One especially hard part of learning a new language is thinking in that language: that is, if I need to say say the word for the piece of furniture I put my plate on, I think “der Tisch” and I don’t first think “the table” and then translate it. Thinking in your target language (TL) can dramatically improve your skills, because you can understand what you hear or read more quickly, without having to translate to your primary language to reach understanding. The key moment for me with Spanish was when I had a conversation on the phone with someone and we talked at a normal pace, exchanged all the information we needed, and agreed on a time to meet – all in Spanish! I was a bit giddy afterward. It was such a fantastic feeling, having worked so hard to get to this point and realizing I’d actually made it.
Thinking in your TL has a lot of benefits, but the biggest one to me is the conversion of passive vocabulary to active. Passive vocabulary is the words you understand when you’re listening or reading, but you don’t actively use them in speaking and writing. For me, the word for “farmer” in German is passive vocabulary: when I see or hear it, I know what it means, but I don’t have it available when I’m speaking or writing. By thinking in your TL, you force those passive words to become active, so that your inner monologue doesn’t run out of words.
One key point to make: thinking in your TL is not the same as being fluent! Fluency involves grammatical correctness, or native speech. In this case, we are talking about being able to produce something that makes sense and allows you to communicate (to yourself and others), automatically and without translation. Think of how children can communicate before they are fluent: what they say isn’t grammatically correct, but it is still communication.
So, how do you actually go about thinking in a new language? As always, repetition is key, as well as immersion. Practice a lot in your TL, and surround yourself with the language. Switch the language in your your browser and phone (you may have to keep Google Translate handy for a while, until you learn the new vocabulary!). Browser extensions like Mind the Word! for Chrome can switch a percentage of words on a web page to your TL.
Set aside time (short sessions at first) each day to practice thinking only in your TL. Tell a story, or describe how you are feeling, what you’re doing, what’s around you, or what you did today. Daily practice is important: this way, you make a habit of it and make it normal. Try having a free writing session: get a notebook and set a timer. Until the timer runs out, keep writing, as quickly as you can think. Don’t fix mistakes, and don’t go back, just as if you were doing this exercise in English! The goal here isn’t to write or talk fluently, but to get practice in increasing the pace of your words and to make it more natural to use the language regularly.
With any of these exercises, make a list each day of words that are missing from your vocabulary. Then, learn those words! This way you focus on the words you’ll actually use (unlike, say, some of the helpful words that come up in courses designed by other people – I knew the words for king/queen/prince/princess in Spanish before I knew “pencil”). Over time, you’ll notice your list getting shorter, as you learn more and more of the words you use every day. Focus on the words that are most relevant to you, and you’ll be able to communicate smoothly much sooner.
For multilingual learners, try switching from one language to another without stopping in your primary language! I’m working on translating between Spanish and German (“mesa” gets translated directly to “Tisch” without my having to think through “table”), to encourage flexibility in all directions.
A warning: you may confuse people around you if they talk to you when you’re practicing in your TL, and you answer them in the wrong language. That’s a good sign! Embrace the confusion, and laugh at it! Your transitions will get smoother, in time, and you’ll be able to switch languages as needed.
So, what techniques do you use for thinking in your target language?