Thinking in a language other than your native tongue is a big milestone when you’re learning a foreign language. If you haven’t reached this point yet, you probably find yourself translating everything in your head. This can become time-consuming and inefficient very quickly! So how can you avoid this, and take the next step toward fluency? I have a few different concrete methods I’d like to share to help you train yourself how to think in another language. I also have some tips to break old habits and stop translating in your head.
I see two main problems with translating in your head.
First, it takes a lot of time. It can become frustrating and discouraging to realize that you’re processing things too slowly to take part in a conversation.
Second, when you translate in your head instead of thinking directly in your target language, your sentences come out sounding forced. Rather than sounding like your natural expression, the structures and expressions you’re trying to translate from your native language will show through.
There’s really no question – translating in your head is not the best method for communicating. On the other hand, if you’re just getting started with learning a new language and you don’t feel like you have this problem, then you probably aren’t speaking enough! So…
It’s always better to have the confidence to speak up, even if your expression isn’t perfect. Often, the alternative is to spend time translating in your head. But then you’ll likely miss your chance to contribute to the conversation.
If your turn of phrase isn’t quite right, the person you’re talking to might correct you with a more natural expression. Take note and memorize this structure so you can drop it naturally into the conversation next time. Practicing first with a native-speaking partner during a language exchange help you feel more comfortable receiving this kind of feedback.
Some phrases or words are difficult to translate into another language because they simply aren’t used in the same way. Common idiomatic expressions are often the most natural way to say something in a given language. But they’re also the riskiest to translate word for word.
Just imagine the looks you’d get if you tried to translate this sentence into your target language literally: “It’s a good thing I’m an early bird, because my new job requires that I be on the ball and ready to start at 7 am.”
Instead, our friend Gabriel Gelman (who recently appeared with Luca and a few other polyglots in a video about polyglot secrets) recommends learning languages in “chunks.” These are words commonly grouped together by native speakers.
And that’s how our app works, too. We designed it to help you learn new vocabulary in its most common contexts! Instead of simply learning the word “name” in your target language, you learn it in the context of phrases like, “My name is…”
If you were trying to translate that expression in your head from a language like Spanish or French, you might say something like “I call myself,” which isn’t correct in English.
Another helpful technique is to imagine the situations in which you’ll use these expressions. This can help you remember the right words more easily when you do find yourself in a certain scenario. And you’ll also be more motivated to learn phrases that you know will be useful to you.
Good news: we can help!
More good news: you can get started for free! Start your free trial now and for the next 15 days, take advantage of the most effective language learning method on the market!
Vocabulary flashcards, videos with subtitles, audiobooks, articles adapted to your level – with MosaLingua Premium (Web & Mobile), you’ll have access to all this and more. Get started right now. It’s free—and risk-free—to try!
Here’s a third piece of advice: don’t forget to listen! Listening and speaking go hand in hand. You’ll never be able to use idiomatic expressions naturally and confidently in your target language if you don’t listen to a lot of content in that language. TV, podcasts, audiobooks — it doesn’t matter! Listen as much as you can, and keep a list of expressions to practice!
But do be careful, as translating in your head works in both directions: for listening and speaking. Instead of trying to translate every word into your native language when you listen to longer videos or recordings, just try to capture the general idea. If you can’t get a sense of the broader context, you’ll quickly get discouraged and probably end up totally lost.
If you’re learning with the MosaLingua app or web platform, you know that our method relies on translations. But you’ll also notice that our flashcards include images. When you translate a word in your head, you’re making associations with your native language (or even other languages that you speak). If you associate new vocabulary with images instead, you can cut out a step and make your learning process quicker and more direct. Using images, whether mental or physical, is one of our favorite memorization techniques!
To put this technique into practice, you can label everything in your house with sticky notes. Then, the first thing you’ll think of every time you see your plants, your book, or your shoes will be the new vocabulary word in your target language!
Next, try to be more aware of your own thoughts. If you ever catch yourself thinking (or even dreaming) in your target language, stop to congratulate yourself!!
When you’ve gotten used to thinking in your target language, do it out loud. While you’re cleaning or getting dressed in the morning, talk aloud to yourself about your day, a news story you heard – anything. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes – the point of this self-talk exercise is to become more comfortable speaking spontaneously.
Don’t make it harder than it needs to be. One common error that learners make is to try and use complex and linguistically rich sentences when speaking, as they would be able to in their native language.
It can be frustrating to feel like you don’t have the tools to express yourself as eloquently as you want to. But just remember that your goal is to communicate, not to be a poet! If you have to translate in your head, it’s best to stick to short, simple sentences.
Keep this acronym in mind every time you open your mouth:
KISS 😘 Keep It Short and Simple!
The moment you stop translating in your head and start thinking in your target language is also typically when you overcome the “intermediate plateau.” After this plateau, you’ll reach a level where you’ll feel more confident in your conversation skills.
So give these methods a try, and remember to be patient. “Good things come to those who wait (and practice every day!).”
You can also watch all of Abbe’s tips for how to stop translating in your head in this video. It’s in English, but there are subtitles available in French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. You can also slow down the playback speed. Just click on the gear icon at the bottom right. Enjoy!
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