What Can I Do To Start Thinking in My Target Language?
You can start using these exercises really at any time. They are probably most beneficial at the A2 level, but even an A1 should see some benefits. Keeping in mind that this is a marathon not a sprint, here are my recommendations for learning to think in your target language:
1. Choose a “language personality”. This may sound weird, but language really can have a subtle effect on how you think and how you view the world. Many multilinguals actually report feeling like a different person depending on the language they are speaking (and thinking in).
I am a firm believer in this step because it is a way for you to start to condition your brain to switch over to another language. The key is to really “feel” the personality that you have established for that language and completely immerse yourself in it. “Become” that personality.
I find it very helpful in the beginning stages of a language to close my eyes and focus on the traits of the personality I chose for my new language. I even choose a “mantra” to repeat either out loud or in my head while I focus on this new personality. This mantra is just a basic phrase from the language that helps me hold the language in my head while I concentrate.
Ultimately, I have found that this conditioning makes it easy (down the road of course) to switch between languages just by switching personalities in my head. These “other personalities” become mental triggers that will signal to your brain what language to think in. It works.
2. Focused practice sessions. Admittedly, this is a very difficult exercise at first, but if you stick with it, it does get easier and is the best way to get used to thinking in another language.
To start, set aside 5-10 minutes 2-3 times a day. During these small practice sessions, you will focus on thinking entirely in your target language (TL). Some things you could do:
Narrate a story in your head entirely in that TL.
Describe how you are feeling (hungry, thirsty, tired, etc).
Make a list of all the things you have to do today.
Describe your surroundings.
The key is to make sure you are focusing entirely on the TL and not translating in your head. If you notice your native language creeping in, blast it out with your TL. You are conditioning your brain here. It is not easy. This can be very mentally taxing which is why the sessions are so short to begin with. As they get easier, you will extend the session times.
Once your session is over, quickly jot down a list of words that you were missing from the exercise and look them up. Make an effort to use them in your next session. As your vocabulary grows, the practice sessions will become much easier (and longer).
3. Free-writing. Get a notebook and set aside 10-20 minutes a day to practice free-writing. With free writing, you just start writing. Don’t pause to get the grammar exact or to check the spelling of a word, just write as quickly as you can think. Yes, you will make mistakes. Yes, your writing may not even make sense. But it will get better with practice.
The purpose of this exercise is to force your mind to start putting the pieces together more quickly. Your mind can rattle off sentences in your native language at a million miles an hour (that is probably not an accurate number, but you get the idea). What we are trying to do here is get your brain used to doing the same thing with your TL. We are trying to build automaticity.
After your free-writing session, take a few minutes to review what you wrote. Make some corrections to the gross errors and make a note of words or phrases that you could not think of while writing and add them to your vocab list (or ANKI, Memrise, etc).
4. The “Minute Self-Talk Exercise”. Stand in front of a mirror or record yourself. Pick a topic. Take a few minutes (15-20) and gather any vocabulary you may be missing. Now, set a timer and start talking. Don’t stop talking. If you hesitate for more than a second or two, stop the timer and start over. The goal is a full minute. Once you get comfortable with that, try two or three minutes. Move to five minutes. Switch topics midway for an extra challenge. The object is more about maintaining a steady flow rather than using big words or odd grammar. In this exercise it’s more important to keep talking than to make sense. With practice, this will get easier.
You may recognize this from my previous post, Tips for developing fluency early. I have reproduced it here because in addition to helping with verbal fluidity, it also helps build automaticity (which is a key to thinking in your TL).
5. Drills, drills, drills. I’m going to admit it. This one can be pretty boring, but nothing produces automaticity like sentence drills. Rather than take up the time and space with what could be a full post in and of itself, I will direct you to the following articles to get an idea of how drills work and what you can do with them:
Drilling is not 100% necessary to learn to think in your TL, but I have found that it helps me get there a bit quicker. If you don’t like drills, by all means don’t do them.
Other Tips And TricksLabel the things in your house with stickers or sticky notes. I know this isn’t new or innovative, but it helps.If you use flashcards, use pictures (Google images is great for this) rather than translations. This methods works best with nouns, but some simple verbs lend themselves to picture flashcards as well.When doing any of the practice methods I mentioned above, don’t sweat grammar as much. It’s more important to stay in the TL than it is to stress about perfect grammar. You don’t think in complete sentences in your native language, who says you have to in your TL? The important thing is to keep thinking, keep moving, and keep practicing.Music, movies, TV, and books in your TL are great for simulating an immersion experience. Even having something on in the background is better than nothing. The more exposure we have to a language, the closer we get to it.
So, there you have it. That sums up about everything I know about learning to think in another language. I have used the techniques above and they work (for me at least). You won’t start thinking in your TL right away, but when you do, it will be effortless, automatic, and a beautiful feeling.
Let me know in the comments if you have any additional techniques that you use to think in your TL. I’m always learning and I love to hear about new ideas!
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