Mentally translation

Hello everyone.
I was thinking about “mentally translation”, and I would like to know your opinion on this matter.

First, let me explain my point.
I learnt English as my second language, first being Portuguese. And I remember that, at some point I crossed the “beginner/intermediate” boundary. And I must say that, in my opinion, that’s one of the best part of the language learning process. Suddenly, skipping some unimportant words, I started to understand short paragraphs and guess the meaning of simple texts (awesome feeling, by the way). It was like removing a blindfold.

However, even being able to understand a whole paragraph, I wasn’t able to do that without translating all to Portuguese. Basically, I had to take one phrase. Than, mentally translate the words and rearrange the order of some words, grasp the meaning and than pass to the next phrase. It was tiresome.

Some day, I started to read without the need of mentally translate every single phrase. Plus, began to think in English… well… that was undoubtedly a watershed in my process of learning English. Everything became easier. I was able to read faster, understand people speaking and my vocabulary acquisition rhythm grown exponentially.

Well, I think that, everyone who achieve an advanced level of comprehension in a language, goes through the same thing. To people who are reading this and are not able to do that yet, don’t worry. You will. Everyone does. Doesn’t? :smiley:

The main point is, about this ability to read without translate… Is it a skill that, once mastered, can be used to learn a third or fourth language, right from the beginning?

In my case, I’m learning Spanish and Japanese. Japanese I started in Jan/2010. Spanish I began a few months ago. I’m almost intermediate in both languages. And, yesterday I was reading a text in Spanish and I perceived that I wasn’t translating it. I was struggling, but I kept thinking in Spanish, without translating or reordering words. And I do the same thing in Japanese, even not being able to read a complete phrase. I just look the meaning of the words I don’t know in the dictionary and try to guess the meaning of the phrase without actually translating it. That, I definitively wasn’t able to do when studying my second language. Not at the beginning level. Actually, I was at high intermediate level of English when that happens.

So, I would like to know the opinion of other people on the matter.
Once you reach the state of being able to read a second language without mentally translate it, can you use such ability in a third or fourth language, right from the beginning?

*Sorry for the very long post. I wasn’t sure how to explain the idea without creating a scenario.


I am quite convinced that once we have learned our first foreign language a number of things change.

  1. Our brains become more flexible.
  2. We can more readily accept, and even notice better, new and different sounds and language patterns.
  3. We have learned how to learn another language.
  4. We are confident that we can do it, since we have already had the experience of doing it.

So, in that sense, we reach the stage of relying on the new language for meaning, and not translating into our own, much earlier. We just expect to do it. We are also more comfortable with the idea that much of the content in the new language remains a little unclear, for a while. We know that things will get clearer.

At least that is my take on it.

Happy LingQing!

Somehow I find it difficult to know if I really think in German sometimes, or I think in English and translate it mentally into German so fast that I can’t really tell the difference.

I wonder if you or anyone else has had this feeling.

I am right there with you Sol. There are times when I feel I am translating (and sometimes it’s only a word or two that I find more difficult), and other times when I am not translating, but can just “see” what is happening in my mind’s eye.

I know this may be different for everyone, but Rodrigo, how many known words did you have in LingQ before you started to read without translating?

Rodrigo, I study English about one year and I have the same problem. I can’t understand without mentaly translate for Portuguese yet. So how many known words did you know when it happened?

I started to use LingQ recently and I was in that “stage” before that.

It was a nice moment when I realized that I “think” in English. This moment is a real breakthrough. I think you cannot force this moment. The only think you can do is to stay with the language. And then … it will happen.

This is an interesting thread and a topic I’ve been pondering myself recently. There have been times of late when I’ve been able to listen to longer recordings in German and felt like I just “knew” what was being said, without thinking about it in English. I think sometimes when this happens I get so excited that I derail my ability to do it!

Someday when I reach this magical stage you’re all speaking of, I’m going to throw myself a party…

It is my desire: I want to speak English like a native speaker! I have been studing English since I was a child, but I am not able speak a fluent English yet. But, every day, I look at the mirror and I say: “I can improve my English” ; “I will speak English like a North American person”, “I am able to speak English fluently”. That is it!

I will try to describe here a kind of exercise I do, which helps me. Hopefully, will help other people too.
The intention of the exercise is… help anyone who are studying a second language and wants to “think” in that language.
To me, the ability to think in another language is a natural ability, that people develop gradually and naturally. You don’t need to force yourself to do that. You don’t need to train to do that. It just happens. And it happens, as in my case, without you realizing when or how you did that.

So, this exercise HAVE NO INTENTION and WILL NOT make you think in another language. Again, it’s a natural skill which you develop naturally. However, I’m pretty sure that this exercise helps you notice some important details and (maybe) bring this ability to surface sooner. Try it and you will see. Or not.

From now on I’ll use the convention:
L1 = First language; Native language
L2 = Second language; The language you are studying.

I will try to describe the whole process, including some things I don’t do anymore and some I do intuitively or just in a different way. So, you don’t need to do exactly as I say. Just try to understand the whole thing. Then, do the necessary adaptations to fit your taste.
The following description is aimed to people who never tried to think in another language, but anyone can do it. I like to do it in Japanese, in which I am definitely a beginner.

