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How to think in a foreign language (it does NOT “just happen”)

| 49 comments | Category: learning languages


This is a guest post by the author of Life by Experimentation, Zane, who quantifies the path to self-improvement.  He creates real-life experiments to assess everything from sleeping less to traveling cheaply in order to live a more productive and skillful life. He speaks Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, French and Arabic with varying degrees of fluency.

Recently a friend asked me how long it would take before she started thinking in French.  My response was “a week or so.”  She was shocked (and understandably so).  We worked on it together and within a week we were both thinking in the language despite it still being quite new to us.

Thinking in a foreign language is an important goal that brings you one giant step closer to becoming fluent.  There is also the fact that language and culture are intertwined, and thinking in your target language is an essential part of being able to connect with the people you are trying to get to know.

It is not necessarily easy to think in a new language (especially if you’ve never done it before) but it is still simple – there is no magic here.  First time language learners often believe that if they study long enough and hard enough they will eventually just start thinking in the target language, as if a switch had been flipped.  This is how I approached it the first time around and it did work… eventually… kind of.

Now I know better.  There are two essential parts of thinking in a language: context and conditioning.  If you’re learning your first foreign language you may want to consider learning Esperanto first, as Benny suggests, in order to become accustomed to thinking in a foreign language.  Once you decide to take the plunge, here are some things to keep in mind:

Context

Where you are mentally makes an enormous difference.  Just a few hours ago I was having a conversation in French and the famous surrealist painter Salvador Dalí came up.  I began to talk about the Dalí museum in northern Spain and before I even realized it I was halfway though a sentence in Spanish.  The act of thinking about that place even for a moment, with all the signs and people communicating in Spanish, was enough to shift my mental context.

There are countless examples like this, and not just in foreign languages.  In this video in the Economist a man reverts to the accent of his youth when thinking about his childhood without even realizing it.  Our brains are pattern-matching machines and one of the major cues they draw upon is that of context.  If you interrupt me while I am doing my Mandarin flashcards, no matter what language you speak to me in my brain’s first reaction will be to reach for Chinese – at least until it shifts contexts.

This is exactly why polyglots associate gestures and other cultural emblems with their language learning. The more context that is associated with the knowledge the stronger your recollection will be. One of my hobbies is following the field of neuroscience, but instead of boring you with all the data let me simply refer to the Wikipedia page on context-based learning and cite two important bits.

1) Context-based memory is the reason retracing your steps is useful when you lose something.

2) From the scientific literature it is concluded, “when a person is studying, he/she should match the context as best as possible to the testing context.”

The first and foremost way we can leverage context is to create a language bubble (even if you’re learning from home where nobody speaks your language).  The goal is to be surrounded by the language as much as possible so it actually becomes inconvenient to think in your native language.  Reading news and listening to music in this way allows you to begin to develop a contextual world to live in where everything is tied to your target language.  A language is much more than words, after all.

Conditioning

Thinking in a new language is a decision you can make.  If you know even a few dozen key grammar words you can begin to think in your target language thanks largely to the 80/20 rule in language learning.  It is easier than speaking in the language because you will not be embarrassed (unless you have a malicious alter-ego).  It requires less confidence but more motivation than speaking.

During the early stages you may be using more of your native language than your target language, and that is fine.  You will also probably be translating at first rather than “thinking fluently,” and that is fine, too.  What is important is that you make a conscious effort to use the target language in your thoughts, not just in your conversations.

To keep up motivation, I highly suggest a journal (digital or analog) that you keep with you at all times.  When you don’t know how to say (ahem, think) a key word just write it down.  At the end of the day look up the words, or even better, ask a native.  You now have a list of practical vocabulary to learn (instead of studying “shoelaces” and “aardvark” from a book)!  For extra credit, date each entry – you’ll begin to notice how much smaller your daily lists get (and how much more esoteric).  That’s progress you can see!

If you are ready to put aside your shame (and have understanding roommates or family members) it is also quite useful to talk to yourself. Aside from being quite liberating and useful in organizing your thoughts, it also allows you to practice pronunciation. Sometimes I even have conversations with myself, acting out different personas which each speak a different language, in order to practice switching between languages. I may get strange looks in the street, but this habit has also been the start of some interesting conversations.

