We all know that everyone has a first language, in terms of communication. We think, write and speak using vocabulary from the language we grew up with. However, this pattern exists beyond the language of oral and written expression and applies to individuals when first contact is made with any system. Whatever system you first encounter, metric or imperial, English or French, piano or guitar, you are eternally cemented in the framework of that system. No matter how intensely you study another system, you must always translate to your first language in your mind.
When someone attempts to learn the metric system, a centimeter is likely described to them as, “approximately half an inch.” Teaching by translation and conversion is slow, tedious and it encourages the mental translation which occurs in the student’s mind. This is not how we learn our first languages, so why do we try to learn new systems in this way? Think about how you first learned the length of an inch. Did someone tell you that it was one twelfth of a foot? Of course not. You learned the length of an inch by looking at something that was an inch long and associating that length with the term inch. This is how we should learn all new systems – observe, then associate.
If someone wants to learn to speak Spanish, they should not merely pick up a Spanish-English dictionary and read it cover to cover. If a person simply wanted to be able to recite Spanish translations of English words, then that dictionary is probably their best bet. Although this tactic may give them a large Spanish vocabulary, their ability to associate those words with objects, feelings or actions would be non-existent. In order to truly comprehend and absorb a new system, you must associate the new terms directly with the world around you.
Translation is the enemy of learning.