The Semantic Translation Method

January 2011

This method is for rank beginners and I believe it to be the most efficient way of attaining a beginner level from scratch. It’s inspired by the theory of Conceptual Semantics and the worthy aspects of Grammar Translation. I used this system to attain a beginner level in Mandarin in six months despite putting in less than three hours’ study per week.

1. The student is issued with a sketch book.

2. Each double page is headed by a theme consisting of a semantic field. The fields I used were: shapes, colours, animals, sports, food (with sub fields for drink, fruit, vegetables, and meat), house & garden, emotions, computers, countries, money, business, Britain, China, America, war, government, law, language, media, the human body, clothes, family, jobs, time & dates, geography, weather, cooking & dining, places of business, transport, music, numbers, literature, great people, the cosmos, energy, western history, religion, education, health, diseases, crimes, and birds.

3. The student draws, if possible, the main concepts (nouns) that come under that field. If it is not possible to draw a concept e.g. a very abstract concept or intangible word like ‘Monday’, it can be written in block capitals with a particular colour. If the student has zero artistic inclination or ability they can be issued with a pre-formulated colouring book or they can find suitable images online.

4. Ideally the student should have the freedom to choose concepts that are personally relevant for them.

5. The student invents a phrase for a word (concept) to be used in, which may take a moment of reflection or teacher elicitation and assistance. The phrase must be grammatically correct in the student’s first language and be around seven words in length (plus or minus two)[1]. Again, students should be free to create phrases which are meaningful to them. If this is not possible because of the size of the class then pre-formulated books can be used. This soft version of the method makes it less student-centred but more workable for the teacher.

6. The teacher translates the student’s L1 phrase into a grammatically correct phrase in the target language which has the same meaning. Even if the phrase sounds unusual in the target language, as long as it is grammatically correct, the context is unimportant. The teacher may need a moment to work out the translation but there is always an easy workable translation for short simple phrases. Wittgenstein’s aphorism that “everything that can than be said can be said clearly” is a good general rule when doing the translations.

7. The student carefully and neatly writes the translated phrase in the book next to the picture.

8. The student repeats the phrase ten times with extensive modelling and help from the teacher. The teacher can also briefly explain definitions if the student can’t deduce them, and clarify rules and exceptions to rules as well as other points of interest, usage norms, and commonly used collocations with the target words.

9. Blocks of about a dozen phrases should be worked on per session.

10. The student repeats the phrases 10 times per day over 10 consecutive days without the aid of the teacher (except to guide and clarify forgotten meanings if need be). The teacher must emphasise that students concentrate on the meaning when they say the word to avoid mindless parroting.

11. Pages should be reviewed and students quizzed periodically after that but further repetition is not necessary.

12. The student makes an effort to use the language they have learned in real-life situations. If students don’t have the benefit of an immersion environment — to use the street as a classroom as it were — then it’s suitable to organise extension lesson plans. This allows students to use the language in a personal context via role plays and other activities which reinforces it. As the old proverb goes, if you don’t use it you lose it…


Nouns are learnt overtly while verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and function words such as prepositions, the common auxiliary verbs, particles, articles, etc, are learnt indirectly by osmosis. The 500 most common vocabulary words and most common syntax patterns in a language are acquired piecemeal and naturally and randomly cross-encountered at the student’s direction, fulfilling their own needs as a communicator. There is no need for a corpus in the hard version of the method; general consolidation of naturally generated language over the long term achieves the same end.

Through this method the student naturally acquires a vocabulary of the most commonly used words in the language while inductively learning the basic grammar of that language. In this way the method mirrors the first language learning experience. This method relies on translation, textual representation, and rote repetition. Once a student has gone above beginner level the method can be dispensed with and indeed needs to be dispensed with because text, translation, and explicit teaching become crutches for the learner that hinder fluency.

