Train Your Brain: How to Start Thinking in a Foreign Language
We’ve all heard that thinking in a foreign language is a sign of real fluency.
But I bet you haven’t heard that it’s the fifth key language skill that all learners must develop—falling right in line with speaking, listening, reading and writing.
In fact, thinking in a foreign language can be its very own path to fluency, not just a result of fluency.
And like the other skills, thinking in your target language is absolutely learnable. All it takes is some practice!
Here, we’re going to show you how to make this happen.
- Thinking in a Foreign Language Made Easy
Thinking in a Foreign Language Made Easy
1. Translate Your Thoughts
You could have thought of this one, right? Sure, it seems like the most obvious step to take, but not everyone does it. Some people are very visual or quantitative, meaning they don’t have streams of words constantly going through their brains.
If you don’t already narrate your life in your head, then start doing it consciously! This kind of active exercise is where you’ll get the most practice.
When you remember conversations, translate. When you think about your daily schedule, translate. When you’re cursing the weather, your neighbors, the long line at the grocery store… translate!
Is this easier said than done? Here are some mini-steps you can take to start working toward narrating your life in your target language.
If you’re a beginner, try simply taking some time out of the day to describe what’s around you. When you see a tree, you could think “tree” in your target language. If the correct word for tree isn’t coming to you, think “green,” “wood” or anything else that can describe it. Same goes for buildings, animals, clothing, whatever. If you’re really limited in terms of vocab, you could even count people, animals or objects in your head. Anything helps!
Soon enough, though, you’ll graduate to wanting to translate two-word phrases and beyond. When you’re able to start doing this, you’ll want to double check everything you’re translating, either with a native speaker or by googling the phrase with quotation marks to see if lots of native speakers are phrasing it just like you are. (Hint: If you get less than 1000 hits or hits that include only learners’ dictionaries and forums, you probably have something funky going on.)
If you can’t figure out how to say what you’re thinking, make up an approximation that you’re still absolutely sure is 100 percent correct. Because you’re thinking much, much more than you’re speaking or writing, it can be easy to fall into bad habits—that’s why double checking your language usage is still key. Concrete nouns, verbs and adjectives are quite easy to translate, but idiomatic phrases get trickier, so you’ll want to be especially sure that you’re using the correct idioms and expressions all the time.
2. Start Using Monolingual Dictionaries
Now we’re getting to less direct but oh-so-essential steps to making the language yours.
A monolingual dictionary is just what it sounds like—instead of translating your target language into your native language and vice versa, you’re looking up a target-language word and getting a target-language definition, just like when you pick up a dictionary to check a word in your native language.
Using a monolingual dictionary can mark an important step in your language learning journey because it means that you’re using the language itself to learn.
A small caveat, however: Monolingual dictionaries are most useful if you try them out at the mid- to high-intermediate stage when you can already understand a mainstream novel or follow formal news radio. Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time looking up words in the definitions of other words—though that can be a valuable exercise, too.
You’ll be pretty amazed at how monolingual dictionaries help you think in the language. While studying, you’ll no longer be translating back and forth. Consciously using a monolingual dictionary while filling out SRS flashcards, reading novels, using language apps like FluentU or working through a textbook will pay off in all your other skill areas.
What makes language apps particularly useful is their versatility. For example, FluentU teaches with authentic videos–via special subtitles, you learn vocabulary straight from the clips you view. The app’s video dictionary feature lets you see a word being used in different videos, thereby providing extensive examples and contexts for the vocabulary you learn. You can then save and review what you learn with flashcards or personalized quizzes.
With monolingual dictionaries, you’ll even start to think in terms of the language itself, rather than only within the framework of your native language.
First of all, find a good monolingual dictionary! WordReference has a great online Spanish-Spanish dictionary (plus monolingual options in many other languages). I’ve personally used Larousse for French. Guoxuedashi is a good example for Chinese. Searching “dictionary” in your target language will land you with something, but quality is pretty important, so try asking other learners on sites like Quora or Language Learners’ Forum.
Now what? Monolingual dictionaries work great when paired with sentence flashcards on SRS. That’s right—each flashcard will have a whole sentence on the front, and then you can use your monolingual dictionary to define words you don’t know on the backs of your cards. You can embed definitions if there are words you don’t know in the original definitions. Check out the blog All Japanese All the Time for a complete explanation (and a great post on monolingual dictionaries!). This unconventional approach to flashcards is a great way to learn vocabulary and grammar in context.
If the definition is impossible to understand (think: definition for “oak” or “ladder”… simple concepts with confusing, convoluted definitions), paste in an image so that you get the meaning without any interference from English!
3. Write in a Journal
Because journaling is writing down your thoughts, it gets you into the habit of thinking in your target language, especially if you’re finding thinking itself to be difficult at first.
Basically, it’s just another way to practice Step #1, but it’s slower and you’re in one spot so you can look things up. It’s also a good option if you’re busy most of the time and don’t have the freedom to glaze over and think purposefully in your target language. It doubles as writing practice, too!
I discovered this myself when practicing writing in Spanish—I found myself thinking in Spanish for some time after I completed a quick writing session and put down my pen. Spending some time deliberately formulating thoughts in Spanish definitely got me into that “zone” of thinking in my target language.
Try writing a daily monologue. This can include whatever’s on your mind! Stuff about your work, about your family—it doesn’t matter. Opinions work well, too, because you might have a lot to say about them. You can just keep a diary in your target language!
Get corrections and feedback from natives and learners on services like italki. On italki, you can even hire a private tutor to work with you one on one, to get the best feedback possible. No matter how you get them, corrections will help you avoid writing things down wrong and cementing bad habits in your mind.
Despite the importance of staying away from bad habits, I recommend keeping a private, hard copy journal on good stationery. It’s a great break away from Internet-heavy language learning, and the privacy gives you free reign to write about whatever you want!
4. Read More First Person Literature
Reading is so important when it comes to learning a language. If you read books written in the first person, you’ll see direct benefits when it comes to thinking in the language.
Obviously, first person books give you the main character’s thoughts—you get to read someone else’s thoughts so that you can think your own! How cool is that?
For all those hard-to-translate idioms and phrases from Step #1, you’ll get solutions from books. You’ll learn how native speakers express abstract concepts, which vocab they use and how they use it.
Get some young adult fiction, stat! Why young adult? Because fiction aimed at that age group loves first person perspective right now, and the language is casual and very realistic. Even if you’re not into reading in that age group normally, I highly recommend you check it out for this purpose (and you might find some new favorite books while you’re at it).
As always, translations of books you’ve already read work wonderfully because you already have that crucial context that makes understanding a target language so much easier. But if you’re at a loss for what to find, I recommend translations of the “Percy Jackson” books or “The Hunger Games.” Both are popular (and thus widely translated) and both have fun stories that will keep you engaged.
To find the translated titles of these books, simply translate the Wikipedia page into your target language. Then you can search for the title on Amazon!
Commit to reading 20 minutes a day to get into the habit of thinking in your target language. It won’t be long before you start remembering phrases you see over and over, but to speed things up, dust off that SRS once again. Enter the sentences or phrases you think you might want to use in your own thoughts, and over time, you won’t forget them!
And that’s that! With these four steps, you’ll get past all that clunky translating you’ve been doing in your head.
You’ll be well on your way to thinking in your target language and making it your own.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of thinking in your language, the rest is smooth sailing!