I can promise one thing: if you make a conscious and continuous effort to think everything you can in your target language, you will begin to surprise yourself.  One day you will hear yourself think “a mi me encanta” instead of “I like,” and you will not even know where it came from.  The context of thinking in the language will also mean that you pick up new words that you are exposed to without even realizing it.  A couple times a week now I use a word in a sentence that I don’t remember studying, yet I am sure I have heard other people say.

Thinking Fluently

The biggest challenge with thinking in the language is the frustration that comes with not being able to fully express yourself inside your own head.  As I’ve said, it is fine to substitute your native language where needed at first – but the key to thinking fluently is your frame of mind.  You can choose to become frustrated, succumbing to perfection paralysis, or you can choose to see each unknown word as one more key piece in the fluency puzzle.  One day you will wake up from a dream and not even register that it was not in your native language.

Visualization

Thinking in a foreign language is essentially a form of visualization or rehearsal that prepares you for the real deal (an actual conversation). With visualization we can go through the steps of making an attempt, to identifying a mistake, to correcting it in a very short period of time. In other words, the feedback loop is very tight. As researcher Kathryn Schulz points out in this TED video, being wrong is quite normal and perhaps even good – as long as you become aware of your mistakes and correct them when possible.

I love discussing all the benefits of visualization. The most astonishing thing is that the brain cannot fundamentally tell the difference between real and imagined action. One study has shown that the brain sends identical impulses to the legs when imagining running. In another study, participants who imagined playing the piano showed nearly identical development in the motor cortex of the brain as those who actually played the piano. In short, the brain treats visualization like the real deal.

What does all this mean for us? Well, for one, it means that thinking in a language is much more relevant than we may have previously believed. Every thought that passes though your brain has the potential to act as a mini-exercise in your target language, not just as passive rehearsal but also as an active exercise. When you add up all the thoughts you have in a day, the potential for change is quite impressive.

Have you managed to think in a foreign language?  Was your process similar?  Let us know below!

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  • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

    Excellent advice!

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Thanks Randy!

  • Sarah T.

    Living in a foreign country, I find that thinking through conversations in my head which I expect to have is very useful, as well as trying to remember conversations I’ve had during the day. In Holland, cycling to and from work was a great time for me to practise simply because my mind was freewheeling at the time. When I was first learning and having formal lessons, though, I found language lab practice very helpful in getting my tongue around the sounds and the shapes of sentences, especially how to form negatives and questions. Again, nobody was listening in, so it didn’t matter if I made a hash of it. Before I was working here, though, I didn’t get out and speak to so many people, so I increased my vocabulary by reading magazines and noting down useful vocabulary. That’s another great way to learn the flow of the language and the way things are phrased, and gradually you have to look up less and less. It also has the added advantage of giving your brain the time to work out what’s happening at the stage when it’s still not understanding enough of a native speaker’s language to keep up.

    All these different methods work together to improve your fluency, but sometimes you have to just build up a head of steam and go for it. Some swear by alcohol, but I find the best thing is anger: one of my finest moments was browbeating a customer service lady into giving my money back when she really didn’t want to. I had thought it all through beforehand and just told her what was wrong with the product, why her arguments weren’t reasonable, and in the end she gave in because she could tell my grasp of the language wasn’t good enough to try subtlety, and there was a queue building up behind me. Sometimes there are advantages in being able to produce more than receive;-)

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      I believe quite a bit in the idea of synergy (or momentum). As you pointed out, Sarah, the element of being exposed to the language in all its variable forms really goes a long way. It is like being assaulted from all angles – something is bound to get through.

