“The Switch” : Thinking in a foreign (dead) language

A couple of people have asked me recently what this is like, and expressed something of their frustration that they can’t go from “mental translation” to “thinking in (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Klingon)”

I do think this is hard to explain, especially if you haven’t experienced it for any language – if you’re a monoglot who has always thought in one language as long as you can remember, and your primary (or only) experience of language learning is grammar/translation/dead-languages, this is just hard to conceptualise.

So, here’s a suggestion. Watch some youtube:

Here’s day 1 TPR in French, or Rico teaching Greek, or do a search for anything TPR, TPRS, WAYK and ‘day 1’.

These are classes in which you should be able to just watch, and match language to action. Sure, I know there’s some translation going on in your head. I would generally discourage that, but also don’t stress about it. In saying I’d discourage it, I really mean, “don’t try to translate”, I don’t mean, “fight against any instinct to translate”

For me, personally, operating in an L2 is a bit like flicking a ‘switch’. One minute I’m in English, and then I flip that switch, and start thinking in, say, Gaelic. And I keep thinking in Gaelic and talking in Gaelic, as much as I can. That tends to only get disrupted when I hit a point where I can’t find the word for what I want to express. That’s like an obstacle in my mental ‘flow’, and it will get filled. Sometimes it gets filled by random other language (so I will almost always have a random word from one language slip into others), or English. If it’s not a big deal, you can kind of flow around that and keep going. Languages where I’m really fluent (like I used to be in Mongolian), I can just keep operating in the language on and on, and in fact dropping in some English won’t disrupt me. That’s genuine code-switching, rather than language interference.

The thing I’d say is, just keep at it. “It” here is reading, listening, exposing yourself to as much easy, comprehensible language input as you can. The more you can pile this up, the more input you’re getting, the more you will be able to make that jump. Don’t stress about it, but don’t keep encouraging the translation habit.

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