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Spanish and English Translation: How to Start Thinking in a New Language (with these 4 easy tips).

December 2, 2020

Spanish and English Translation: How to Start Thinking in a New Language (with these 4 easy tips).

Using translation as a language learning method often gets a bad rap. We are taught that if we want to learn a new language, we must avoid translating from our first language at all costs, and instead, we should immerse ourselves in our target language. 

Language immersion and avoiding translation is, indeed, a good way to go about learning a new language. However, translating should not be seen as a method of learning but as a helpful tool. A tool that can get you to start thinking in a new language by simply incorporating it as a strategy. 

Translations can be of invaluable help if you’re learning a language that has grammatical, lexical, and structural similarities to your native language.  If you are an English speaker and your goal is to learn Spanish, then Spanish and English translation will increase your Spanish level in no time.  

Keep reading to learn 4 strategies that you can start implementing to make  English and Spanish translation work with you and not against you. 

  • Stay away from literal translations and, instead, focus on the Spanish equivalent of an English word or expression.

One of the biggest mistakes we make as a language learner is to try and find the exact translation of what we are trying to express. When we do this, more often than not, we end up with a phrase that sounds unnatural to the native ear and that it is difficult to comprehend. Instead, we should focus on the words and expressions that appear in specific contexts. 

Last week, one of my students asked me: how do you say the expression “Will do!” in Spanish? I stopped to think for a second and realized we don’t really say that. I told her that there is no literal translation in Spanish and that instead, she could say an equivalent phrase that we would use in this case, such as “Listo!” or “Hecho!”. 

How can you put this into practice? Easy! Turn on the Spanish subtitles when watching your favorite TV shows or movies (you can keep the original English audio). Pay attention to how common expressions are translated and where they appear. You can take notes as you watch to help you remember!

  • Switch the noun and adjective order. Most of the time you’ll get it right!

Contrary to English, adjectives in Spanish often go after the noun. For example, in a question such as What’s your favorite movie? The Spanish translation is ¿Cúal es tu película favorita? Notice how the word favorita goes after the noun película. This is because the word favorita is a quality word and these types of adjectives most often go after the noun. 

There are a few exceptions where the adjective will go before the noun in Spanish. Here’s a quick guide to help you:

  1. Numbers: Un, dos, tres, etc. 
  2. Ordinals: primer, segundo, tercero, etc. 
  3. Possessive adjectives: mi, tu, su,… 
  4. Quantity words such as suficiente (enough), demasiado (too much), bastante (a lot), 
  5. and finally, the comparatives mejor (best) and peor (worst).
  • Change the English ending -ly for -mente to form most adverbs in Spanish. 

Just like in English, adverbs in Spanish have a consistent ending. In English, most adverbs have the termination -ly as in quickly, furiously, completely, etc. and they often derive from adjectives (quick, furious, complete). The same is true for Spanish, where most adverbs use adjectives as the root and end in -mente, for example, rápido (quick) becomes rápidamente to form the adverb. 

Notice how the adverbs are formed from the feminine form of the adjective, so we don’t say rápido-mente but rápida-mente

Here are other examples: slow/slowly – lento/lentamente; complete/completely –  completo/completamente, and so on. 

Lastly, here is a final tip: for adjectives that end in -e such as breve (brief) or frecuente (frequent),  no vowel change is needed. Just add the termination -mente to form the adverbs:  brevemente, frecuentemente

  • With a little help from your friends… the cognates:

Spanish and English have more in common than you may think. They both originated from the Proto-Indo-European language (where Latin and Greek later came from); which means they both have a plethora of words that share the same Latin or Greek roots. These words are known as cognates. Cognates are words that share a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation because they derived from the same word. Let me give you an example: the word education translates to educación in Spanish. As you can see, they are quite similar as they both come from the Latin word educare

This is just one example of the many words that Spanish and English have in common. Learning real cognates will help increase your vocabulary in Spanish in the blink of an eye! 

However, here’s a little warning: there are a few, so-called, “false friends” (or false cognates) which are words that share similar spelling but have different meanings. Take, for example, the word éxito in Spanish. It looks like exit in English, but it actually means success

Now, don’t let false cognates discourage you – Yes. There is the potential for a few faux-pas here and there, but ultimately, you’ll get right more often than you’ll get it wrong. I promise! (and if it helps you feel more confident, download a list of common false cognates and keep it as a cheat sheet)

Remember, less is more when you are trying to learn a new language. Start incorporating these simple Spanish and English translation tips into your daily practice, be patient, and have fun! 


Isabel S. teaches Spanish and English as a second language. She has a master’s degree in Linguistics from the University of the Andes and has dedicated her life to teaching students from all different backgrounds and lifestyles. She’s passionate about showing the connection between culture and language by creating lessons that incorporate music, common lexicon, movies and tv shows and real samples of speech to help her students think like natives speakers. Isabel also loves dancing and spending time in nature.

Isabel Solano