When English Doesn’t Translate

In a recent post, I talked about the value of using your native language to aid your English understanding and production. For the most part, your native language is a valuable tool for your ESL studies. However, there are a few exceptions. Sometimes a word or term in English simply doesn’t have a direct equivalent in your first language.

For instance, “great grandchild,” a common family term in English, has no direct translation in the Hmong or Bengali languages. Speakers of those languages would instead need to say something like “the child of the grandchild.” For that matter, the closest term Korean has to “pumpkin” is a general term referring to a wide variety of squashes and gourds. There is no exact Korean term for “pumpkin” as it’s thought of by most native English speakers. In fact, the “pumpkin” in the English sense (pictured below) isn’t really grown or eaten on the Korean peninsula.


Photo by Brendan Borrell

There are other times when an English word may translate well into your native language, but relying on your native language can still cause confusion. In Italian, the verb “to schedule” is fissare. This word sounds very similar to the English word “fix.” As a result, a lot of native Italian speakers will talk about “fixing” a meeting or appointment. They hear the word “fix” in English and assume it’s a synonym for schedule. In fact, fix isn’t really used that way in English.

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Additionally, sometimes there can be a general term in English that is divided into a bunch of much more specific terms in your native language. Just as the single Korean word for pumpkin is divided into a few different words in English (pumpkin, squash, gourd, etc…), sometimes an English word is too general to translate well into another language. English family terms, for instance, are very simple compared to a family words in many other languages. Your language may have different words for your father’s sister, your mother’s sister, your older brother, your younger brother, and so on. But in English, we just have the words “aunt” and “brother.” And of course, there’s a very famous example of this in US culture— the way that indigenous language speakers in Alaska have many different terms for snow. In contrast, English speakers on the mainland have just a few words for snow (snow, flurries, sleet, etc…).

And of course, there may very well be words in your language that simply don’t translate very well into English, for linguistic or cultural reasons. Take the German and Finnish vocabulary words illustrated below:


Photo by huffingtonpost



Photo by emiliaelisabethblog

As you’re learning vocabulary in your English studies, there are times when it definitely helps to connect English to your native language. At other times, however, English vocabulary will not connect well in your language. When a word doesn’t translate, you’ll want to focus your thoughts on the English word, and not try to think the word in our own language. So whenever you come across an English word that “does not compute” in your native tongue, make note of it and memorize it, exactly as it is.


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