Think in a foreign language


What language do you speak?  What language do you think in?  For most of us, those two answers are probably the same.

Do you ever find yourself thinking in another language?  What?  Maybe you’re like me and never even considered that possibility.  I find myself day dreaming quite a bit lately since we have announced our retirement, and it was a new concept to me when my husband asked me if I was thinking in Spanish yet.

For those of you who don’t know, my husband and I are retiring later this year to Mexico, and until recently, the only Spanish I knew were the niceties needed to say hello, and thank you when we attended our favorite Mexican restaurant.  Some of my dearest friends are Latino, and I’ve always wanted to learn to speak their native language, but I had never thought about learning how to think in another language.  Let’s unpack this a little bit.


While I’m still in the infancy stages of my new language acquisition, I am longing for the day when I start to think spontaneously in Spanish.  I understand that thinking in a second language is an important step in developing fluency, yet we don’t tend to hear much about how to develop this skill.

The nice thing is that you can practice it any time you want.  It’s a personal thing.  Nobody knows your thoughts but you, and if you choose to think in another language, and for me that would be Spanish, so be it.

This practice can be very helpful for you in learning because you’re in essence forcing your brain to think in a different way.  You are bringing to mind all of the bits and pieces of vocabulary you are learning and putting it together the way you want to, not just the way that the guy on the tape or in the book is coaching you to do.  At first, you may even mix in a little of your own native language to fill in the blanks for those words you don’t yet know.


I would say so!  What better way to review vocabulary, grammar, and reinforce your learning in a new way!  You may even speed up your learning by putting what you’ve learned to the test, or applying it in “real life.”

I often find myself hearing a new phrase as I acquire it and think to myself, “I will definitely use that.”  Next, I picture myself in the scene where I would actually be using it.  I suppose you could say I’m thinking in a foreign language at that point.

There is a technical term for this process, taking passive vocabulary and converting it to active vocabulary.  Your words take “life” when put to use.  So, look for those opportunities to think in your target language.


I wish I could say it will just magically happen, but I’m not far enough along in my own study to say for sure.  Here are a few tips I am going to try:

  • Surround yourself with as many language acquisition tools as you can.  Here are my favorites.  I’ve really come to love Pimsleur.
  • Mis perrosLook around you and start naming the things that you can, e.g. your house (mi casa), your car (mi carro), my dog (mi perro), etc. Then be a little more detailed, like my blue car (mi carro azul) or my four dogs (mis quatro perros).  Look around the room, up and down the street, wherever you are.  Challenge yourself on this one.  You might just be surprised on how much you actually know!
  • Describe your emotional state, or something you are dreaming of. As you gradually increase the complexity of how you are applying your learning to your actual life, thinking in your new language will begin to be more second nature.
    You may find yourself simplifying your language at this step because your vocabulary just can’t fully explain what you are thinking.  That’s okay!  It may even give you pause to find the “right” word or phrase to complete the thought.  Write those down, look them up, and you’ve just discovered another way to increase your usable vocabulary.
  • Imagine a conversation. This is a fun exercise.  I just learned some medical terms, and I have an appointment with my doctor coming up.  I am thinking through the conversation I’m going to have with my doctor, telling her how I’m feeling, what hurts, etc.  Many of us know restaurant conversation and how to ask for a cup of coffee.  Think through scenarios of daily living.


Think in a foreign language
Creative commons image by Petr Kopač

If you’re not thinking in your target language, you are probably not going to progress as fast you would like.  After all, we are shaped by our thoughts.  So, get out your comfort zone and start thinking. Your fluency depends on it.

Don’t let yourself get closed in and stuck.  Always be looking for a new angle, a new challenge.  To think in another language may be just that.  For you to succeed in your second (or third etc.) language acquisition, it will take more than just listening to tapes, working with an interpreter, immersing yourself in the culture.  You are alone with your thoughts much of the day.  You are in control of what you think.  If you think in a foreign language, you should find a positive correlation and an increase in your learning.


So what do you think?  Do you think in a foreign language?  How about dreaming in another language?

How much are you willing to step out of your comfort zone to achieve a new level of language acquisition?  What steps are you actively taking to learn and grow?  I’d love to hear from you.  Take a moment to leave a comment below.

By implementing just a few of these tips, I’m certain we’ll all do much better in our language learning.  Think of it as a game, if that helps you.  But the important thing … start thinking in another language.  Perhaps one day you’ll find it common to think and even dream in different languages!

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