Thinking in your target language | General discussion | Forum

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Thinking in your target language
February 11, 2012
00:34
jayg42
NY

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OK - I really hope this is not on Benny's list of stupid questions...here goes anyway.

 

I've been studying Spanish now for 4+ months and I'm really starting to make some progress.  My internal translations are becoming faster - frequently used sayings I can almost do without any thought, but more complicated (to me) phrases require time.  I'm assuming that with practice, I will get faster.  Anyway, at this point I'm pleased but more motivated than ever.

 

Here is the question - to those that consider themselves fluent in a non-native language, are you able to think in your new(er) language?  If so, how long did it take you?  I know everyone is works at a different pace because of many different variables; however, I'm interested in hearing stories because I find them motivating.

 

Jay

February 11, 2012
01:40
Martín Raúl Villalba
Argentina

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You shouldn't be translating, at all.

For me, as I soon as I get the slightest feel for the grammar, I stop going through whatever I'm using as a base language for the subset of grammar I know.

As for thinking in the language, yeah, sure. With Italian for instance, as soon as two weeks after starting I knew enough grammar so that part of my thought process could take place in Italian while something in the language. This is the exact same process I went through when I learned English.

February 11, 2012
02:36
Reve
Chicago, IL

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Agreed with above about the translating. 

 

I'm not fluent in Spanish, though I am advanced and currently live in Spain, and I think in Spanish whenever using the language (prior to coming to Spain, my formal education was in high school, so I couldn't tell you when I first started to really think in it).  If I'm alone with my thoughts, I switch to Spanish if I'm thinking of a conversation I want to have.  My French is very basic right now, but when speaking my mind is in "foreign language mode" so I aim to think in just French, but honestly either French or Spanish comes out of my mouth.

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February 11, 2012
07:56
JWood424
CT, USA

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I have been practicing Spanish pretty intensely for the last several years and I still find my brain wants to fight me when it comes to thinking in Spanish.  I think your brain's natural tendency is to think in your native language.  (Although if you think about it, how much of our thoughts are actual words?)  I make a conscious effort to think in Spanish words when I am doing things around my house, such as making dinner or washing the dishes.  It's a bit of a mental workout, but it helps me remember vocabulary and verbs and I think it is a good exercise.  I don't think you are going to wake up one day and find you are thinking in Spanish instead of English, rather it is something that will happen slowly the more you use the language.  Obviously, the more you surround yourself with Spanish, the easier it becomes.  For example, when I speak to my co-workers in Spanish, my thoughts are all in Spanish, however as soon as I return to speaking amongst my English speaking co-workers, my brain slips back into English.  It will be harder if you are not constantly surrounded by it, but not impossible.  Good luck.

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February 11, 2012
14:54
Martín Raúl Villalba
Argentina

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JWood424 said:

I have been practicing Spanish pretty intensely for the last several years and I still find my brain wants to fight me when it comes to thinking in Spanish.  I think your brain's natural tendency is to think in your native language.  (Although if you think about it, how much of our thoughts are actual words?)  I make a conscious effort to think in Spanish words when I am doing things around my house, such as making dinner or washing the dishes.  It's a bit of a mental workout, but it helps me remember vocabulary and verbs and I think it is a good exercise.  I don't think you are going to wake up one day and find you are thinking in Spanish instead of English, rather it is something that will happen slowly the more you use the language.  Obviously, the more you surround yourself with Spanish, the easier it becomes.  For example, when I speak to my co-workers in Spanish, my thoughts are all in Spanish, however as soon as I return to speaking amongst my English speaking co-workers, my brain slips back into English.  It will be harder if you are not constantly surrounded by it, but not impossible.  Good luck.

I really like this answer and would like to add one little thing to it: Thinking in one language while speaking another is not really a good idea. It leads to mental confusion, headaches, weird accents, and weird grammar coming out of your mouth. At least for me.

February 11, 2012
15:34
Randybvain
Cheltenham, UK

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I think in Polish or English, but frequently use phrases from other languages, for example donc or wrth gwrs (of course in Welsh), nawr 'te etc. I tend to go back to Polish in stressful situations in English, but when speaking French or Welsh I mix them very often.

