Stop trying to ‘think in English’

If you search for ‘think in English’ you’ll get almost 3 billion results (3,000,000,000 – that’s a lot!) Everyone thinks you must think in English in order to speak English better. But I say no.

I think this is the most useless and unhelpful advice in the world.

Because how can you change your brain… your fundamental operating system… It’s impossible to do this! How is it possible to not translate when you learn new words? I think it is possible to grow your mind and learn English, and for adults to become fluent in English, but to actually change your brain’s system? No! This is not useful advice for learners.

Think in English is useless advice

More useful and more helpful advice is to learn English, or any language in chunks, or sentences. So don’t learn words one by one, but learn a sentence with your new words.

For example, when you learn the word ‘tennis’ you should learn that we say play tennis (not do tennis or go tennis). You should learn that ‘we play tennis with our friends’, or ‘I played tennis against Roger Federer yesterday.’

Immediately you have two whole pieces of information that you can use to talk about your hobbies.

More helpful advice number 2 is to learn when to use these phrases. What do I mean?

Take the sentence: how are you?

English speakers, at least British English speakers will ask this question about 338 times a day. We ask our family in the morning, we greet our colleagues at work, we see our friends and always, always ask: ‘how are you?’ It might be a different version of this – You alright? How you going? Ok? But we must always ask it, or you might seem rude/cold/unfriendly.

Maybe in your language you don’t use this phrase as much, so although you understand it, you’re not using as much as an English speaker would.

Learning when to use your phrases is harder (it’s called pragmatics) and textbook English doesn’t really cover it. So it’s important to get out there and speak to native speakers a lot, if that’s your goal.

What about movies, TV, radio and books? These kind of materials are good for learning about some kinds of English and great for your listening practice. But for learning about when to use phrases, they are not great.

Radio interviews are a bit more natural and if you’re watching vlogs or listening to podcasts that might help, but they are all edited so simple phrases like ‘how are you?’ are usually cut out.

So if you’re not living in a English-speaking country, what can you do? Apart from listening to the radio a lot, you can also watch reality programmes – things like Big Brother, Love Island, even the Great British Bake Off. These kind of programmes are mostly unscripted, so they are more natural, everyday English. Give it a try!

What do you think? Do you worry about ‘thinking in English?’ Do you try to stop translating? What works for you? Let me know below!

If you want to work with a teacher who won’t make you think in English, and you’re a mother who wants to speak more English, join me in Mums’ English Circle. We have small group conversation lessons 4 times a week. Join us here

Published by Abbie

English teacher, coach and writer. Helping English learners and teachers get more confident in their skills.

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