Everything written below, have to be executed “mentally”. Don’t say any word aloud.
Firstly, relax. And let the power of the cosmos fill your mind… ok, ok, you don’t need to do that. Instead, stop thinking L1 words. If it’s your first time trying it and you have trouble with L1 words coming into your mind without permission. There are some tips:

  1. Go to a silent place. When I say silent, I am not talking about noise, but words. It’s harder to stop thinking in a Language when you have a radio, TV or other people talking the L1 around you.
  2. If it was not enough, say some words to yourself. Think in a L2 word. Say some phrase to yourself. Ask some simple questions, then answer it, mentally. Repeat the same phrase every time you “hear” your mind “saying” some L1 word… interrupt your L1 voice with your L2.
  3. Have patience. Don’t push yourself too much. Think slowly. In your first attempts in the new language… think slowly. Don’t try to think in your L2 at the same pace you do when thinking in L1. Have patience. Enjoy the moment.

Then, with just the L2 in mind. Thinking in slow motion. Relaxed. Look around you. Look at some objects, colors, walls, cars, trees… imagine that you (who have some knowledge of the L2) are teaching the name of the things around you to someone else. You can imagine this “someone else” as being a child for example. The point is, this child can’t understand a single word of L2 and L1 even less. But he/she WANTS to learn the L2 and just the L2. So, ask some questions. Than, answer those question. Use the vocabulary you have. Don’t bother with your mistakes. Keep teaching. If you look to something and don’t know the meaning, ignore it. Pass to another thing and keep asking. SLOWLY, otherwise the children will not understand you. Start with very simple questions… “What color is this?”… “What is that?”. Remember that the child can’t answer, because he/she doesn’t know any words. So, you answer… “This color is white and that is brown”… Keep going, start asking more complicated questions. Remember, the child don’t care about your grammar mistakes or bad pronunciation. He/she wants to know new words and phrases. Keep the conversation going for as long as you can.

If you tried and found it too hard or near impossible. Read and hear more L2 content and after 1 or 2 months try again.
Well, that’s it. If you are at intermediate level in your L2. You probably have the tools needed to “think” in L2 and just don’t know how to use it yet. Try it. Do it. Awake your “second voice”.

Thanks for reading and I hope this post helps at least one person. If so, I will be glad.


Very instirational text. I have been thinking about this and doing it also. But I was always wondering if my second voice (in L2) (I have a sensation of me trying to be, or swithing to another person while doing that) should be there at all or should I just maintain it at fast translation. I was wondering if that state of me speaking to myself in L2 is just pretending (fake) or is it smoething that has to be done in order to master a language.

In my case, when I’m interact with L2 content, I “switch” my mind. I turn off my L1 and start thinking L2. And when doing so, I change. My L2 voice is definitely different of my L1. My L2 have a different personality. I think in a different pace and intonation.

I used to study translating every word from L1 to L2. Now, while reading a L2 text, I keep thinking L2. And when I found a new word, I try to understand the meaning of that word without translating it. I realized that, trying to find a equivalent word in your own language to L2 words is a wrong thing to do. That’s why I think that think just in L2 makes you learn faster.

I believe that, you have to stop translating words as soon as possible. And focus in getting the real meaning of the words. Try to understand what a L2 word mean in a L2 context. Not compare a L2 word to a L1 word… why?

I’ll give an example:
Take a paragraph written in one language(L1 language). Let’s say that this paragraph teach how to operate a complicated machine, you have to do exactly what is written in that paragraph otherwise bad things can happen. You read it (twice, just to be sure you wont miss anything) and you can operate the machine.
Fine. Now you want to pass this paragraph to another person. But he doesn’t understand your language. So you need to translate to L2.
Then, you translate all the paragraph (word by word), just switching the L1 words with the equivalent in L2.

Will the other guy be able to FULLY understand the paragraph? Probably not. To be able to FULLY understand, you will need to rearrange the text. More than that, just changing the order of the words will not solve the problem. You will need to switch, add and remove words.

That example leads me to conclude that: When you translate something, you get the approximate meaning, not the real meaning (that’s the one I want when reading L2 content).
I have to say that I realized it not so much time ago. I used to think that I had to translate every single L2 word into L1. Than, adapt the result into a meaningful L1 phrase. That’s how teachers taught me when I was in school.

Now I think different, I believe that: There is no such thing as (literal) translation. You can use translations to reach intermediate level. But, I think that, you will not be able to speak or hear in a L2 language while translating and rearranging words in your mind. And read and write will be slow and painful.

Thanks man. I also have the same sensation in my mind. I do feel that another person appears in my mind when I try to think in L2 language, but the more time stay in my, let’s say L2 state, that person slowly turns into me. But experience this transition every time. First I jump into another person and then after a while, that other person becomes I.

I started doing that, but it was not unwillingly, about a year or two ago. It was more like my brain signalises me that it would be better to switch to another me. So I was doing it just for fun, but I was disregarding this or more like suppresing this L2 voice. Because I taught that is just my immaturity speaking (though in linguistic sence).
You know, just like kids or adolescents when they start speaking in a certain way (not in foreign languige) or doing something just because it is cool and popular. Since I was always resenting that I resented that other voice as a caprice which has only purpose of impressing someone else.

I guess I was missing an importang phase of language learning here. I was waiting that “holly grail” which many langage instructiors mention, where they find themselves thinking in L2, so I was refusing to start it willingly and waited for ti to happen all off a sudden. Like my languge teacher was describing. I think I did sound well before but I was never really spontaneous. My every sentence was well planed etc…

Now I find it hard to stay in that state. I don’t know if it’s because I am not ready or because I was ingoring it all this time. I am trying you “technique” since yesterday.

Thanks again