How To Think In A Foreign Language

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
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How To Think In A Foreign Language

How many languages do you think in?

Most people aren’t aware of the fact that when we think we actually do so by conversing with ourselves internally using our native language.

We think, rationalize and make sense of what we see and feel using real language in a constant dialogue within our own minds.

One fairly common term for this is what many people refer to as the inner voice (or monologue). Training this inner voice to use your target language rather than your native language is crucial in your progress toward fluency.

The Wrong Way – Thinking In Your Native Language While Speaking A Foreign Language

How to think in a foreign language

When you’re learning a new language, especially in the early stages when you have limited vocabulary and comprehension, you’ll tend to communicate in this order:

1. Hear the foreign language

2. Internally pull it apart and translate it using your native language

3. Internally translate an answer using your native language

4. Speak in the foreign language

As you can imagine, this process slows down the flow of conversation immensely as your mind’s always scanning the input and trying to produce a translation and response.

By this time the other person you’re chatting with is ahead of you in the conversation and has to slow down or stop and clarify meaning.

On top of all this the grammar and word-order of your native language interferes with that of your foreign language resulting in confusion and mistranslation.

This is a natural habit that even the best of us struggle to break.

Understanding How Information (Language) Processing In The Brain Works

Knowing a thing or two about how the brain accesses information (in this case linguistic information) will help you in your endeavor to think with your target language.

When your brain accesses stored information about a language (vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc.), it does so in one of two ways – automatic or controlled.

Automatic access is effortless on your part, something that through repeated practice you’ve developed automatic routines and patterns that you don’t have to think about when performing them, and on top of that you can perform several automatic tasks at the same time with ease. For example, your native language is an automatic process and it’s simple for you to speak while doing something else, e.g. talking while driving.

Controlled processes are, as the name implies, controlled by yourself. These processes are voluntary and occur where you haven’t had enough practice or exposure to develop routines.

You have to actually think about what you’re doing while you’re doing it.

To understand what I mean, try speaking a language that you don’t know very well while driving a car – it’s very difficult to focus on what you’re trying to say while your mind’s occupied with something else.

The reason why training yourself to think in your target language is so important is that it will rapidly speed up its shift from being a slow, strictly controlled process to more fluid and automatic.

Your goal here is to make thinking in your target language an automatic, natural reflex which will ultimately do the same for your speaking.

Tips On How To Train Your Mind To Think In Your Target Language

Training yourself to think in a foreign language is an exercise in mind discipline – much like meditation.

It can be quite challenging at first, but if you follow these tips you’ll notice huge improvements in your foreign language acquisition in no time at all:

Play target language music over and over. When I first started learning Arabic I used to play Egyptian pop music constantly while I was driving and at home. The lyrics would get stuck in my head even though I didn’t know the meaning of all the words. It’s an excellent way to condition your mind to start thinking in another language.

Are you a religious person? Pray in your target language! Not religious? Talk to yourself! If your target language level is high enough to hold a basic conversation, I highly recommend you do this regularly especially if you don’t have contact with native speakers. This helped me a lot when I was studying French and Arabic.

Spend time describing things you see around the house to yourself in your target language and every time you start to think in your native language, block it out by talking over the top of yourself in your target language. Starting out, forget about verbs and concentrate on describing things. If you’re at Elementary Level, you probably know basic nouns (house, dog, man, bread, etc.) and basic adjectives (big, small, long, short, etc.) If you have limited vocabulary this will get boring quickly but it will motivate you to acquire new words to use. You’ll learn vocabulary faster this way as new words become associated with actual objects that you see, rather than dictionary definitions.

Try to devote at least half an hour a day where you only think in your target language.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Really good written by Donovan!! I've found it interesting along with very useful information. Enjoyed reading through and quite inspired to learn another language after reading this article... Thanks.



I'm going to use the tips with my German. The thing is, my mother tongue is Romanian, but for the last 2-3 years I've been kind of thinking in English, so now it's difficult to switch again, not to mention that I also know some Korean ( I have a smaller vocabulary range in Korean than in German but I can actually understand spoken Korean and create my own sentences better than in German) but I had to stop learning for this surprise German exam in December this year. This is madness! What I'm trying to say is that another level of difficulty appears when you have to worry about putting more than one language aside.



i have the opposite problem. lol. french always pops into my mind. in college, if i couldn't pronounce something, french would be at the forefront even though my mothertongue is english. excellent advice :)



For me, it’s the opposite. Quite similar with lecriveuse. Rather than to train my brain to think in my native language (Malay), I tend to translate Spanish words into English which is not even my native language. Growing up watching and exposing myself to many international dramas such as English, Thai, Korean, Spanish and Tagalog, there are some very common words that stuck in my brain. Whenever I got frustrated searching for the right word while speaking in a foreign language, I find myself mixing those languages, so that the people I’m talking to understand what I’m trying to convey. For example, a few days ago I chatted with a Spanish friend and I use English if I don’t know what this or that word called in Spanish. The same thing happens when I chat with my Arab friends.

The tips you gave, that’s what I’ve been doing since secondary except for the “Pray in your target language”. To think that praying in Spanish language gives me a headache. It may takes half an hour to finish my pray, if I’m not already give up that is :-D

Maine S.

Maine S.

I'm beginning to learn Korean at the moment and I'm having trouble with this aspect of learning because the romanization of the words keeps appearing in my head rather than the hangeul. Do you have any tips on how I might fix this?

Bill Budd

Bill Budd

I am learning German and I find that if I study or use German for about an hour before I go to bed, I dream in german.



I would like to add two tips.

1. Reading aloud. You see the written language, you speak it, and you hear it - all at the same time! And you not only speak the language - you speak it grammatically correctly.
( It helped me with pronounciation, though this is not a typical learners situation. I am Polish but was raised in Germany. I was not able to pronounce the polish ć and ś sounds, which are quite tricky. The only people I spoke polish to were my parents, so my grammar and vocabulary was limited.
When I was a teenager, my parents made me read polish literature aloud. After a few weeks of daily reading 30 minutes, I discovered that I read ć and ś correctly. It was amazing, because I didn´t try, and I don´t know how and when it happended. I was focussed on the content and yet my brain learned pronounciation... I am quite sure I improved my grammar as well, without even knowing.)

2. Even when you are a beginner - find a native conversation partner who wants to learn your language. You can speak for half an hour his language, then for half an hour your language. There are websites where you can find such partners. Don´t care about mistakes, just focus on what you want to say. Have phrases like "what does this word mean in english" "can you repeat" "speak more slowly" prepared, so that you don´t need to switch to english.

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