I always recommend that when people learn single words, or short, common phrases, they directly connect the image in their mind (the image – but not the English word – of “cat”, “house”, “I go”, or whatever) with the foreign word, instead of first with the English word, and then the foreign one. That is, they form a mental picture of a cat, and think “gato” if they are learning Spanish, “Katze”, “chatte” or “neko” if German, French or Japanese is their target language.
If they want to say “I am going shopping”, then as soon as they read that sentence in English and see its translation into the target language, they should immediately put the English sentence (“I am going shopping”) out of their mind; they should only imagine themselves going shopping, and think “Voy a ir de compras”, “Ich gehe einkaufen”, “Je vais faire des courses”, “Kaimono ni ikimasu” (Spanish, German, French, or Japanese, respectively).
Then, they should repeat this sentence several times, till they can say it by memory, all the while holding the image of themselves going shopping in their minds. This should always be the preferred method for learning single words, as well as short, common phrases or sentences, assuming that your goal is to learn to speak the language as quickly as possible. (If you are studying to be a linguist or a professional translator, on the other hand, it would probably be better to translate mentally as much as you can, so that you will be able to associate the words in one language with their equivalents in the other as quickly as possible.)
It goes without saying that this method cannot be the only one you use. Suppose, for example, that someone asks you a question which requires an answer such as: “It wasn’t a banana peel, but rather a piece of wet rag I slipped on just before I fell and broke my leg right below the knee.” This sentence contains quite a few details, doesn’t it? And if you wanted to learn by the “direct association” method (that is, imagine the situation, then say a sentence you have previously learned to describe that situation), you would have to learn literally millions of sentences in order to be able to cover all the possibilities you might experience in life. Highly impractical, without a doubt!
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