      Haha I have had a few people tell me that they, too, like using anger. Personally I don’t prefer it, but I do see the logic. When you NEED to get something and someone is standing in your way, the adrenaline is a great asset. One of these days I’ll have to tell the stories of my interesting encounters with the Chinese police…

  • Jorge.

    great. I’ll do this. it’s an amazing advice. I learnt english a couple of years ago and it was a little bit hard at the beginning to do this, but now it comes easy… in french I can do it too… now that I’m learning hungarian, I’ll do what you say here. thanks =)

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Glad you found it useful, Jorge!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jose.eduardo.valdez José Valdez

    That thing about the language bubble is a good idea. I’ve been “thinking” in english and Esperanto (I’m a spanish native speaker) and its a good way to excercice the language skills.

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      I like to think of it like peer pressure… eventually the words in your mind will become foreign “because all the other words are doing it.”

  • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

    :) I think the mark that you have truly internalized a word is when, upon being asked what the foreign word means, you have to consciously translate it back into your native language…

  • http://jonathanvellner.com Jonathan Vellner

    I’m an anglophone originally (from western Canada), but I now live in Quebec and do most of my day to day stuff in French. I used to talk myself through conversations in French all the time, especially conversations around specific topics where key words might come up that I wouldn’t know. For example, in the summer I worked as a trampoline coach teaching summer camps. I’d been coaching for several years in the west, but when I went to coach my first class in Quebec I was surprised at how difficult it was to explain it all in French. I was missing a lot of key words, and so my explanations, though they got the point across, were not very elegant to say the least. So at home I practiced out loud coaching myself every move that I would have to eventually teach and jotting down every word or expression that I got stuck on in a little notebook (just like you mentioned in your post). Once I could clearly see which words where holding me back, I’d select a bunch, learn them and repeat the process. My explanations got better every time, and it made it a whole lot more fun to teach.
    Very useful technique for filling up the holes in your vocab. I still use it from time to time.
    Great post Zane!

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      A trampoline coach, eh? That sounds quite interesting. Rehearsing aloud is a wonderful tool. Actors and politicians do it all the time, but us mere mortals are often afraid that we will seem weird (or some such nonsense). Giving up your ego (as much as possible) can change everything.

      Thanks, Jonathan.

  • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

    Wow! Great find on the article! As I said in the post, I love neuroscience.

    Separating the languages is something I am currently working on myself. I definitely think that gestures and body movements are good things to associate because the brain likes to hook into physical things. One thing I have been doing recently is to picture people/places in my mind when switching languages/accents. Because of context this seems to help a lot. I also want to try an experiment on my site soon to learn different English accents, but that’s a story for another time…

  • http://profiles.google.com/troytroy Troy _

    (Some necessary background: I’m now fluent and speak Portuguese at home with my Brazilian wife. When others are around, we switch to English to be polite)

    Thinking in my target language has always been a goal for me. But it never seems to have materialized for me, or maybe I do, but I just don’t know it. My sense is that I translate only when I don’t know how to say something. If the topic is dinner I don’t translate at all; if the topic is astronomy I translate 100% from English. :-)

    In the last few years I’ve stumbled across a weird phenomenon and I wonder if others have experienced it: when I recall a conversation I had with my wife, I can’t recall what language we were speaking in at the time. What does it mean? Is there some internal language we can think in which has no words?

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      For new topics, I think it is necessary/normal to translate internally. A lot of times I guess at words in French (since many are close to either English or Spanish) when I don’t know how to say something. I construct the basic grammar of my sentence in French, but fill in pieces and even phrases with translations.

      I think the “not remembering what language” thing is great. I’ve noticed the same thing. I believe I have read studies about this, that we do not actually store memories as a sequence of words but rather a collection of ideas. It is something I would definitely like to do more research on!

  • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

    Yeah, Abby, the “mental switch” thing is very tough. I’m still struggling with this between French and Spanish. It used to be the case that my Spanish was great and I was quickly approaching fluency, but after a month of speaking and thinking in French I’m really struggling to pull out the Spanish on demand. But, like any skill, it can be practiced! Every day now I take at least 10 minutes to talk to myself in Spanish, and slowly it is getting better…

  • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

    Haha yeah, I find it very easy to get caught up in a language too, sometimes I have such a good time conversing with someone I have to remember that it can be impolite to other people present to not use a common language. Sometimes I dislike being a native English speaker exactly because it is too frequently the common language, so I don’t get to practice!

