How To Think In Your Target Language – Part 1

How to “think” in a foreign language is one of the most asked (and therefore most blogged about) questions in language learning. So, if there’s so much out there, why do I feel the need to write about it here? Do I have anything new to add? I feel like I do.

To prepare for this post, I googled “how to think in a foreign language” and browsed the top 10-15 results. I wanted to make sure I really DID have something fresh and/or different when it came to this important topic. Turns out, most everything I found centered around the same two or three bits of advice. Now, I certainly agree with those bits, but I don’t think anything I read told the whole story. I feel like most of the articles out there are filling space with the same regurgitated (and limited) advice. I think there’s more to the story than what’s out there, and I intend for this to be THE definitive guide to learning to think in your target language.

What is “Thinking in a Foreign Language”?

This is kind of a controversial question. I have seen two different sides of this debate and I will attempt to briefly touch on both:

1. “We don’t technically ‘think’ in any language” – This opinion is more prevalent in academic and scientific circles than in the mainstream language learning community. The argument here is that thoughts aren’t actually in any language, they are merely neural transmissions and firing synapses (forgive my obvious lack of specialized brain cell terminology). Technically, though you may “think” that you are thinking in your native language, you brain is simply making decisions based on all available input (visual, auditory, olfactory, etc) and not relying on language at all. It feels like you are thinking in a language, but in reality you are not.

2. “We do ‘think’ in a language because I can hear words in my head when I think.” – This is the opinion espoused most in the general language learning community. The most common definition I have heard about “thinking in a foreign language” is when people feel like they are finally hearing words in the target language in their heads rather than their native language.

Ok, so who’s right? In my opinion (and the basis of this post) is that they both are. “Technically”, we don’t think in language. There is enough scientific evidence to back this up, that it is pointless to dispute it. After all, babies still “think” before they have a language to “think in”. However, perception is reality, and because we cannot really understand what our brains are doing at a cellular level, our minds perceive this “language in our heads” as a way to explain to ourselves why we made or are about to make certain decisions.

Who cares, right? Well, I think it’s important to establish what exactly this post is going to try to help you do. If we don’t actually “think” in languages, what the heck am I going to fill the rest of this post with? Glad you asked:

For the purpose of this post, I will define “thinking in language X” as:

So, basically, if you can “hear” the target language in your head and you can produce speech in the target language without undue hesitation, then you’ve got it. Now, the speech you produce doesn’t necessarily have to be grammatically correct or even come close to native speech. That would define “fluency”. No, the idea here is that you are able to produce “something” that makes sense in a communicative capacity with automaticity and without translation while keeping your thoughts and inner voice in the target language. This that magic stage where you think of the word “pomme” and you picture an actual apple rather than the English word “apple”.

Why learn to think in your target language?

Now that the really nerdy part is out of the way, we can get to the good stuff, namely the benefits of learning to think in your target language:

1. Conversion of passive vocabulary to active vocabulary. Your inner monologue will, of course, need words. Therefore, you will have to continuously pick your brain for vocabulary that you know passively and it will in turn force you to use it actively. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, passive vocabulary includes those words that you understand when listening or reading, but you do not “actively” use them in your speaking and writing.

2. Quicker vocabulary and grammar acquisition. You will obviously need to look up new words and grammar points as you try to think of something but can’t come up with the word or sentence structure to use. I have found that these words stick much better in my head because of the “need”. When you need a word to express something, it is much more likely to be retained than if you try to learn the word just because you got it from a word list but don’t have any real immediate need for it.

3. Build automaticity in your speech and your listening comprehension. The more you train yourself to think in your target language, the more automatic the language will become for you and the less you will rely on translation. This will help you both in speaking and in processing language spoken to you.

4. Motivation. Thinking in your target language is the “holy grail” of language learning. It is when the switch flips and you finally get that feeling that this is what you’ve been working towards. It’s not the end of the journey, but it’s a beautiful landmark that you will never forget. For me, nothing boosts my motivation like reaching this step. Even in the beginning, when you may be struggling, but you get that glimpse of it even if it is just for a minute or two.

Still with me? Check out Part 2 of How To Think In Your Target Language!

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