Thinking in a Foreign Language: How to Do It and Why
Thinking in a foreign language is an important step in the long road that is fluency in a foreign language, but it’s a step that, for some reason, many language learners tend to ignore. Thinking in the language you are learning is not necessarily easy, but it’s something you can practice at any time of the day. Chances are you will NOT wake up one day thinking in a foreign language just because you’ve been learning it for X amount of months/years. Well, it can happen eventually, but I’d like to suggest an alternative that is a bit more, shall we say, efficient, and that will both jump-start your vocabulary acquisition and your fluency. What I’m proposing is that thinking in a new language is a decision you can make, and that you should make from Day 1.
Why Would I Do It?
You might be wondering why anyone would go through the discomfort of trying to think in a foreign language, especially during the early stages or learning. Well, for starters, thinking in the language you’re trying to learn is one of the easiest ways to review the vocabulary and grammatical patterns you’ve recently acquired. Plus, by actually forcing your brain to think in a language it is not used to think in, you’ll also help activate the newly-acquired information by giving you a real-life use for it. This, in turn, will speed-up thepassive-to-active vocabulary transition. In a nutshell, passive vocabulary includes the words stored in verbal memory that people partially “understand,” but not well enough for active use. So you might know the word for “vocabulary” in Spanish (vocabulario), for example, but you might not be able to plug it in a sentence of your own yet if you’re a beginner. Your active vocabulary, on the other hand, includes the words that you canreadily use when speaking and writing.
Another great reason to practice thinking in a foreign language is that, according to a study conducted by University of Chicago psychologists on how language affects reasoning, you will make decisions that will tend to be less biased, more analytic, and more systematic. Why is that? “Because,” according to the study’s lead author Boaz Keysar, “a foreign language provides psychological distance.” So by thinking in a foreign language you will not only be jump-starting your skills in that language, but you’ll also make smarter decisions. Talk about a no-brainer!
How Do I Do It?
So how can you actually start thinking in a foreign language? Is it something that will magically happen after having gone through your 10cm thick textbook? Chances are that won’t happen, unless you make a conscious effort to make it happen. So here are a few tips that I’d like you to try to implement in your daily life.
#1: The first thing that’s really important to do is to create a language bubblearound yourself, especially if you’ve reached an intermediate level or anything above that in your target language (but really, the sooner the better). I’ll go a bit more in detail into this in the “Making the Language a Part of Your Life” section just down below, so don’t stop reading just yet!
#2: The second step is to start making a conscious effort to describe things around you in your target language. One easy way to start when you have a very limited vocabulary is to just look around your room, your neighborhood, and your workplace/school and mentally label whatever you can. If you know colors, scan whatever is around you and think the word for the color of each item you see. If you have recently been learning about furniture, adjectives, or moods, try the same thing with those. Whatever vocabulary and grammatical patterns you are currently learning at the moment, make a conscious effort to think in your target language using those newly-acquired tools. See it as a game, something to enjoy doing.
As you begin to increase your vocabulary little by little, start gradually increasing the complexity of your thoughts by making phrases and by describing what’s going on around you. Don’t jump steps and try expressing complex thoughts that are in sharp contrast with your current level, though. For example, don’t try to say “I wish I would’ve been there” if you are still a beginner in your target language, because the grammar involved is too complex. Instead, simplify what you want to say. You could say something like “I want to go there,” or “I wanted to go there but I couldn’t.” Don’t worry, in due time you’ll reach a point where you’ll be able to say more complex things, there is no rush!
#3: If you are a bit more advanced in your target language, as you go about your day try to think through some typical conversations you would normally have in your native tongue. As you’re leaving your apartment, your neighbor greets you. What would they have said and how would you have replied in your target language? On the way to work, you stop to buy a cup of coffee. How would you order that in your target language? If there are some common words and expressions that you find yourself unable to express, especially on repeated occasions, write them in a small notebook or in your smartphone, and in the evening find the translations. That’s an extremely useful way to quickly gain useful vocabulary that you know you are likely to use in everyday situations.
#4: The last tip here is to speak to yourself or to a camera. If you are ready to put aside your shame, and especially if you don’t have roommates or family members nearby to eavesdrop on you (!), it’s also quite useful to talk to yourself. Aside from being useful in organizing your thoughts, it also allows you to practice pronunciation. If you don’t like the idea of talking to yourself, why not make videos of yourself talking to track your progress? You can organize your videos around themes. For example, in one you might try to talk about the weather, and in another one you might tell your real or fictitious listeners how you began the study of your target language, or which methods you’re using at the moment. Countless language learners and seasoned polyglots do exactly that and regularly post their videos on YouTube. If you do the same, you’ll kill two birds with one stone and be able to connect with other members of the language learning community.
