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Translating a text is one of the best ways to give your language skills an all-around workout, and you’ll never run out of opportunities to do so: all across the world and the Web, people are waiting to put your language learning efforts to good use.
Facing the linguistic pressures of globalization and the digital language divide that separates the linguistic haves from minority language-speaking have-nots, languages and language learners today are faced with unique challenges. Translation is one promising way to meet these challenges on multiple fronts: by translating online texts, learners not only get a language learning boost, but can also help to preserve our global linguistic diversity.
Translation gets kind of a bad rap in the language learning community. Machine translation services often fall short on fully filling linguistic gaps, and simply translating words over and over is no way to truly learn a language (though it may be just enough to help you pass an exam or two).
But translation, when approached as a language learning exercise, can be an effective approach to practicing your active and passive language skills.
That’s because in translating, you’re actively engaging both your first language and the one you’re learning, especially when you’re translating into and thus writing in your target language. Exercises in bidirectional translation, translating entire texts from your target language to your first language and back, are an excellent way to flex every linguistic muscle in your brain.
And if you’re studying a less commonly taught language, your translation exercises could actually play a role in solving a global social problem.
As we’ve discussed in a few recent posts, the gap between the resources and information available to speakers of large, dominant languages and communities that speak an indigenous or minority language — also known as the digital language divide — is one of the biggest obstacles to equitable, sustainable development in the 21st century. Success in today’s global economy means access to information and expertise, from up-to-date neonatal healthcare practices to the simple ability to read job listings, and these things are increasingly hard to come by if the Internet doesn’t speak your language.
When you spread your English knowledge of mechanical engineering by translating a Wikipedia page into Zulu, Tamil, or Guaraní, you’re forcing yourself to engage your active skills in another language. In explaining the history of the Industrial Revolution and the processes of thermodynamics, you’re not only calling on your vocabulary knowledge in Balinese, but also actively practicing conjugating verbs, constructing logical sentences, and communicating in a way that’s culturally accessible to a Balinese-speaking audience.
When you practice your language skills by translating online texts, global society at large also benefits, particularly minority language speakers and their neighbors. Technical expertise on sites like Wikipedia or current events coverage on citizen journalism platforms tend to reach speakers of languages like English, French, Japanese, and Mandarin quickly and efficiently, while rural linguistic minority communities in India, South Africa, and Indonesia are left in the digital dark.
And those doing the translating stand to benefit as much as those enjoying the fruits of such linguistic labor: aside from generally reinforcing language skills like grammar and writing, translation is also a good way to build up skills you can use to translate your language skills into an online side hustle or fund your world travels.
Whether you’re learning a minority or endangered language or a more common choice, there are plenty of opportunities around the web for you to turn your language learning practice into productive volunteer work. Here are a few places you can get started.
For beginning learners curious to try their hand at translation, you don’t have to jump straight into the deep end with formal volunteer roles. You can start practicing by simply finding one of your favorite childhood books in translation and translating it back to its original language, or try out translating a page from the original into the language you’re learning.
And for more experienced linguists and translators, organizations like UN Volunteers and Translators Without Borders work with professional translators on projects in many different languages and countries.