Lifestyle Of A Linguist: An Atomic Habit To Take Your Language Skills To The Next Level—Interpretation

The desk of a foreign language student with a book, map, and pen

Language is something I am passionate about. I have studied Spanish on and off for 10 years and Arabic for 7 years. I even took a few years of Japanese in college although my Japanese skills have since fallen by the wayside. Every good linguist knows how important it is schedule language practice into their daily life. Whether that means listening to podcasts in the car, watching the big game in a foreign language, or simply interacting with native speakers. For years I have made sure the majority of my days consist of some language practice, even if it’s for a short period of time on days I am especially busy.

A daily habit that has greatly improved my proficiency in Spanish and Arabic is the habit of interpretation. No, I do not mean sitting down with a copy of Miguel de Cervantes or Kahlil Gibran and laboring over the written word. I am talking about translating speech that you are already hearing in your daily environment. For example, when I was a university student I would often spend entire lectures translating into Spanish or Arabic, especially if the lecture was boring. This process got my mind working at a high level and forced me to think intelligently in the foreign language. Here are a few pro tips gleaned from hundreds of hours of practice over the years.

Pro Tip #1: Start With Unimportant Material

When you first begin translating, it will be a slow and laborious process. Your mind will need time to locate the right words and expressions meaning you will likely not be able to keep up with the speaker. It follows that your comprehension of the material will be minimal. As a result, you probably won’t want to translate a review session for your organic chemistry final or your boss’s presentation of annual performance reviews.

Pro Tip #2: Look Up New Words and Expressions

This tip is especially important when you are first starting out. Translating will expose gaps in your language ability. Gaps of words, expressions, idioms, and grammars. Whenever you have a doubt, get out your dictionary (when in doubt, get it out). The process of looking up new material can be painstaking, especially when there is a lot you don’t know. But you will reap the rewards of your diligence if you stay persistent. Sooner or later there will be very few things to look up and you will be able to enjoy the process with minimal effort. I have already written about Linguee, the free app every foreign language student should download. Download it if you haven’t already. Linguee is perfect for translation because it gives sample sentences in addition to definitions. For examples, let’s say you want to look up the English translation of the Spanish expression “a tiempo.” You would simply type the expression in Linguee and complete sentences drawn from published material will result. Sample sentences give you an idea of how to translate words and expressions in context.

You may not want to look things up while translating. This can keep you from falling into a rhythm while drawing unnecessary attention to yourself (Pro Tip: sit in the back of your classroom). In that case, you can always write down notes of new words and expressions to be looked up later when you have easy access to a dictionary.

NOTE: Since I have been translating for years, I can get through entire sessions without looking anything up. This doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from looking up words and expressions to get a better idea of their usage. What it does mean is you will eventually get to a point where you can translate the meaning of nearly everything without a dictionary (even if that translation is not top quality). In short, when in doubt, get it out is important for translation regardless of your language level but it is especially important initially when there are gaps that disrupt your ability to flow in translation.

Pro Tip #3: There is More Than One Way to Skin a Cat

This hideous English expression highlights an important point: translation is an art form. No two translations are alike. This does not mean that all translations are equally competent. Some are certainly better than others. What it does mean is that your translation does not have to be perfect, especially for the purposes of this discipline. The goal of the process is to quickly arrive at a translation that works. You may not be able to translate every metaphor and idiom as such within a moment’s notice, but eventually you will be able to come up with a translation that captures the essential meaning of what is being said.

You want to limit yourself to what you already know as much as possible, which often involves simplification. Otherwise, you will make many mistakes. So if you do not know what “villain,” or “president,” or “house,” mean, you can say “bad person,” “leader of a country,” or “place where he/she lives.” The more words you look up eventually (see tip #2 above), right away or later, the more precise you will get..

Pro Tip #4: Watch Movies with Subtitles

This is one of the most entertaining ways to improve your translation abilities. The subtitles are, of course, a direct translation of the audio. Study them carefully and see how experts who get paid big bucks move material from one language to another.

Pro Tip #5: The Skill You are Developing is Actually Interpretation

Both translation and interpretation involve moving text from one language to another. Translation is written while interpretation is oral. Translation: the Bible from Hebrew to English. Interpretation: a CNN en Español commentator live transmitting into Spanish the content of a Donald Trump speech.

I have referred to the habit of this article as translation because it does not involve you speaking (unless you practice at home using your voice). Translation is also the term most people are familiar with. But the skill you are developing–moving live speech into a foreign language without the luxury of dictionaries and contemplation–most closely resembles interpretation.

Pro Tip #6: Don’t Try This If You Are A Beginner

As I mention in the title of this post, translation is not for beginner-level students. Your vocabulary and grammar simply aren’t advanced enough to keep up with any part of a live presentation. Wait until your level is at least intermediate and you have a solid foundation in the language.

Pro Tip #7: Persistence is the Name of the Game

Translation is a skill that takes many hours of practice to perfect. I remember when I first started translating from Arabic to English and vice-versa. It was an arduous process even though my Arabic was quite good at the time. Today translating to and from Arabic is much smoother, but there is still a ton of room for improvement. Remember, language skill is a muscle that is governed, like all other muscles, by two primary rules: 1) you get out (power, ability) what you put in (effort, time) AND 2) If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Good luck. Until next time, happy interpretation.

If you liked this post, check out the sequel, Lifestyle Of A Linguist: A Second Atomic Habit To Take Your Language Skills To The Next Level—Thinking In A Foreign Language.

UPDATE: I posted a summary of this article, and it blew up on Reddit. You may like to consult that thread here to read through different responses, Q&A, and community feedback.  


  1. […] The myth of immersion isn’t that immersion doesn’t work. Immersion does work. The myth of immersion is that traveling to a foreign country is a necessary step. People can experience the benefits of immersion wherever they are. They can consume media, change the language of their phones, find language partners using apps like HelloTalk, or practice translation throughout the day. […]

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