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