Language Learning, Article 15: Mastering a foreign language: "Automating" your thinking processes. By David Bolton
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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 another language.

   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 language:

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 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 is "a".

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 possible.)

   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!

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  Communicate faster when speaking a foreign language: Learn to simplify


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