I've recently been taking French and am having a bit of a hard time understanding the word order of certain sentences or phrases when I'm forming them in my mind. I tend to do the word-by-word translation thing directly from english and it's quite apparent in my writing.

What I am wondering is whether there has been any research on the benefits of reading a book's direct translation from another language. What I mean by this is that, say, for the sentence:

"What does that mean?"

One would translate that as, "Qu'est-ce que ça veut dire?"

A direct translation would be more like this though: "What is it that that wants to say?"

This may be a bit confusing for an english speaker to read, but, were an entire book translated like this, I imagine that one would get used to reading in this way and would be able to apply that to french. I know that it wouldn't be able to work with all parts of a language (Japanese particles and the German declension would probably be hard to convey), but has this been done before? Is it beneficial, or just a waste of time?

  • I don't know any specific research, but it's almost certainly going to hinder your acquiring of the other language. It's the opposite of immersion!
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 13, 2016 at 13:09
  • Would it at least be useful for understanding grammatical structure? Sep 13, 2016 at 13:10
  • No, because it will (usually) only imperfectly convey the other language's grammar, and it will introduce things in the English which the other language doesn't have. If we want to understand another language's grammar then we just need to do the hard work of reading grammars for the language and come to terms with it as its own thing. Mechanical translations are on substitute for that.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 13, 2016 at 13:14
  • 3
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about language learning (having an own stackexchange), not linguistics Sep 13, 2016 at 16:11
  • 1
    Great question for languagelearners.stackexchange.com
    – Mitch
    Sep 14, 2016 at 2:31

1 Answer 1


I don't know of actual research, but from my personal experience:

I agree that word-by-word translations will on the one hand lack features that are not available in the target language and on the other hand introduce features that are not present in the source language, which is why I wouldn't rely too much on such strict word-by-word translations either. They are an approximation, but it is only to a very limited extend possible to depict in a completely different natural language how a particular other natural lanugage conveys the meaning in terms of the grammatical and semantic subtleties.

However, what I always found very helpful in second language learning were interlinear glosses with detailled morphological annotation (for the grammatical features) and morpheme-by-morpheme correspondence (for the semantic structure), and then in the third line the natural translation in the target language.
To pick up your example, it would be something like:

Qu'  est-ce       que  ça   veut     dire?
what be.3SG-this  that that want.3SG say.INF
"What does this mean"?


Pour-quoi est-ce      qu'  il n'  y     a        pas des  crayon-s rouge-s?
for-what  be.3SG-this that he NEG there have.3SG not a.PL pen-PL   red-PL
"Why are there no red pens?"

(BTW, if anyone has a better suggestion how to gloss ne ... pas and des, or how to differentiate between that as a pronoun and as a conjunction while preserving maximal informativity in the interlinear gloss, feel free to edit - I didn't find an official guideline for French. The same holds of course if I made any mistakes in the translation.)

As you can see, I am able to get both a thorough understanding of how the source language is structured grammatically AND semantically (by the interlinear gloss) and what it is supposed to mean (by a rather free, but maximally meaning-depicting translation in how I would express it in my mother tongue), but at the same time didn't face the problems with a word-to-word translation into a sentence that ought to be possibly close to the source language but still grammatical in the target language which is often simply not possible.

An informative morphological glossing requires some lingustic knowledge though (even my annotation is probably not perfect), and also takes some time to do throroughly.
If you want to take a look at it, the Leipzig Glossing Rules are some generic guidelines for linguistic glossing.

But I'd like to emphasize again, this is just subjective experience and not scientific, generally applicable or proven research.

  • This is a great answer, glosses will give you detailed information about syntactic detail and potentially shed light on features not in the L1 learner's language. Other than that, it is simply a theoretical framework, it won't help in a practical day to day usage of the L2 learner. Sep 13, 2016 at 16:39
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    @Natahan McCoy I'd like to emphasize that it's not only about the syntactic details, but also about the semantic ones (such as il y a ("it there has") for there is). Sep 13, 2016 at 16:51
  • In terms of practical usage, it probably depends on your indivdual learning habits - for grammar acquisition, I do think it can help to do it and in that way I wouldn't think it's merely a theoretical framework, but something you can do practically, but of course you can't start morphologically annotating things you hear in everyday speech and also, some prefer to learn a langauge more by intuition and exposure to natural input rather than explicit grammar study. Sep 13, 2016 at 16:52
  • agreed, but can't write too much in a comment! ;) Sep 13, 2016 at 16:53
  • Good answer. Indeed, glosses do exactly what the OP, maybe unintentionally, was hinting about. Just some nitpicking about the first gloss, ce is a demonstrative, not a personal pronoun. Although it can be used as such, like other demonstratives. What made you decide for is instead of be.3SG?
    – Alenanno
    Sep 13, 2016 at 19:30

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