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What would be the best way to learn and translate sentences that don't match exactly?

Hi all! This isn't necessarily duolingo specific, but I might run into the same problem on here as well :)

I’m currently going through different sentences in English and translating them into French (and French > English), using a Collins phrase book for reference, and putting the sentences either side of a flashcard to do it in my head before flipping the card.

One of the sentences I came across is this:

“J’allais tous le jours à l’école à pied.”

The translation given was:

“I would walk to school every day.”

Which makes sense. The problem is, if I translate from English to French, I would say that as:

“Je marcherais à l’école tous les jours.”

And the same for when I go from the other side, I would translate the French to:

“I was going every day to school by foot.”

These aren’t massive differences in translations, but when I’m testing myself to form sentences correctly, with the correct tense and in the correct order, this can be a bit confusing!

Would it be right to learn the sentence like is suggested in the book? Or should I build the English sentence to match the French sentence better?

October 12, 2017

1 Comment


First, there is nothing wrong with translating it the way you did above. I'm sure you know that. (Though I see a typo with "le" in the original sentence.)

The difference here is whether you should learn phrases by rote memorization or by forming your own sentences by learning vocabulary and grammar. I lean towards the latter.

I think that as learners, especially in the beginning, it's more important to be able to get your point across using your own vocabulary (and proper grammar), rather than finding the exact phrasing that a native French person would use, or worse yet, learning from a phrase book. If you learn vocab and grammar first, then in the later stages of your studies, you will potentially be able to break down every sentence you read in a phrase book.

The hardest part in learning a language is how to move on from literal translation and native language bias to natural translation and thinking in the target language. This comes from experience and immersion.

Finally, to answer your question, build the French sentence to match the English sentence (and vice versa) as best as you can for now. After you feel comfortable, try to figure out from your studies and experience how this other translation is formed and why a book suggests it.

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