Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

September 8, 2009

Thinking in English – how to make it happen

I remember when I was at school learning French, one of the best pieces of advice my teacher gave us was, “If you don’t know it don’t use it!”

At first it was a little daunting as the amount of French anchored in my brain was very little.  How could an essay be written or a conversation be had without reference to English?  In reality, however, adherence to this ‘rule’ developed an agility with language that has helped me ever since.

If you don’t know the word for a ‘frying pan’ (this happened to me while an au-pairing in France) describe it!  You get there in the end (using more of the language to boot!) and learn a new word, but these linguistic gymnastics help you to hone that all-important skill in language learning – thinking in the target language!!

 I’d like, if you’ll permit me, to indulge in my own personal experience and  throw a few anecdotes around which, I hope, will help to illustrate not only the importance of thinking in the target language but also the joy of discovering that you can do this.

Losing your own language

One alarming, at first, consequence of using a language other than your native tongue for a long period is that you forget words!   You don’t really lose them but sometimes you will come across a phrase or word and realise that you haven’t used it for a long time. Two things – it means that you are possibly expressing these things comfortably in your new language and secondly it is lovely to rediscover these ‘old friends’.

‘Creating your own language’

No language is perfect. If you begin to learn another you will find that there are certain things it expresses much better than your own language.

As your proficiency in your new language approaches that of your mother tongue you may find yourself adopting words from both languages and making a  hybrid language – a sort of  idiolect. Sometimes these phrases are shared among a group (very common within expat communities).

In Indonesia we all said ‘Go and mandi (bath)’ and ‘Where shall we go makan’ (eat). I remember on my first trip back to the UK from Indonesia speaking like this automatically and getting some very strange looks!

Not realising which language you’re using

As you use your new language more and more you may get to the stage where you don’t realise which language you are using!

On one occasion I was reading a newspaper and was surprised to find that there was a lot of local news in it instead of the more international news I usually found there. Imagine my surprise when I at last discovered that instead of the Jakarta Post, an English language paper, I had picked up the local Medan, Indonesian-language, newspaper and hadn’t even realised it!

Another time I brought an Indonesian cookery book back as a present for my mother – you’ve guessed it – it was written in Indonesian and I hadn’t even thought about it until she pointed it out!

Being taken for a ‘native’

My final story is a pearl!

I was standing at a bus-stop in Jakarta during a power-cut. It was very dark. I began speaking to a woman who told me that she knew that I wasn’t from Jakarta from my accent and thought I must be from Medan! It turned out that her family were also from there and she claimed that it was a purer form of Indonesian that we both spoke!! Imagine her surprise when the electricity came back on and she was confronted by a Westerner! It was precious!!

How  did these things happen?

The main reason for all these incidents is the ability to absorb a new language alongside your own so that it becomes second nature. To do this you need to think in the new language when you are using it.

To get there try to:

  • get as much exposure as possible – (read, listen, watch TV etc.)
  • try to ‘get in the zone’ –  remember the teacher’s advice – if you don’t know it don’t use it
  • listen to local people – not just teachers  (we are trained to manipulate language in a certain way within the classroom)
  • imaginary conversations – rehearse these in your head – when learning French I used to talk to my dog, it was good practice of accent, phrases and just getting into the language
  • sing songs – this is a really fun way of practising and learning

Above all don’t translate it generally doesn’t work and you have to move away from the comfort of your own language and wear the new language like a new skin!!


  1. Hi,
    This is awesome advice. I am learning Spanish and I apply some of the ideas you suggest. Your post explains very clearly some concepts to help one “think in the second language.” I also teach ESL and am going to impart some of your wisdom with my students. Thanks for sharing your advice!

    Comment by Roger — September 12, 2009 @ 2:03 am | Reply

    • Hi Roger,
      thank you so much for your comment. I’m glad you own experience bears my post out. I think it is one of the most important things for fluency. Please impart away!

      Comment by rliberni — September 14, 2009 @ 9:26 am | Reply

  2. […] @rliberni English language learners – Thinking in English – how to make it […]

    Pingback by Cross-Culture Tweets – Week 37 of 2009 — September 13, 2009 @ 6:33 pm | Reply

    • Hi Cindy,
      thank you for the link. I hope this is useful to your readers.

      Comment by rliberni — September 14, 2009 @ 9:29 am | Reply

      • 😭Thank you very much for nice tip.
        Grateful from heart.

        Comment by Nitai — April 29, 2013 @ 3:04 am

      • You are very welcome – they all work to improve skills.


        Comment by rliberni — May 7, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

  3. […] translating – this rarely works, if you can’t express your idea well in English then think of another idea that you can! (see my post on thinking in English) […]

    Pingback by 7 deadly sins to avoid in your writing « Rliberni’s Blog — October 22, 2009 @ 11:03 pm | Reply

  4. […] the experience becomes a pleasure! After that there will be no stopping you! (see my post about thinking in English – it applies to any […]

    Pingback by Do I have to read? « Rliberni’s Blog — November 17, 2009 @ 1:47 pm | Reply

  5. […] Thinking in English, how to make it happen […]

    Pingback by 10 top tips for improving IELTS Scores « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — January 18, 2010 @ 6:31 pm | Reply

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  7. […] see my post  – Thinking in English – How to make it […]

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  8. i like your Blog very much. i am a Indian so i am little week in english but want to acchive 7-8 band overall . what can i do please help me sir.

    Comment by Gourav Singh — August 11, 2012 @ 6:41 am | Reply

    • Hello Gourav and thank you for your comment. I think the same advice I gave to kris applies here. Make sure that your English is good and then start to prepare for the IELTS band that you want.

      Comment by rliberni — August 18, 2012 @ 8:48 am | Reply

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