How does one "think" in their target language?

Not everything one wishes to express can be translated into a different language. I often forget this and try to use words that share equivalent meanings in French and English, for example, without taking into account the way in which words make ‘meaning in expressions’ differently. A way to resolve this is to think in the language you are using. I’ve been advised to think in French, but I am not quite sure how to go about this.

I don’t agree with Yvette in every respect. I do think one can express the same thing in every language. However, the translation can largely differ regarding the meaning(s) of each word taken separately, out of the context. Some words have evolved a different way, even if coming from the same root - Greek, Latin etc… - and are used to expressing different feelings or ideas. I think for example about false friends like “actual” in English which means “réel” in French whereas “actuel” in French means “present” in English. Grammar and sentence structure also largely differ so that a sentence can be built in a different way with the same words to express the same thing. But if the words are put in the same order, this sentence is incomprehensible. For example: “a friend of mine” which is translated as follow in French “un de mes amis” (one of my friends).
Thinking in the target language seems to be a good way to get fluency, however I don’t think one can become fluent in another language as in one’s mother tongue. One probably can get this goal after spending years in total immersion in a country where the language is spoken. Total immersion means without any friends or parents surrounding you and with whom you could speak your mother tongue on a daily basis.

Hi Yvette,

Well, from my experience, just trying to “think” in the target language in order to use better expressions doesn’t work very well… unless you have already been exposed to a lot of input.
I think the key is to get a lot of input exposure (listening and reading in the target language), so in this way you’ll tend to use more suitable expressions because it sounds them better for you. And the best of all, is that you’ll do it without paying too much attention.
This feeling with the new language is usually achieved after many hours of input, so be patience and enjoy the process :slight_smile:

Hope it helps

I agree with Serge. There may be some things that are expressed more elegantly or efficiently in one language than in another, but you can say whatever you want in any language. I say that as someone who has often been in a position of interpreting, including interpreting Asian languages into European languages.

I also agree with Oscar. You cannot will yourself to think in another language. You have to wait until it starts to happen. It takes a lot of input activity, and eventually a lot of output activity as well. In other words you can reach a point where the language is clear to you, when you hear it, but you still cannot express yourself easily. To speak without thinking about it, you have to put in the time speaking, using the language potential that you have built up through your input activities.

Oh, this is all very helpful to me.Thank you so much!

Yeah. I agree with you guys. The context is the “secret” for the best interpretation of all languages, and “think” in your native language isn´t the solution for that, because each language have your own point.
Example of a native expression in English to Portuguese:
En: “To cost an arm and a leg” Pt: “Custar os olhos da cara”. (Meaning something is too expensive).

The concept of “thinking in the language” means that you are not constantly translating from your mother tongue to your native tongue, which is exactly what you say you’re doing lol. Instead of trying to find equivalent words, you use words for their own merit and meaning that you understand intuitively just like you do words of your mother tongue, in an order that feels natural. It takes a lot of time with the language to reach this point, and it may be that you haven’t got there yet. Some indicators that you are getting there are:

  1. Incorrect or awkward use of the language sounds wrong to you. You don’t always know why, it just does.
  2. You’re having difficulty translating things said in the language into your mother tongue, and when you do it just doesn’t come out right.
  3. When there is a missing word from a phrase or sentence, you know what should be there. Or if a similar but not quite right word is used, you know what it should be.
  4. You want to express something in your mother tongue, but you’re stuck on a word or phrase in the language, and there seems to be no word or phrase in your mother tongue that expresses it as well.

At some point when learning a second language, which I would guess is a pretty high level, a separation in your brain occurs between your first and second languages, and they become independent modes of communication that you switch between. That’s what seems to have happened to me anyway. My writing and speaking process was way different in my beginning years of Spanish than it is now; I always said things with a definite English phrase in mind, and drew upon what Spanish I knew to recreate that phrase, sometimes changing the English to accomadate the limited Spanish. Nowadays English gets pushed back a ways (though not completely), and I’m actually using the Spanish words and syntax for what they are to express myself, understanding what I’m saying without comparing it to any English rubric.

It’s very interesting, and perhaps the most interesting part is that now I’m learning German and despite the fact that I’m still at a pretty low level, I find myself not at all trying to translate from English like I did at this level in Spanish, but doing what I do NOW, comprehending and trying to use the language in and of itself. So it would seem that once the brain learns to effectively distinguish between two forms of communication, it can do so again and again with others. I think that may be the reason or part of the reason why people say its easier to learn more languages after you’ve learned a second. I’m no brain scientist nor have I learned many languages, but this is what I’ve logically deduced.

I don’t know where you are on this or if you’ve learned a second language to an advanced level already, but if you haven’t then this could explain your troubles. I don’t think it’s much to worry about for now, I think as you progress you will find “thinking in the language” easier and easier until you can’t use it any other way ;D

see also this thread from last year

very interesting osaieh

I think one way to start thinking in target language is by not trying to understand everything in deep but just trying to understand the general meaning - then after you will understand a bit more - to end understanding everything

I agree with Steve on this one - “thinking in a language” is a manifestation of fluency, not a technique for becoming fluent. That is not to say however that if the situation/mood suits the situation you shouldn’t think, even in small/incomplete sentences in the language you are learning - I find that to be most enjoyable. I have noticed I very often want to reply “sa… wakarimasen” to people, simply because the romance language family version “well, I don’t know” simply doesn’t carry the same intonation.