How to think in English!
Recently, a student who was studying with us for 3 weeks told me he had dreamed in English – he was delighted and took it as a sign of real progress. Of course, he is right: the brain is working hard to integrate all the language taught in the classroom. For many of us, the ability to ‘think’ in another language is a sign that we are truly fluent. Yet, this is not something that happens overnight. So how can we move from translating every word to thinking and speaking with more ease in another language?
1. Accept it will be a work in progress.
Let’s start with the obvious: using another language with almost as much ease as your first language will take a bit of time and effort. You are used to thinking in your own language and unless you come from a multi-lingual background or have studied to a high level previously, you need time to learn vocabulary, to get to know grammatical patterns, understand and practise new sounds (pronunciation).
2. Learn language in context.
Learn the basic grammatical patterns in a context that is familiar to you - talk about your daily tasks using present simple, for example. With vocabulary, knowing individual words is helpful but learning words in pairs (for example verb + noun – do business, learn a language, discuss an issue) or fixed phrases (at the weekend) again contextualises the language. Let’s not forget the bigger context – and importance - of travelling or studying overseas. Many of our students combine travel for work with an intensive course at the school.
3. Listen carefully.
Listen carefully: listen for language patterns and work out (with the help of a teacher, knowledgeable colleague or friend) what is most useful for you. There are so many common phrases that we use repeatedly in situations and these can be learnt until they become natural. Listen to the responses and make a note of them (especially if you’re a visual learner).
You can’t start thinking in a second language if you don’t practice speaking and listening. Turn this into a daily activity: if you work with native speakers, agree on using the language for at least 50% of the time (or why not all of the time!). Check out any local meetup groups in your city (www.meetup.com). Ideally, you should practice every day. Commit to a regular language class – whether it’s intensive or over a period of time, the commitment is key.
5. Use technology
Download an English-only dictionary app, such as the Oxford English dictionary (as well as using translation). Better still, when you don’t know a word in English, try to give a close synonym or explanation (paraphrase) instead of relying on translation. And finally, why not switch your phone or laptop to ‘English’ – words will soon become automatic as you log in every day.
These are some steps which as teachers, we pass on to our students and which we have used ourselves as language learners. Focus on these – think of them as stepping stones towards the goal of thinking in English. From time to time, reflect on your progress – get feedback from a teacher or record yourself (!). You may be surprised how far you’ve come.