With English it started with translating Polish sentences in my mind and it took some 2-3 years. I do the same with French and Welsh: whenever I could spend some time on thinking, I take a sentence, memorise it and then translate. In time it gets faster. Contrary to Martín, I think translating is inevitable because when we want to say something, our mind always evokes the familiar set of letters, so you cannot think of an apple as of une pomme until une pomme become familiar in your mind and this process lasts some time, for ones shorter,  for others longer. The same with sounds: you cannot say properly une pomme [yn pom] until the set of sounds become familiar in your mind. And I agree: it does lead to mental confusion, headaches, weird accents, and weird grammar coming out of your mouth and that's why the majority of people doesn't learn foreign languages.

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February 11, 2012
17:31
Martín Raúl Villalba
Argentina

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@Randybvain: I think you miss-understood me. Everybody starts translating until they become minimally familiar with specific grammar constructs. But he's been at it for 4 months, which means that he should know quite some grammar "by heart" now, and thus should not need to mentally translate all that much.

As an interesting example, my mother doesn't really speak English, but she can translate it back to Spanish and then interpret it. She's been doing it for over 20 years and trust me, she can't speak a word of it, nor read it all that fast since she has to go through the translation step. She recently started an English course and she is constantly telling me that now she's actually starting to read English rather than translating it back to Spanish, and that the difference is outstanding both in speed, and comprehension.

As for the mixing languages mentally I'm speaking from experience in the sense that if I'm, say, speaking to some English-speaking friends and I suddenly have to speak Spanish I'll be thinking in English and my Spanish will come out with an English accent, I'll have a hard time finding my words, and I'll need to actively think how to properly say what I want to say. The reverse is also true.

If I am to entirely switch between languages without being required to switch back 2 seconds later, I do this by changing the language I'm internally thinking in, and speech follows naturally without much effort on my part.

I do agree that I have certain default language for certain expressions, invariably of my active language. For instance, when I see a creepy old man hitting on some 17 years old I don't think "perv" so much as "viejo verde", and when I'm bored out of my mind I'm always "bored" rather than "aburrido". These don't seem to affect my speech in any way, though they very often act as a language switcher, assuming I'm by myself thinking about something in no particular language.

February 12, 2012
15:15
crushalanguage
Oxford, Michigan USA

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Martín Raúl Villalba said:

I do agree that I have certain default language for certain expressions, invariably of my active language. For instance, when I see a creepy old man hitting on some 17 years old I don't think "perv" so much as "viejo verde", and when I'm bored out of my mind I'm always "bored" rather than "aburrido". These don't seem to affect my speech in any way, though they very often act as a language switcher, assuming I'm by myself thinking about something in no particular language.

I  think Martin touches on a interesting point here. Thinking in a foreign language has to do with the associations you build with the words and phrases of that language. If you have a stronger (more vivid) association to an idea in one language than with another, the stronger associated phrase tends to present itself first. The recall of associations becomes faster, the more they are activated.

So the ability to think without translating improves with the amount of time you spend actively interacting with the target language because it helps you build the associations. The more colorful associations (weird, bizarre) you build with phrases, the less you need to translate.  

Time spent in active conversations in that language help build the ability to think in the target language much more than studying vocabulary lists or reading stories. No doubt this is why Benny is so insistent about speaking from day one, since building the initial associations from a concept directly to the phrase in your target language takes a good deal of effort initially but pays off in more fluid and natural speech down the road. 

That's why I think you shouldn't mix languages when doing a language exchange. Stick to one language so that you build up direct associations with the target language instead getting in the practice of translating. 

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February 13, 2012
08:32
Johanna
Finland

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This topic reminds me of something I witnessed when my son was still a child.

Having played fantasy computer games and having watched the LotR films in his very imaginative age, he started speaking English when he wished to get into his own fantasy world. He would come to the kitchen, utter "Log in" and switch to English. Obviously I was supposed to speak it too and play along. (I still remember milk was 'white beer'.) Once he was ready to quit the play he would say "Log out" and switch back to our native language.  This way he sort of happened to learn some English very naturally. Learning more has been easy for him ever since.

I wonder if we adults could be a bit more imaginative with our language studies as well. wink

(   )
February 13, 2012
08:49
Enigmagico
São Paulo / Brasil

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Thats so cute, hah!

 

It's lovely when parents play along with their son's fantasies and immaginations, and that is something every parent should do. It sure builds up to a very intelligent and social person.

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