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Being a native Spanish speaker, I've learnt English as a second language since I was a child, starting at age 5, (I'm 23), and when I was 14-15 I started to learn German at a language school, with some pauses since then due to either financial reasons or lack of time. Learning German has been one of the most (intellectually) rewarding experiences of my life, and since several years I want to learn Russian, but I'm not sure about translations as a tool for learning a language. I don't quite remember translating anything in English, and since 2016-2017 I stopped translating German and learning everything (grammar, vocabulary, dictionary definitions and so on) only in German.

My question is: are translations (mainly vocabulary, using a bilingual dictionary) from a foreign language into the native and vice-versa at an early moment in the learning process, a good technique to learn a language in the long run? One of the reasons why I considered myself "better" at German compared to the other students is that basically I stopped translating at a relatively early point, and started thinking, writing and doing everything in German, without (conscious) recalling my native language.

Addendum

I'm interested in languages mainly for reading in them (which is I think thankfully the easiest task to do in any language), not so much in communication between peers or listening to them.

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  • It depends on the details. I've found the way Assimil does the translations (fairly literally, word for word) to be useful. The translations aren't trying to be a good exemplar of the translated-to language, so it's not distracting. Also I've personally never found myself focusing on the translations when I follow one of those books. I mainly use it only for reference in case something is not clear in the dialogue.
    – Brandin
    Dec 1, 2022 at 10:27

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In the world of language teaching, there is a method called the translation method. It has largely been replaced by other methods.

#2: Grammar-Translation With this method, the student learns primarily by translating to and from the target language. Instructors encourage the learner to memorize grammar rules and vocabulary lists. There is little or no focus on speaking and listening. Teachers conduct classes in the student’s native language with this ESL teaching method. [could be any language] translation as a teaching method

In and of itself, using a bilingual dictionary is only helpful at a more advanced level. For example, when reading newspaper articles.

For beginners and intermediates, the most important thing is learning everyday speech and vocabulary by repeating dialogues which are listened to first. Also, by doing graded readings. A native speaker teacher or coach is always helpful. The point is to aim at being able to communicate in full sentences by understanding basic grammar and structures.

Yes, the idea is to not translate as one tends to do as a beginner. That's only natural. There comes a point where you just have to try and repeat what you hear without translating as not translating will help you internalize the structures and idioms from the L2. Also, learning vocabulary by rote will not help a learner advance in the level of their expression. As speaking involves complex grammatical structures and idioms. That said, vocabulary is always useful.

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