This is true even more so at upper intermediate level where the learning curve starts to level off and progress does not happen at the same pace as before and thus students have to use new and more communicative strategies for developing their skills and knowledge, such as reading and writing tasks to hone grammatical accuracy, learn collocations, normal usage terms, pragmatic ability, and to begin on the long road to earning a polished and erudite vocabulary.[2]

It’s rather like the game of snooker, which is an equally physical and randomly infinite game as language. When snooker players practice potting – the most important and fundamental part of their game – they just throw the balls up any old how and put them back down again. This is the ability part of practice. When players want to practice their tactical game, which requires a higher level of competence, they organise a proper structured frame and play against real opposition. That is the ‘communicative’ aspect of the game.

Variety in the choice of the phrases is important and that means target nouns should be used as subjects as well as objects and student creativity in using new verbs, constructions, moods, aspects, tenses, grammatical voices, and overall ideas should be covertly encouraged so that students don’t slip into unimaginative and formulaic patterns. Poignant, culturally relevant or proverbial phrases work well because this puts the onus on the individual’s existing knowledge, wit, sense of humour, personality and creativity so that he or she can begin expressing him/herself genuinely and even advantageously in the second language.

The Semantic Translation Method is a simple way of programming the brain with a language and relies on the belief that overlearning is the only way to learn a language and this provides students with eventual automaticity. Rote learning is a very effective way to learn as we all know from learning multiplication tables at school.[3] There is no denying that the 10x10 takes motivation and commitment if one is to practice it independently of a formal classroom. The method is especially good with field independent learners. That is, people who excel in private study and analytical approaches to learning, and this is why Point 12 is stressed — it gives a communicative aspect to the method.

Despite taking the best aspects from the Grammar Translation Method and its descendant, Audiolingualism, Semantic Translation is diametrically opposed to functional language learning, i.e. the stuff of phrasebooks; learning language for practical purposes such as various types of transactions. What the theory of Conceptual Semantics shows us is that once a person has learnt a piece of syntax, i.e. a grammatical concept, and can handle it with automaticity, that syntax can be applied to any function.[4][5] Semantic Translation strips language down to the bare bones in a creative and student-centred way. The advantages over functional language learning can be compared with the advantages of learning a 26 letter alphabet over a pictorial writing system. It takes minutes to memorise the alphabet yet it takes Chinese children years to memorise the 4,000 basic characters. From that initial drilling of the ABCs, those twenty-six letters can be combined in an infinite number ways. The grammatical concepts that students acquire through Semantic Translation are the same and so the lack of structure to the method is actually a strength that lends it versatility and flexibility which is necessary when dealing with the random infiniteness of a language and the non-linear way in which grammar and vocabulary are acquired and used.

One of the beauties of the method is that it relies on the little and often principle; that slow-is-fast and less-is-more.[6] It works because embedding a word within a chunk gives it syntax and context to hang on to so it doesn’t drop away. Memorising lists of isolated words is not effective way to learn a language, memorising chunks is.[7] The other benefits are that it’s visual and it’s creative for the student and therefore effective and fun. It is a combination of art and science – just as language is.

The method is generative, student-centred, and experiential so students take pride in it – which is something often lacking when learning foreign languages in school. And finally, like the Grammar Translation Method, it’s easy for the teacher and large numbers of people can be taught with the soft version of the method. All of which gives it unmatched efficiency in the realm of language teaching.



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1. The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information – George A. Miller (1956) – one of the most cited papers in psychology.

2. See TEFL101: 53. Hitting the Wall: Adopting Effective Learning Strategies

3. See TEFL101: 84. Defining Intelligence: Implications for Educators,
79. Language Concepts,
54. The Forgetting Curve: Mitigating the Effects,
20. Audiolingualism and its Relevance Today,
48. Chinese Whispers,
29. What makes a Good Language Learner,
61. Language Learning and the Brain

4. See TEFL101: 21. The Notional Function Syllabus: A Flawed Approach

5. For further reading on the theory of Conceptual Semantics see The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker (2007)

6. See TEFL101: 54. The Forgetting Curve: Mitigating the Effects

7. See TEFL101: 41. Chunking: The Best Way to Learn