Learning to Think in your Target Language

Losing my Mind by Mark Auer

One of the biggest obstacles in moving from the beginner or low intermediate levels of a language into more advanced stages is the problem of constantly translating in your head instead of learning to think in your target language. This is a problem that effects everyone and is a common place for people to either give up, or just accept that it’s the way things are when you learn to speak a second language. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Problems with Translating

Even if you don’t have the lofty goal of becoming simultaneous interpreter or doing anything tricky like that with your language learning, having to translate everything you hear or want to say into and out of your target language is a painful, taxing process. There are two big issues with always running everything through the translator in your brain.

The first is that it slows everything way, way down. In a natural conversation between you and another person in your native tongue you don’t have to really think about what the other person is saying. It’s processed unconsciously and you can respond right away. In some cases you’ve probably even responded to people’s questions before you were aware of what you were saying.

That makes conversations quick and fluid, which is what we need.

Conversely when you have to translate everything there’s a bottleneck at both the input and the output. This can be exacerbated in languages like German where you might have to wait through miles of sentences before you finally get that all important verb. Then you have to process that back out into English, come up with your response in English, processes it back into German and say it.

By the time you’ve done all that, particularly if you’re in a group of people or trying to follow a natural group conversation, you may have fallen way behind by the time you even open your mouth to speak.

The second big issue with this method of translating before speaking is that it can make your native language bleed into the language you’re learning making you speak either incorrectly or at the very least in a very unnatural sounding way.

An English speaker for example might ask for a glass of water by saying ‘我可以有一杯水吗’ (lit: I can have a cup of water?) which, to a native Mandarin speaker sounds weird – potentially like you’re asking if you physically have the capability of possessing a cup of water. They’d understand, but it’s very clearly Mandarin crammed into an English box. A more natural way might be ‘能给我一杯水吗’ which is more like ‘Give me a cup of water?’ if you directly translated it into English.

The translating process encourages you to make these kinds of mistakes because you’re not conversing in Mandarin in the real sense, you’re just translating English into Mandarin. It can make it sound like the other person is trying to talk to someone using Google Translate. It’ll get the job done, but it’s clearly going to sound a little off.

What Does it Mean to Learn to Think in your Target Language

Technically speaking when you boil it down to its essence no one ‘thinks’ in any particular language.

What we call ‘thinking’ is an electrochemical reaction in our brains. What we’re talking about here is the sensory experience of ‘hearing’ words as you think. You may say that this means that we do all think in a language, but people who have deaf since birth have no experience of spoken words and don’t think in them, infants who don’t speak a language can still think, and there are plenty of other higher intelligence animal species that no one would argue are ‘thinking’ even though they don’t speak any human languages.

What we’re worried about here though is that combination of your ‘inner voice’ that you think with and your ability to process non-language information directly into and out of a particular language without having to pass it through the translation filter of another primary language.

So how do we get to that point?

Silencing Your Mental Native Tongue

There are a handful of methods I think work particularly well for getting over the natural habit of translating from your native language into your acquired one and back.

  • Speaking Practice with Native Speakers – This, in my opinion, is paramount for successful language learning in general. Find a native speaker as soon as you can, whether in person or online, and start practicing with them. Even if the furthest you can get is “Hello, how are you doing?” that’s still preferable to cloistering yourself with a textbook in fear of embarrassing yourself.

    Get out there and talk to people. The more you do the more you’ll begin to outgrow the habit of mentally translating.

  • Ditch the Dictionary and Make Visual Flashcards – At least, the traditional kind of dictionary. Part of what contributes to the habit of mental translation is that the standard way to learn a new word is to have it defined by its connection to a word in your native language.

    We learn by connections and conditioning. Assuming you’re a native speaker of English, when you hear/see the word ‘water’ you probably mentally picture the physical substance that particular arrangement of sounds symbolizes in English. The problem is, when you’re learning German for example, you might have a flashcard that says ‘Wasser’ on one side and when you flip it over it says ‘water’.

    This conditions you to not think of the physical substance these sounds represent, but rather hearing ‘Wasser’ makes you think of the particular arrangement of sounds that make the word ‘water’, then you have to decode that second arrangement of sounds into the physical thing it symbolizes. This happens relatively quickly, but it still slows things down.

    It also causes a problem when going from English to German, because your brain has to conceptualize the physical thing we call ‘water’, then it has to connect that to the English word that we use to symbolize that physical thing, then it has to dig up what German word was connected to that particular English word. Whereas if you had H2O encoded directly with the German word it would be one less step.

    Using visual flashcards and dictionaries is the way to go to avoid this problem. Rather than have one side say ‘Wasser’ and the other ‘water’, have one side say ‘Wasser’ and then put a picture of water on the other side. A similar idea if you don’t have a visual dictionary handy is to look up words by typing them into a Google image search. That way you learn the word via the image or concept it represents rather than learning it by its equivalent in your native language.

  • Monologuing and Free Writing – It may seem like a small thing, but just yammering to yourself about a random topic in your target language or having times where you sit down and write about whatever you want, or even just journal the day’s activities, can make a big difference in getting over the mental translation problem.

    The key is to make an active effort not to translate as you do it and just talk to yourself in your target tongue without letting your native one creep in.

    I, personally, like to do it out loud when I can. There are added benefits to activating the motoneurons involved in actually speaking the word in the same way that there are benefits in repeating an activity that you want to get particularly good at like shooting a basketball or drawing free hand. You can certainly just talk to yourself in you head though if you’re concerned about people thinking you’re crazy.

    If you find it hard to just talk or write spontaneously without any kind of pre-set topic then try to summarize something you’ve read or watched recently, or pick an easy topic like describing your day or talking about your favorite food. The point isn’t necessarily to produce something noteworthy as it is to drill in that comfort in not translating.

I’m probably forgetting some other methods that work well to silence that inner voice translating things into and out of your native tongue, but these handful should get you well on your way to overcoming it. The sooner you can get out of that translation habit and into thinking in your target language the sooner you’ll be able to produce even more fluid sentence and conversations. If you can think of any you like that I’ve missed, leave a comment and share with everyone!

Photo Credit: Mark Auer

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com