How to stop translating and start THINKING IN ENGLISH!

English brainThis is every ESL students dream, and one of the most important steps in learning a new language. To think in that language means you have really ‘got it’.   But how can you start training your brain to do this? Let’s first look at some scientific facts.  Research has shown that in fact no one ‘thinks in a language’, they ‘think in ideas’, and ideas are the same everywhere. So that means all of us are starting from the same place, no matter where in the world we come from, inside our heads, it’s all the same. Phew, that’s a relief…. Secondly what thinking in a language really means is ‘communicating your idea verbally into a spoken language’, and usually the spoken language of choice is your own native language. That’s understandable. But the third and most important thing is to understand that when we are coming up with an idea then using our first language then translating that first language into English we are using a very long process to come up with what we mean to communicate. So really all we are trying to do here is to cut out that ‘translating’ stage and jump straight from the idea to English. This is where we begin. All these points below are going to help you to cut as much of your own language out of your daily life and replace it with English. The reason for this is that if you read, speak, write and listen in English, the training of the brain picks this up and locks it into a pattern of thinking and making links between the words with the meanings. Students can do these things:

1.  Make a point of not speaking your own language for periods of time. Start with just in class, then move onto at least another hour after that. Gradually let the time build up over time. Before you know it you may have an entire day or week when you can’t remember the last time you spoke your own language. To do this of course you need to fill your day with activities that won’t tempt you into speaking your language, like making a friend with another language.

2.  Throw away your ‘English-Arabic’ dictionary. These are just going to keep you going back to Arabic all the time. Buy yourself an English-English dictionary and move from there.

3.  Use actions as much as possible to build the connection between the idea and the English word. When we are a child and are learning to speak, this is exactly what we do, we make connections between actions, ideas and thoughts to words. The ESL learner does this too, only a lot faster. The more you can make these connections the easier it will be for your brain to make the link to English.

4.  Make your learning a language experience based. Don’t learn vocabulary or sentences in isolation, the best thing to do is to have ‘an experience’ and then learn from this experience all the new words and sentences that went with this activity. In this way the memory of your experience will be what is implanted in your brain, not necessarily the words, and as a result when that memory comes up, so will the words and phrases that are attached to it.

5.  Make your learning visual. Again learning about something needs to come with a visual context. This way your see the image and together with that are the images of the words. This makes the link very easy.

6.  Try to ensure you are taught by a native English speaker. This is not always possible, but if you are lucky and find someone who doesn’t speak your language, you are forced to make that jump into thinking in English. They will never understand you when you speak in your language and neither do they want to.

7.  Learn chunking answers. This is simple, when someone says “How are you?”, you already know the answer “Fine thanks.”   Why do you know this answer?, Why do you never have to translate this sentence into your language and then translate your answer back? Because you have learned it with the question. Remembering a group of words together is called called ‘chunking’. The same goes for lists. Remember all of the list together, e.g. food words, education words, action words, etc. e.g. go swimming, listen to music, eat fish.

So there you have it. Thinking in English really just means getting out of your local language social circle and pushing yourself. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. And one day you will wake up and think ‘Wow what a wonderful morning, I can’t remember the last time I thought in my own language…..”! (Using those exact words!)  So what do you think? How long do you think it takes to start to think in English?


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14 thoughts on “How to stop translating and start THINKING IN ENGLISH!

  1. Congratulations for your post Aiyshah, which is so related to my blog and my work.

    I wish we were in disagreement on this issue, so I could learn something new from you, but I’m afraid I totally agree with you. I struggle on daily basis to help my students and make them think in English, but they are so reluctant to it I hardly ever succeed.

    I forbid their mother languages in the class, I use visual input and I work things out like an actor would do just to make them uderstand, and I found something very funny:

    Children make it pretty well, as they don’t have any boundaries.

    Adults struggle because we are full of fears, excuses and insecurities, and therefore I came up with the theory that learning a language is a growing experience in which adults need to overcome many fears they didn’t even know they had, and that’s what makes it so difficult!

    • Thanks thinkingpaco, you are spot on about us oldies…not only are older learners full of fears, the old thinking ‘muscle’ gets a but atrophied and well…what with the hardening of the arteries setting in early on, there seems little hope compared to children whose bodies seem to be made of sponges and rubber!. Fears yes, but I think we have to be so much more conscious of being unconscious, if you now what I mean…For me I try to buy myself a state of the art mobile phone every two years and lock myself in my house for a week and see if I can make a phone call…..that usually brings me up to date with the world of technology and keeps my brain alert…

      • Sure, ageing is another issue, especially when people lack practice. Many of the adults I teach haven’t done any studying for decades and that counts too. You cannot expect them to have the same speed as youngsters, but I think we can also overcome that as I have had several older students who were actually better than some others much younger, so I guess it’s a matter of how fit you keep your brain!

      • Exactly! I have a really good friend who is 74 years old and she’s still running her own online business! She still programs everything herself and keeps herself up to date with the changes. She does admit though that from time to time she has what she calls a ‘senior moment’ where she doesn’t know exactly where she is…….but someone reminds her and she comes right, but ultimately I see her as a legend, she has thrown her fears to the wind and just soaks up as much as possible.

        At our school we teach a lot of people over 50, often they come to Malaysia on a scholarship from their country to do their PhD. Often they a really good in their own fields back home, but it seems when they hit that ‘English wall’, a lot of them just hit a block. Saying that, there are still some that struggle on and do do well.

        I admire people doing a PhD in another language and tell them what great role models they are to their 20 year old classmates who are trying to stay awake from their late night partying…and usually it changes the whole tone of the class.

    • Okay…so I am assuming you are talking about the ‘English’ bootcamp…here – it seems to work for anything. Particularly the – take away distractions and excuses….part.

  2. You make some valuable points here. I lived in a Central American country for 4 years and all day long I struggled to “translate” Spanish. One day my husband came home and asked me something in English and I replied in Spanish without thinking. I knew then I was becoming fluent. A couple of years later I taught English to Spanish speaking students. Interesting.

    • Thanks for your feedback. It is always helpful to have learned another language when you become an ESL teacher, that way you know what the student needs. (when I say another language, it doesn’t necessarily mean the language the students speak, just any other language).

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