Making the Language a Part of Your Life
In short, if you want to start thinking in the target language you’re learning, you have to get out of your comfort zone and make the foreign language a part of your life. Don’t be afraid, I promise nothing bad will come out of it! It’s something we all hesitate to do because we are all afraid of the unknown, and we are all afraid of having a feeling of discomfort. Staying in your language bubble and in your comfort zone are easy options, but they are unfortunately not what will bring the best results in terms of foreign language fluency development.
Many people—in fact most people, it seems—approach language learning in a very, how should I put it, “confined” manner. What I mean by this is that they see language learning as something to be “studied” or “learned” during a certain period of time during the day/week, and then everything else they do is somehow totally unrelated to the language they are learning. I often ask my students what they do outside of class to improve their language skills. Nine cases out of ten, they either do nothing or study a bit through their textbook. They basically pat themselves on the back for paying for language lessons, and as soon as the lesson is over they somehow turn a switch in their brain which means they can totally forget about the language they are learning. Many students later wonder why they aren’t somewhat fluent after studying the language for years upon years.
I’ve thought about it and I think that the reason why many people recommend to go abroad to learn a foreign language is that it kind of forces yourself to step outside of your native tongue bubble (although many expats still manage the amazing feat of staying inside their native tongue bubble for years, despite living in a country that speaks an entirely different language). If you go to Spain, for example, you’ll be forced to hear Spanish on the streets, to read signs in Spanish, and perhaps even to listen to Spanish TV and, who could’ve imagined, meet Spanish people who speak Spanish.
But that is still not enough. And, frankly speaking, one doesn’t have to go abroad to immerse oneself in a foreign language (Benny the Irish Polyglot learned Arabic in the middle of Brazil, making use of great websites such as italki to get speaking practice online). “Okay,” you say, “so how can I do it?” Well, here’s a second list of tips that I encourage you to implement in earnest:
#1: Start reading the news and/or blogs in your target language. To get into the habit of doing so, make your homepage (when your browser starts) a page that is in the foreign language you are learning. For example, every time I open Firefox, I get to see the news in Korean. I just can’t avoid it. I also try to avoid watching the news in English. Or what about Facebook? YouTube? Movie players? These are all websites or programs that have a changeable language option.
#2: If your phone has a “language” option, change the language of your phone to the language you are learning. At first it will be really uncomfortable, but the necessity to understand your phone’s function will soon be strong enough so that you’ll have no choice but to remember a whole lot of new words and become proficient in using your cell phone in a foreign language. I’ve recently switched my phone to Korean and frankly, I don’t know why I didn’t do it earlier.
#3: Watch movies in the target language. When you watch movies in your own language, try to watch them with subtitles in your target language. For example, if you are learning Spanish but decide to watch an American movie, either try to find the same movie dubbed in Spanish, or get the subtitles for it in Spanish. As you listen to the movie, you’ll be reading the entire time in Spanish. This will also tremendously help to increase your reading speed.
#4: The next time you need to install Windows on your computer, ask somebody who speaks your target language to download the version in their language. Just as with a cell phone, it will be really uncomfortable at first, but you’ll get used to it eventually. The same can be done whenever you download programs such as movie players, etc. If you’re still a beginner, that’s not necessarily recommended, but for intermediate learners and higher, it’s worth giving it a try.
#5: Watch YouTube videos in your target language. We all have the urge to do something completely unrelated to the task we have at hand. This is called procrastination. Kill two birds with one stone byprocrastinating in your target language. You’ll be watching stupid videos, but at least they’ll be in a foreign language. Watching stupid stuff in a foreign language is cool.
#6: Listen to music in a foreign language. Not only you will discover new, awesome music, but you’ll be getting used to the language’s flow, intonation, and rhythm. If you feel like it, get the lyrics and sing along your favorite songs. By the way, I’ve recently written a guest post about Korean music on Susanna Zaraysky’s blog. If you’d like to discover new music, check it out here!
#7: Meet friends who speak your target language. Visit a website such as meetup.com or Couchsurfing, join a local club, volunteer, make a language exchange partner online. Whatever you do, remember you have dozens of ways to get to speak in your target language. No excuses.
What do you think? Have you ever tried to force yourself to think in a foreign language? How much are you willing to get out of your comfort zone? What steps are you actively taking to make the language you are learning a part of your life?
By implementing only a few of the many tips I’ve given you today, I am confident that you will see, within a short period of time, a dramatic change in your fluency and in your ability to think in your target language. See it as a game, and as a way of pushing yourself and making language learning more than something that needs to be “studied”. Remember, it’s all about having fun and challenging yourself!