Thinking in a new language

I have an interesting question for those of you who have acquired a new language with a good level of fluency. Do you still comprehend the new language through the conduit of your mother tongue? I.e. do you still find yourself translating the new language into your own language in order to understand it? If this is not the case then when and how did you stop needing to use your own language as a crutch?

I find this an interesting question since my internal dialogue, and the way I perceive and understand the world around me, especially more abstract concepts, seems to be inextricably linked to the English language; at least for now. Has learning a new language altered the way in which you think; beyond simply knowing some new words?

If you will forgive the slight self-promotion, I made a video a while back with my thoughts on this very topic : Thinking in a Foreign Language? - YouTube

@EdS: “…Do you still comprehend the new language through the conduit of your mother tongue? I.e. do you still find yourself translating the new language into your own language in order to understand it?..”

No absolutely not. In order to use a target language in a functional way one must be able to manipulate that language right “ouside” of any other language, in my opinion.

@EdS: “…If this is not the case then when and how did you stop needing to use your own language as a crutch?..”

That’s actually a very good question. So far as I can remember, in my own case (living in Germany) I tried pretty hard right from the outset to operate in entirely German. To begin with I was very limited, and I struggled hard to put things together. However I was getting a lot of passive exposure (watching TV, etc) and I gradually soaked a lot of this up - which over time made it ever easier to generate output.

@EdS: “…I find this an interesting question since my internal dialogue, and the way I perceive and understand the world around me, especially more abstract concepts, seems to be inextricably linked to the English language; at least for now. Has learning a new language altered the way in which you think; beyond simply knowing some new words?..”

I can only speak for German and Italian, because these are the only two foreign languages in which I have ever been functional to any significant degree. I have never noticed any effect of the kind you refer to. When you become somewhat fluent, it’s almost “feels” the same as speaking English. (At any rate this is my experience.)

It might be different for Europeans or North Americans who learn exotic languages like Arabic or Japanese, however?

I understand nearly all French words as French and nearly all Spanish words as Spanish. Occasionally I come across a word in one or the other language that I have to translate into English in my mind. Often, when I translate I am not aware that I am translating. Also occasionally I come across a French word or Spanish word that I understand, but I can’t think of the equivalent word in English. A sort of one such word is the French “ennui,” which means a great deal more in French than it usually does in English.

I’m sure I did some mental translating into English in the beginning. When did I stop the process of translating? I don’t know. What I do know, or rather what I believe, is that this phenomenon seems to be of some concern to some beginners and to some language teachers, but it is utterly irrelevant to the language learning process. If I were you, I would not waste another second thinking or worrying about it.

My two cents.

Thinking in a new language - it doesn’t occur in accordance only with your desire.
If you have a wish to think in a new language since tomorrow - you won’t be able to do it with the best will in the world.
But gradually, progressively, little by little you will notice that you needn’t translate into a native language first some words, then some phrases, after that - almost everything besides maybe very some very complicated paragraphs by reading.