    • http://jonathanvellner.com Jonathan Vellner


      Sometimes I dislike being a native English speaker exactly because
      it is too frequently the common language, so I don’t get to practice!”Ditto. I guess it just makes us look a little harder for practice opportunities. Still, it’s a pain sometimes…

  • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

    Wow, thanks for the great list, Fiel! I’m leaving France right now, so I definitely need to round out my list of resources for keeping up on learning the language, especially because I am considering starting Swedish…

    Speaking of cultural emblems, one that I really like in French is the “pfeh” negation. It is hard to describe but basically you put your lips together and exhale quickly, like a miniature version of a braying horse. It is used as if to say “but whatever” or “who cares” or something of that nature. I started doing it without realizing it until a French friend pointed it out, which just goes to show you how powerful being in the culture is…

  • Jasmine

    I like a lot of the advice in the post but I would tell the writer that it does not ‘just happen’ for HIM. It does just happen for some people. I learned a language just by listening to what was going on around me without translation and thought in that language as words did not have the same connotations as their english counterparts. Although I guess that is what the writer is trying to get at – I didn’t study with a book ever and therefore I guess my immersion was what gave me the conditioning and context.

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Right – first you need a method. Another big point from the article was that it is also a choice to think in a language. If you’re already completely immersed and choosing to stay away from your native language, you’re already applying the method in the post ;)

  • Prateek

    great article,zane…. I find it very useful.I am currently learning French and I hope it will accelerate my learning curve….!

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      I hope it works for you, Prateek – be sure to let me know if you have any surprising experiences ;)

  • Hyewon

    Great article! I’m a native English speaker learning Korean, and I always thought it would be really difficult for me to start thinking in Korean simply because I think ENTIRELY in words and conversations. I’ll admit I even talk to myself quite a bit in English… I try to think short phrases and simple things in Korean, but after reading this I’m going to attempt to make much more of it totally Korean if I can. I know I need to… my conversation/speaking ability is horrid. :(

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Just by thinking about your level being “horrid” you’re discrediting yourself! If you can get your basic idea across you have all the tools you need to take your learning (and thinking) to the next level! I will tell friends that my level is bad, but in my own head I prefer to think of it as “good enough to…” It is not that I think I am GOOD, but that I refuse to think of myself in a negative light if it is avoidable.

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Agreed. You’re basically advocating immersing yourself as much as possible in the language–if you do this and do it thoroughly and properly you could certainly find yourself thinking in it in a week or so. Do everything possible in the new language (grocery lists, calendar entries, change your computer’s language to it, etc.).

    Cheers,

    Andrew

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      Bubbles: not just for children any more ;)

  • Goŝka

    what a great idea of a topic! I absolutely agree with that. I met a German guy for whom, let’s say, I fell .  I was 15 and it was something Wow to me, as he may have been the first foreigner I spoke English to.  When I’m Thinking, I tend to imagine conversations with people so I realised I was thinking in English. I was so glad to practise in fact all the time, as I was somehow obsessed :). It counts as a practice as I don’t agree with our dear Benny, who claims that being sure one can say sth. and not in fact physically speaking isn’t practice :)

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      There’s nothing quite like a pretty guy/gal to motivate us ;)  I think physically speaking has advantages in that it lets you work the muscles and get more feedback on your performance.  IMHO the two, thinking and speaking, go hand in hand.

      • Goŝka

         unfortunately now I don’t have such pretty ‘motivation’ for my norwegian :).

        also, there is a very good point of listing words you don’t know.  everybody tends to use some words more often than others, so if while thinking they know they need it and check it, they will be more prepared for speaking confidently

  • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

    haha yeah, mistaking using the wrong language can either be really cool or a bit embarrassing depending on how the other person reacts ;)  In my story above about accidentally using Spanish, luckily my colleague was Argentinean.   

  • Mac @ JLPT Boot Camp

     This makes a lot of sense and I’m surprised it isn’t talked about more often.  I teach English and I can always tell the students that think in English and those who don’t.  

