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I have this little thing with some of my L2 languages that I know that I can understand them in their own language, but not being able to "translate" it over to my L1 and understand it there. Is there a term for being able to understand an L2 and comprehend it as a L2 without being able to translate it back to L1?

  • 1
    This might be a case of a lexical gap, if the reason is that the term doesn't exist in your L1. If it's just that you're unable to translate, I'm not sure of a term... this phenomenon, however, proves that translating is its own skill set, which cannot be assumed based on an understanding or ability to speak two languages. – Flimzy May 2 '16 at 13:43
  • @Flimzy It might be a lexical gap sometimes. But sometimes I do understand something in my L1, but I cannot make the connection without "forcing" the translation most of the time. – SMS von der Tann May 2 '16 at 13:52
  • Do you mean that it's hard to remember the word or phrase in L1 that corresponds to the L2 one? I don't understand what you mean by understanding the phrase in L1. If you're the one saying it in L1, then by definition don't you understand what you're saying? – Dan Getz May 2 '16 at 14:41
  • @DanGetz Basically that I cannot make the connection between what is said in the L2 and the L1 equivalent. – SMS von der Tann May 2 '16 at 14:45
  • @SMSvonderTann is this when someone else says the L1 equivalent? Or if it's you talking, do you mean before or after you remember the L1 equivalent? – Dan Getz May 2 '16 at 14:48
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I tend to say "doesn't translate well", however a term that fits the bill is Realia:

In translation, Realia (plural noun) are words and expressions for culture-specific material elements.

Realia must not be confused with terminology: the latter is primarily used in the scientific literature to designate things that pertain to the scientific sphere, and usually only appears in other kinds of texts to serve a very specific stylistic purpose.

Read this ELU question for more info.

  • My interpretation of the OP's question is the cognitive difficulty of finding the L1 word or expression for a given L2 word or expression, not the lexical difficulty that translators (apparently) call realia. On LL SE, realia is potentially ambiguous, because it has a very different meaning in language teaching: "objects from real life used in classroom instruction by educators to improve students' understanding of other cultures and real life situations" (quoted from Wikipedia). – AModHasNoName Nov 25 '16 at 15:11
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If this is about what goes on in your mind instead of what's in the dictionary, the usual linguistic term is word finding difficulty.

Word finding difficulties are usually studied in the context of language attrition, which also includes first language attrition or FLA. In this context, you can also come across the term lexical first language attrition. (See for example, Lexical first language attrition (PDF) by Monika S Schmid and Scott Jarvis.

Word finding difficulties in one's native language have also been studied in the context of aphasia.

If the difficulty you are describing is not cognitive but about what's in the dictionary, realia (as suggested by Quill) may be the word you are looking for. (Note, however, that realia in the context of (language) teaching has a very different meaning.)

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