What does it mean to think in another language?
Thinking in another language means stopping translating in your native language first and expressing concepts smoothly and effortlessly.
It is not an innate ability, even if many believe it is one of the most difficult skills to achieve.
If you’re not bilingual, most probably you’re used to thinking in only one language – your mother tongue.
Experienced language learners and polyglots have a better ability to switch from one language to another, but most of them achieve this skill through practice (and not because of some kind of superpower!)
In this post, I’ll show you that every motivated learner can think in another language: all they need is time and practice.
Why is thinking in another language difficult?
When you learn another language, you discover new expressions and ways of thinking, and you stimulate your brain to create new connections – in other words, the languages we speak have a huge influence on the way we think.
When you’re a child, you learn your native language by mimicking adults (the words they use, their intonation, etc.)
Your brain gets used to what you listen to, and it becomes your “default mode” of thinking and expressing yourself.
When you decide to learn a different language, it feels like a huge effort: you need to train your brain to think differently.
In other words, you have to reprogram your brain to create different connections.
It is a difficult process: beginning, you don’t have enough words to express yourself, and you translate everything into your native language.
Most of the time, it feels frustrating because you cannot express what you’d like to say.
Why does this happen?
When you think, you use different parts of the brain to understand and express a concept.
When you want to think in a foreign language, the work is harder.
Firstly because you don’t have enough practice (the connections are not that strong): you need to work much more to understand the language and organize the words you want to say.
At a first, glance, thinking in another language may seem an impossible task to achieve, and many prefer to memorize new words and do grammar exercises.
But that is not the best way to improve: learning new grammar and vocabulary is essential, but it alone won’t lead you to speak fluently.
How to start thinking in another language?
Being able to think in a foreign language is essential if you want to become fluent. It is not an easy task, but you can achieve it with constant practice and an effective method.
What I mean by an effective method is that you need to choose the proper resources (neither too hard nor too simple). That’s an approach based on comprehensible input.
The concept is straightforward: you cannot expect to become fluent by studying C2-level books if you’re an absolute beginner.
Similarly, your progress is much slower if the material you use is too simple for your level.
Comprehensible input means that you have to select the resources that allow you to learn gradually and improve by spaced repetition.
Besides this, there are some useful tips you can apply in your daily study routine to make the most of your sessions and learn more quickly.
Let’s see what are the essential steps to think in another language.
Use monolingual dictionaries
While bilingual dictionaries translate a word in another language, monolingual dictionaries explain the meaning of a word in the language you’re learning.
This stimulates your brain not to translate everything into your native language and create new connections.
There could be unknown words and expressions which are unfamiliar to you (and that’s why some people prefer bilingual dictionaries). In that case, take all the time you need to understand the concept and place everything into context.
You’ll be surprised to see that you can hugely boost your ability to think in another language.
Monolingual dictionaries are effective when you have a good grasp of the language. Otherwise, you would not understand the meaning of what you’re searching.
Focus on fluency
If asked what’s the most stressful part about language learning, many would blame grammar, verb conjugation, etc.
There’s no wonder: grammar can be hard and boring.
However, if your primary goal is to become fluent, you don’t have to stress too much about grammar.
Learning tons of rules might overload your brain with concepts you won’t probably use.
No one knows every grammar rule or verb conjugation in their mother tongue, and it is not a requirement to communicate properly.
Try to focus on fluency instead, and put the fear of making mistakes aside – it is inevitable to make little errors, but it shouldn’t prevent you from learning.
Let me say that the more you fail, the more you learn.
Read as much as you can
Reading helps you learn new vocabulary, improve your understanding of the language, and discover new expressions and idioms.
It is a great boost to make you think in a foreign language as it allows you to create new connections between new words and expressions and what you already know.
You can read a book, a conversation, or even the news – no matter what you choose, it is essential to enjoy what you read.
The human brain is programmed to react to emotions: when something you read evokes an emotional reaction, you tend to remember it easily.
Use the target language in your daily life
A great way to improve your ability to think in another language is to practice the language every time you have the chance.
Don’t limit your practice to your study sessions or weekly language lessons. Rather, you can include your practice in your daily routine.
For example, you can write the grocery store list in the language you’re learning: you’ll be surprised by how this simple action can improve your ability to think in a foreign language.
You can also formulate a sentence in the target language to describe what’s around you (“This is a tree“, “There are 35 degrees outside“, etc.).
Write down your thoughts
Writing down your thoughts is another way to include your target language in your daily life.
At first, you can start with simple sentences (like “I feel tired“, “I enjoyed tonight’s dinner“, etc.).
Little by little, you can formulate more complex sentences and even start journaling in a foreign language.
I know that many people might not enjoy reading or don’t have time to write down their thoughts.
This doesn’t mean they don’t have the chance to practice thinking in another language, though.
Another effective way to absorb new words and phrases into our brains is to watch videos in a foreign language.
There is plenty of choices: you can watch movies, YouTube videos, TV shows, or listen to podcasts. That’s an enjoyable activity to absorb a foreign language naturally.
So, next time you watch Netflix, remember to put on subtitles!
Learn new idioms and phrases
A great way to include a new language into your daily life is to learn new idioms and phrases and use them often.
This can shape the way you think and express yourself and is a great boost to your fluency.
You can do it in many ways (reading, watching videos, speaking with locals, etc.): remember to write down the expressions you learn to stick them in your memory.
One of the most effective ways to learn any foreign language is to make a full immersion into the country’s culture.
This could mean being surrounded by people who speak that language, visiting the country, watching videos in the target language, etc.
Being absorbed is amazing for your brain, which is constantly stimulated and will gradually make room for new connections.
Speak as much as you can
There’s no secret: the best way to improve your fluency is to speak as much as you can.
When you speak a foreign language, you create new connections between the words you know, and your brain gets stimulated to think in that language.
At first, it may be hard (and lead to headache!), but it gets smoother with time.
A good way to improve your speaking skills is to speak along with audio: you listen to a native speaker and repeat what he says after a pause.
There are many options out there, but I’d suggest finding one based on the active recall technique: you listen to a sentence and repeat it after a short time interval (in this way, your brain has the time to actively process information).
You can find this approach in Ripeti con me audio courses, which are designed to make you learn a foreign language (Italian, in this case) by mimicking a native speaker.
Learn more about Ripeti con me.
Talk to yourself!
If you cannot find a language mate to practice your speaking skills, you can get around the problem by talking to yourself.
I know: for some people talking to themselves may sound a bit awkward.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean having a conversation with an imaginary friend – talking to yourself means that you’re eager to learn and motivated to speak even if you don’t have a language mate.
There are many ways to do it: you can describe your surroundings, ask yourself questions, or even write a song and sing it.
You can even join a community forum where you can practice writing skills and talk with other students online. Sort of like talking with yourself, but you receive feedback.
As we’ve seen, you don’t have to be a superhero or a genius if you want to think in another language.
It ain’t an easy process for sure: however, you can make it easier using a proper strategy.
The best way to include a new language into your daily routine is to be absorbed: dive deep into the country’s culture, speak with locals, and use the language every time you have the chance.
Once you get used to it, it will be much easier to think in that language – as natural as thinking in your first language.
Thinking in another language is possible; all you need is to train your brain.
Still translating in your head? Wanna speak Italian for real? Check out Stefano's courses to think directly in Italian and become fluent fast!