Mastering a foreign language:
"Automating" your thinking processes
| For a
moment, let's forget about any foreign language you may be learning; I
would like to ask you a question, and I want you to give an immediate
answer in your own mother tongue.
Question: What did you do today?
Your answer will probably be along the lines of: "Well, I
got up at 8 o'clock, had breakfast, did some work around the house,
watched a little TV, etc., etc...."
The truth be told, I don't really care what you did. The
reason I asked was simply to point out to you how easily - how
"automatically" - you are able to answer such a question when you are
thinking in your native language. Obviously, it is a different matter
altogether if someone asks you the same thing - and you must reply - in
When you answered in English, you did not have to think
about choosing the right vocabulary, using the correct verb forms,
putting the words in the proper order, and so on. You simply replied
straight out, without first considering how you would answer.
You merely thought about what you did, and as soon as those images from
today's activities entered your mind, you immediately described them.
If you had had to respond in a language you are now
learning, but have not yet mastered, you would have had to stop and
think about how to describe these activities. There are basically two
ways that people generally do this when using a somewhat unfamiliar
1) They mentally "translate" before answering. For example: They
remember getting up at 8 o'clock. They then think (in their mother
tongue): "I got up at 8 o'clock". Next, they try to figure out how to
say: "I got up" and "at 8 o'clock" in the language they are learning.
To do this, they must know how to say "to get up", then to put this
into past tense, adding the pronoun "I" at the beginning. They then
have to remember not only how to say "eight o'clock", but also, which
preposition must be used in this case. For instance, if Spanish is
their target language, this task would require knowing:
- the verb "levantarse" (to get up). They must know that in Spanish,
this is reflexive. The "se" part must be converted to "me" (since you
are talking about yourself). The pronoun "I" doesn't necessarily have
to be used, since Spanish doesn't require this. You must know the past
(first person) of "levantar", which would be "levanté" (or else
"he levantado", should you prefer to use the present perfect, which
would be common in such a situation). So, now we have...
"Me levanté" (or "Me he levantado").
"at eight o'clock" = "a las ocho". To get this, you must know that you
generally don't translate the "o'clock" part in Spanish, that you say
"las" (plural) and not "la", and that the correct preposition
Final result: "Me levanté a las ocho."
Whew! No wonder people usually speak so slowly when they
are using a language they haven't been learning long!
2) A second way to learn to speak would be a much more "direct"
approach, one that does not involve translation: you imagine
getting up, and you remember a sentence you learned that expresses the
situation (that of getting up at 8 o'clock): "Me levanté a las
ocho" is what you would then automatically say.
That sounds a lot easier to do, doesn't it? You simply
have the "image" in your mind, and you directly and automatically
- without translation of any sort - connect a Spanish sentence you have
previously learned with that image.
Of course, the fact that there are potentially thousands
of things you could have done in a day means that if you learn by this
method alone, you would have to learn thousands of sentences by memory
- not so practical after all!
Are we therefore "doomed" to always be mentally
translating before we say something in our target language? Not really,
for there is a "middle path"...
I always recommend that when people learn single words, or
short, common phrases, they directly connect the image in their mind
(the image - but not the English word - of
"cat", "house", "I go", or whatever) with the foreign word, instead of
first with the English word, and then the foreign one. That is, they
form a mental picture of a cat, and think "gato" if they are learning
Spanish, "Katze", "chatte" or "neko" if German, French or Japanese is
their target language. If they want to say "I am going shopping", then
as soon as they read that sentence in English and see its translation
into the target language, they should immediately put the English
sentence ("I am going shopping") out of their mind; they should only
imagine themselves going shopping, and think "Voy a ir de
compras", "Ich gehe einkaufen", "Je vais faire des courses", "Kaimono
ni ikimasu" (Spanish, German, French, or Japanese, respectively). Then,
they should repeat this sentence several times, till they can
say it by memory, all the while holding the image of themselves
going shopping in their minds.
This should always be the preferred method for
learning single words, as well as short, common phrases or sentences,
assuming that your goal is to learn to speak the language as quickly as
possible. (If you are studying to be a linguist or a professional
translator, on the other hand, it would probably be better to translate
mentally as much as you can, so that you will be able to associate the
words in one language with their equivalents in the other as quickly as
It goes without saying that this method cannot be the only
one you use. Suppose, for example, that someone asks you a question
which requires an answer such as:
"It wasn't a banana peel, but rather a piece of wet rag I
slipped on just before I fell and broke my leg right below the knee."
This sentence contains quite a few details, doesn't it?
And if you wanted to learn by the "direct association" method (that is,
imagine the situation, then say a
sentence you have previously learned to describe that situation), you
would have to learn literally millions of sentences in order to be able
to cover all the possibilities you might experience in life. Highly
impractical, without a doubt!
The solution, therefore, is to use "direct association" -
as mentioned earlier - for learning single words, and short, very
common phrases/sentences. For more complex statements, you will indeed
have to rely on your knowledge of grammar, syntax and specific
vocabulary, in order to "put together" all of the elements you need so
that you can express more detailed situations or ideas. However, this
really isn't so bad. Your foreign conversation partner most likely will
be willing to show quite a bit of patience if you are explaining how
you slipped on that piece of wet rag and broke your shin bone. But
people won't be as patient if you take two minutes just to say you got
up at eight o'clock!
And once you reach a more advanced level of language
study, you will see that it becomes easier and easier to express
complex contents without having to "mentally translate" first. Then it
will only be a question of time before you can have long, detailed, and
even profound conversations in your new language without having to
think in English at all. Then you may allow yourself to go enjoy a
bottle of good champagne, for you will have finally reached your goal!
16) Communicate faster when speaking a
foreign language: Learn to_simplify