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Tandem tips

How to Avoid Translating Absolutely Everything

"Should I translate words my partner doesn't understand into their native language? Should translation be part of my Tandem exchange at all?" These are questions we often hear from our community. It seems like translating words and phrases is a good option - it is quick, easy and comforting to retreat to the language you both feel more comfortable in. And don’t get us wrong - if you want to become a professional translator or interpreter, of course Tandem is a great place to practice your skills! But for the average language learner, who wants to learn quickly to speak like a native, it is best to use as little translation as possible.

Avoiding translation is a good way to make sure you stay speaking the target language throughout your conversation without slipping into your native language. If you don't translate, it also helps you to start thinking quickly in your target language, rather than waste time switching between the two. Another thing you’ll find is that many words, phrases and concepts cannot be translated. If you try to translate and don't do it completely correctly, you will end up misleading yourself and your partner when it comes to the right meaning. Luckily, there are lots of awesome ways to make sure you understand without using translation! Here are a few of our favourites:

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Describe it

Even for lower levels, this is the best way to learn new vocabulary and concepts as it is explained in reference to other vocabulary that you already. Use every simple word you can think of that is associated with the word you’re describing until your partner gets it!


You’d be surprised how many words or actions you can act out over video chat - and this can be a great ice-breaker with new Tandem partners. You might feel like a bit of a fool waving your arms about but it’s the best way to make explanations memorable.

Draw pictures

Have a piece of paper and pen to hand to quickly draw the word you need. You don’t need to be a fine artist to get your meaning across!

Use opposites or synonyms

These are important words to know as they will help your descriptions. For example, your partner might know the word “sweet”, but not “bitter”.


With new vocab, it is helpful to categorise it with vocabulary you already know. If you already know lemon, lime and orange you can put “grapefruit” in the same category.

Changing the word to an easier form

Better to use the wrong form of a word to make yourself understood (“fly” instead of “flight” for example) than not say anything at all. You can then explain the correct word once the meaning is understood.


If your partner doesn’t understand, think of a funny example that relates to their life or a celebrity life. So, say your partner doesn’t understand the word “bruise”. You can tell the story of when you slipped on a banana skin and got a massive “bruise” on your backside. The sillier the better - they will find it funny and never forget the word “bruise” again! A little translation doesn’t hurt. But sticking to your target language is a sure fire way to stay immersed and make the most of your language exchange practice.

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