Instead of avoiding it, use translation tricks to improve your English

By Oli Pritchard June 13, 2019
Photo: Romain Vignes, Unsplash

If you’ve been told you should never translate when learning English, forget it…instead use your Spanish efficiently and smartly.

You’ve been told a million times by English teachers: ‘never translate’. Well, that’s really poor advice. It comes from a good idea: it is indeed a lot easier to think in the language you’re communicating in. However, there are two big problems with this. Number one is pretty simple – you don’t (I imagine) have a magic switch in your head that allows you to choose which language to think in. Secondly, there are a lot of benefits from using your (hopefully) large Spanish knowledge for the translation when learning a second or third language.

Translation is a useful tool in various ways: you can use it to observe differences between English and Spanish, which will make your English more natural in the long term. You can use it for vocabulary building, by adding a large number of free words to your knowledge. You can use it to understand new words by meaning and context. You can use it to get free grammar points from Spanish to English. You can use it to bring across idioms and sayings.


First off, there are lots and lots of words in both Spanish and English that come from Latin, Greek and other sources. These words are often technical and they are usually almost identical in both languages. Look back at that previous sentence: technical/técnico; usually/usualmente; identical/idéntico; language/lenguaje. All of these words are very, very similar, and your (hopefully) good knowledge of Spanish vocabulary will help you a lot in English too. This is a huge advantage that Spanish speakers have, compared to, for example, Mandarin speakers.

Of course, when you’re speaking or writing, cognates help you to take risks and see if new words actually exist or not. However, in listening and reading, it’s just as useful to be able to substitute the Spanish word into the sentence and see if it still makes sense. If it does, then you’ve probably found another cognate.

Using your HEAD

Cognates are useful, but there are more lexical items that English and Spanish share. There are plenty of idioms and phrasal verbs in English that people like to claim are very bizarre. Some of them are – ‘raining cats and dogs’ doesn’t seem to make much sense. On the other hand, plenty are not – ‘fighting like cat and dog’ isn’t hard to understand. Even better, many English idioms come from a shared European heritage, so they exist in both languages. For example, there’s very little difference between take the bull by the horns and tomar al toro por los cuernos.

Similarities in grammar

Although it’s easy to focus on the differences between English and Spanish grammar, you might be surprised by the things that are the same. Students often complain about the passive voice, for example, but it’s almost exactly the same in both languages. The perfect tenses, too, are very similar in terms of structure and meaning. There’s also a future tense that uses basically the same form: the similarities go on and on.

Understanding the differences

Of course, Spanish and English are not the same language, so you can’t always translate. However, knowing exactly when you can’t translate is part of the skill of intelligent and efficient translation. For example, you know that the past tenses operate differently. You also need to consider word order, so that you remember that adjectives always go first in English, rather than behind. So these are areas in which to be careful – but knowing where to be careful and when to avoid translation is part of the trick.

Related: Common errors from English to Spanish

It’s worth trying to memorise some false friends, such as nudo ≠ nude or carrera ≠ career. Knowing these will help you avoid mistakes. Also, look for basic differences – sobre in Spanish often replaces about in English. It’s not a big difference in idea, but it will allow you to think “I want to say hablar sobre… so it’s talk about.” That’s using your translation tools efficiently to achieve good communication.

Following the rules

When you understand the differences, you can use them to improve your English. For example, you know that fácil is easy in English, so fácilmente must be easily… and that’s exactly correct. Translation has helped you find and build a new word. You’re using a little of translation and a little of Spanish and it’s working well.

Let’s come to vocabulary. Students often confuse -ed and -ing adjectives, but this shouldn’t be a big problem! After all, Spanish is not so different here. Almost all of the adjectives that end in -ido or -ado have a passive sense… just like when we use -ed in English. So, interesado becomes interested. The corresponding active adjective is often -ing in English, and these words end in ways like -able and -ante in Spanish. But still, if you want to know if you should say interesting or interested, just do a quick translation. La película es interesante. So, it should be interesting.

In the end, translation is a tool to be used with care, but it brings huge advantages. I especially recommend either avoiding translation, or taking a lot of care with various aspects, like past tenses, connectors, and prepositions. There are significant and important differences between English and Spanish in all of these areas and this can cause huge problems.

Of course, it’s ultimately better to be able to think and speak in English when you reach a more advanced level. But when learning, it’s frankly insane to ignore translation as a tool. Not only is it another tool available to you, but it’s a particularly useful tool a lot of the time. One of the big advantages of learning as an adult – and they do learn much faster than children, despite the claims of schools trying to sell a magic system of teaching – is that you have an enormous bank of pre-existing knowledge. Deliberately not using those information reserves would be crazy.