    Admittedly it can be quit hard to take the jump to thinking completely in the language, but it is well-worth it. 

    This article also reminds me of that saying that once you start dreaming in a language, you have really got it mastered, but why wait?  Why not start dreaming in the language now?

  • http://twitter.com/vyxle Alice

    This is really great advice! I found that when I was learning German, it did help a lot to think/journal in the language, and lead to my favorite thing–DREAMING in a foreign language! Now that I’m studying Japanese I haven’t hit that milestone yet, but I’m looking forward to it :)

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      A journal is a really great tip – it gives you the chance to sit down and develop the vocabulary you need in order to go about your daily activities, since you are describing them!  Plus, you can begin to see when you use a sentence pattern too frequently and look for ways to diversify…

  • Natália Danzmann

    an-mhaith an chomhairle! chualas trácht ar do threoraí cúpla bhliain ó shin chun a bheith fírinneach… agus anois go bhfuil an bhlag sin léite agam go fiú caithfidh mé a rá gur iontach cabhrach é. Mise san ollscoil anois agus tá ar m’intinn taighde a dhéanamh ar an líofacht féin (in ionad cruinneas teanga), mar go bhfuil sé níos éascaí díriú ar an gcruinneas nuair atá tú líofa cheana féin. Agus mé thar a bheith buíoch go bhfuil foinse éigin eile faighte agam tar éis na míosa á lorg. Go raibh míle míle maith agat as ucht an alt seo a scríobh!

    ps. níl tuairim agam cén fáth go bhfuilim ag déanamh trácht as Gaeilge anseo lol fonn orm ;)

  • Nige

    Great post… I started to learn Spanish a few months ago and find that when i write i think of the words in English and then try to translate into spanish which causes a lot of mistakes. If your advice works then hopefully my learning process will become a lot quicker!    

  • Jose Perez

    @Zane: OK so I’m a native Spanish speaker and I can say I can speak English now but my accent is what I have to work on more. Anyways I’ve always had this question. When I do any type of thinking, I think about them In English but I feel like I over think a lot and also I feel like my consentraition kinda sucks. So would the causes of that would be that I’m using the wrong language to think or would it be just personal? nd what would your opinion on what language I should use to think would be?., would it be the one I feel more comtroble using?

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    Not entirely true. While some or most of your thoughts (depending on how deliberate the thought is) are abstract brain information, when you deliberately think about something, it’s mainly in a language. While your subconscious is perfectly fine communicating in raw brain language, your conscious mind doesn’t unless it’s necessary.

    When you do think deliberately, you subvocalize. When debating a purchase, do you only use the raw information you associate with products or do you think “This is cheaper, but I won’t get as much use from it as this more expensive thing” (or something similar)? You most likely do both to an extent, but the more deliberate the thought is, the more it’s in language.

    The thing is to try to deliberately think in your target language. If you’re like me and like to talk to yourself a lot, then this is especially easy. If I were to actually talk aloud in public (which happens), people would look at me weird; if I thought those same things, it would have the same effect on my brain without attracting stares and disapproving glances. “Of course, I don’t care about them anyway. They can think whatever they want about me, I’m comfortable in the fact that I’m just to awesome for their puny minds to comprehend” that is the kind of thought you can think to yourself.

    I just thought of this; while typing, you think what you type. This further proves that deliberate thoughts are in a language.

  • Carlos M Del Pino

    Your “lengthy” article pretty much sums it up :) The same thing happened to me, but under different circumstances. I “moved” to the US when I was 13 …(…exhibit “A” I want to say “No fui, me llevaron.”, but I end up saying “moved” in quotes because I don’t want to say they “took me”, sounds like stealing… I guess “they moved me might sound better”…) I moved back to Mexico when I was 30, that was 7 years ago.
    I now have control over both English and Spanish, I don’t mean “mastery”, I mean I can decide when I speak which and how much slang or formality I use with either. When I was in HS we even started this “thing” with my friends where we’d switch languages mid-sentence, as in “Tenemos tarea para third period? Porque I wanna go a la library pero no quiero ir right now!” That’s not how we normally spoke, but it always amazed me that we could, and I still can :)
    I realize this post is old by forum standards so I’ll stop now in case my typing goes into thin air. If you or anyone wants to discuss this “language cauldron” in all of our heads I’d love to hear from you.

