This summary of a research study by the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that when adults read in their new language, they’re recalling their first language. According to one of the researchers,
“Bilingual individuals retrieve information from their native language even when it’s not necessary, or, even more surprising, when it is counterproductive, since native language information does not help when reading or listening to second-language words,” Thierry said.
Even when it’s counterproductive? Also of note,
Michael Chee, MBBS, of Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore, who was unaffiliated with the study, said the findings show that even though people who learn a second language later in life are discouraged from directly translating words from their native language, they may be doing so anyway.
My takeaway for adult students of English is this: If you’re studying and you know that your brain is using your native language for translating without your conscious permission, try to incorporate study habits that intentionally avoid translation.
Some activities might include:
- not using a dictionary…use context clues for definitions of new words
- turn off the subtitles while watching movies in English
- ask a native speaker to explain a word or phrase instead of translating it
Basically, your brain is translating anyway, and it might not be helping you. You can help yourself by adding some small changes to your study habits to at least cut down the amount of translating you do.