differentiate more between "means" and "can be translated as", and rather show how the new language uses a different concept to express the same thing?

What relevance does this question even have in language learning? Am I only making it overly complicated? Or can this viewpoint on the contrary make it easier to work with a new language (for other people, too, not only for me)?

  • Words don't have meaning, they have usage. "Dog" doesn't mean anything. It's used by different people to describe different things. English speakers often use it to describe an animal that gets excited when you come home. They can use it to describe a sausage you eat on bread. It can even be used to describe harsh complaining.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 14:14
  • Ah yes. I can see how this school of thought does not allow to make this big difference between "means" and "can be translated as". I had suspected the direct method, but this makes much more sense. Thank you!
    – geh
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 14:19
  • "Means" not only nullifies personal distinctions (as @Flimzy pointed out) but also flattens sense (as well as situational) distinctions, as it implies strict equivalence ("X means Y" can be taken as "X means Y and only Y", while "X can be translated as Y" merely says that Y adequately covers at least one [but not necessarily only one] meaning of X [regardless of whether X has a total of one potential meaning or several].)
    – Stan
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 21:39

1 Answer 1


The difference between meaning (or usage) and translation is relevant to language learning and teaching because meaning can be conveyed by other means than translations.

Direct methods of teaching a foreign language rely on this. See also methods like Total Physical Response (TPR) (you can find many examples of this on YouTube, e.g. this demo with very young children and this demo with adults).

You can also make this difference relevant to self-learning. For example, Gabriel Wyner (author of Fluent Forever) says that you should avoid translations when learning vocabulary. When creating flashcards, you should use images instead of translations; short cloze tests can also be used. Cloze tests can help you differentiate between different meanings of a word by presenting (or testing) the word in the context of a specific sentence. (You can find example sentences in textbooks, learner's dictionaries, grammars, etc.)

See Wyner's blog posts Is there a more efficient way to learn vocabulary? and 8 Ways to Create Better Flashcards. Among the resources he made available on his website, you can find pictures for pronouns, days of the week, and directions and prepositions.

  • I think if you avoid translations altogether, then you avoid my question, or the problem I have. That's not a bad thing, I like the direct method, but I'm not content to use nothing else. I want also to be able to discuss the meaning of a word of one language in another language, and that's where it gets very confusing to me.
    – geh
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 15:02
  • @wochenweise I don't think you can get around repeated exposure to usage examples. This is how your understanding of the words grows. In my experience, building this type of connection between concepts and L2/L3 words is a powerful thing. For example, a learnt English and German indepedently of each other (as foreign languages), yet I am faster at translating German words into English than my German colleagues, who have learnt translations between German and English...
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 15:14
  • It is not my goal to get around usage, on the contrary.
    – geh
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 15:18

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