The moment you will be able to really feel comfort in a foreign language is when you start to think in it. By that, I mean you start to use the language in automatic responses… you’re not translating in your head or searching a long time for words.
Once you can start thinking in the language, words will flow and you will start to feel like you understand the concept of ‘fluency’, even though you are not yet there. But there are a lot of misconceptions about this kind of ‘thought fluency.’
First of all, most people think you need a high level to be able to think in a language. This is wrong.
You do not need a high level to be able to think in a langauge.
In fact, think about what happens when you learn a new word in your native language. If I tell you that water is now called ‘su,’ you will have no problems integrating that word into your normal vocabularly. Immediately, you will be able to use the word — ‘Can I have some su?’ or ‘Are you thirsty? Do you want soda or su?’
The other big misconception is probably that you gain this fluency just by grammar and vocabulary study.
Grammar and vocabulary alone will never allow you to think in a foreign language.
You have to practice thinking in your target language if you ever want to be able to do it. I have met so many people who know tons of words and understand extremely well the grammar of a language, but unless you can think in the language, conversation is going to be difficult.
How to Start Thinking in a Foreign Language
1. Look around you
Whether you are in a room or walking outside or wherever you are, look around you.
2. Clear your head of words
Actually, this is easy. When we look around we aren’t usually thinking ‘Hey, there’s a clock and there’s a chair…’ In fact, normally we aren’t saying anything to ourselves at all regarding our surroundings. If we are thinking something, we are either thinking about things that are not directly related to our surroundings or we are thinking in pictures or abstract concepts– but we are not saying words to ourselves. So try to look around without any words coming to your head at all.
3. Allow the target language to come out
Now, try to think (or better yet, say out loud!) whatever words you can in your target language about your surroundings.
It doesn’t matter if it’s not grammatically correct or if it’s not interesting. If all you can do is colors– that’s fine. Actually, I would suggest starting with colors. Just look around and let the color name come to you in the target language without thinking about the word in your native language.
If what comes to your mind isn’t related to your surroundings, say it anyways. Basically, you are verbalizing stream of concsiousness in a foreign language.
(‘Now I’m thinking in French, and I’m only going to think in French, and I see a thing but I’m not sure what it is in French but it’s blue, I like blue, but that thing isn’t blue, it’s black, I like black….’)
4. Don’t know it? Move on!
Face it– you don’t know what everything is in your native language either. Right now I’m sitting in a room with one of those things with beads on it used to count… an abacus? That’s not a word that comes easily to me!
The important thing is not to know any words but rather to use what you do know and to totally ignore and skip over what you don’t. Increasingly your vocabularly or grammar should be done in an actually study session. This activity is just about preparing your brain for fluid foreign thinking.
If you give this a try, let me know how it goes. If you have another trick that you use, please share that too!
[Cover photo: Paris, France.]