  • Kristin Ramirez

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article! I can’t wait to use your suggestions! Thanks so much!

  • Michael Bernardo

    Great advice. I didn’t realize I had already created my little French language bubble by changing the regional settings on my phone and computer, the radio stations I listen to, the TV shows I watch, and the news I read. Another good advice was substituting words I don’t know yet with English words. I had been talking to myself a lot in French and to my family and find myself stumbling and pausing a lot. Even my French meetup group gave this advice to me. By following this advice, I can by-pass the words and phrases I don’t know yet, for the time being, and reinforce the ones I already know.

  • Bryan L.

    It is great advice, and I only have one thing to say. With visualization, yes it helps a ton to get into thinking the language (I’ve been in Buenos Aires, Argentina, my first new language, for a month now) but for me, thinking and speaking are two very different things. I can probably say the same thing about hearing. I can speak fine and people can understand me but there are times where nothing really registers when I’m listening to someone in castellano (argentine spanish). Any advice other than, “just keep having conversations”?
    Gracias!

  • Antonio Rezende Neto

    Great! Actually I’m here in your blog searching for some help and I think I’ve found something that can help me. I’m a Brazilian living in Switzerland, just arrived 2 weeks ago and yesterday I’ve just started a traineeship which asks from me to speak in German – that I have studied for 7 months before being here, 5 of them in private classes all week long. But the thing is: there is a lot of thing that I can’t understand and also speak yet and it makes me very very sad because I feel myself unable to do what I came to do. Anyway, maybe my error lies on thinking in Portuguese, my native language.

  • Javier

    I have improved a lot since i began to think in Enlish and French It really works!

  • Sufrimenda

    I was so happy, when I caught myself on thinking in Spanish! Now I’m going to follow your advices and try it with Ukrainian :) Great article!

  • Kenn C

    Reading the article helps me to figured why i am always so slow in responding to people other than in my native language. Find it really helpful thanks!

  • Undearth

    I’ve been learning English for 1 year more or less, I think that maybe I’m fluent but when try to talk with myself I usually forget the words that I have to use, so I am starting to desperate because It’s so frustrating , But I know and I am sure that with effort everything could change, That’s what I want and what I really wish!… Cheers!

  • Rasfi Romany

    Thank you so much. That was one great advice!

  • Mafer Soria

    My native language is Spanish, I’ve never been to an english speaking country yet I’m a very fluent English speaker (I’d dare to say near native). As a teenager, I forced myself to think in english even if I didn’t understand it completely, while my classmates used english-spanish dictionaries, I used english-english disctionaries…this helped a lot, also, surrounding myself of english content became a habit and now english is my first go to language when looking for references, for instance when I want to google something. In my mind I switch from Spanish to English without even realizing it, it depends on my mood or the context (oddly my deepest thoughts are in English, and I don’t know why) Also I often find myself speaking spanglish, everyday actually…Oh language is such a fascinating thing! ¡Verdaderamente alucinante!

  • Kyupong Kim

    This article now has me put into a lot of thoughts about the points you raised above. To begin with, I have been studying English for an extensive period of time with, personally thinking, enormous efforts. Until I came across this website — which I find myself extremely fortunate because I got here from random internet searching — there were some “missing links” to mastering my target language, English, I had always failed to discover even “what it is.” Now things seems to make sense to me, “visualization and perfect paralysis” might be the factors I overlooked and let it slip off my mind. It took me so long to figure it out, why it is not easy for me to understand what the speaker says as I hear it “word by word.” I did virtually everything from trying to organize thoughts in English, to creating the “environment condition” for the language, and that eventually got me somewhat frustrated. I want to read more about this and make a purchase of the book. Thank you for putting an effort establishing great program and a repository, in terms of language learning, of wisdom.