|Train Your Brain to Think in
If you live in a place where most people speak the language you are
learning, you may use the language for several hours each day.
So, it may become part of your “inner speech.” In other words, you start
thinking in that language. Your mind stops trying to translate things
from your native language into the second language.
But, the majority of the VOA Learning English audience lives in places
where English is not the main language.
This may be true for you. You may not have many chances to practice
English. You may even be self-taught.
When you speak, your speech might be slower than you would like. This is
because your mind is still translating from your first language, which
can also sound unnatural. English, like every other language, has its
own sentence structure.
The good news is that thinking in English can bring you a huge step
closer to fluency! It is not very difficult, but it does take conscious
effort and practice.
On today’s Education Tips, we will share some
mental exercises that can help.
Think in single words
Most experts note that it’s best to start small. So, a good first step
is to think in individual words.
Look around you. What do you see? In your head, try to name each object
in your surroundings.
Charles Thomas has taught English to Union members, children and
teenagers for over 10 years. He has also helped open schools in several
countries. He currently works for EF International Schools in
Thomas tells his students to name the things that they see around them,
wherever they are.
“As you continue with this, it becomes more of a habit, so things are
going to pop up into your head – computer, telephone, chair, desk.
Whatever it is…wherever you are.”
Start with nouns and then add in verbs, he suggests.
He says you can also do this at home when you wake up and before you go
Teacher Andrew Hinshaw also finds this exercise helpful.
He has been teaching English for 12 years, including in Vietnam for the
U.S. Department of State. He currently teaches at the Carlos Rosario
International Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.
Hinshaw remembers one method some of his Vietnamese students liked.
“I’ve had students tell me that they label everything in their room or
their apartments so that these English words, kind of, stick in their
Describe unknown words
Another exercise that both Thomas and Hinshaw suggest is describing in
your mind objects you don’t know the words for.
An example would be if you couldn't think of the word "garage,” Thomas
“If you’re looking at your house and you see your garage, but you can’t
think of the name in English, you can say, ‘The place inside where I put
my car.’ Or you can say, ‘It’s next to my house. I keep things there.’”
He says you can also use shorter phrases, such as “It’s similar to…” or
“It’s the opposite of…”
Hinshaw says doing this can help learners of any language. As a Spanish
learner, he does it himself.
Think in sentences
The next exercise is thinking in simple sentences.
For example, if you are sitting in a park, you can tell yourself things
like, “It’s such a beautiful day” and “People are playing sports with
Once this becomes easy, you can move on to more difficult sentences.
Hinshaw sometimes uses this exercise to think about what he wants to say
to people in Spanish.
“I definitely try to say these sentences in my head or try to put the
words together without thinking too much about if it’s absolutely
Describe your day
Another exercise experts suggest is to describe your daily activities.
There are a few ways to do this.
Thomas asks his beginning-level students to describe their day using the
simple present verb form. So, they would think to themselves things
like, “I put on my shirt” and “He drives the bus.”
Other experts say you can mentally make plans in the morning when you
wake up. This would require other verb tenses. So the skill level is a
For example, you might tell yourself, “When I leave the house, I’m going
to get an iced coffee. Then, I’ll take the train to class. I’m studying
with Paola today. She said she booked a study room at the library for 2
Think in conversation
Now, let’s move to thinking in conversation.
When you do this, you are imagining yourself speaking to someone else.
You are asking the questions and thinking of replies.
This is a great way to practice what you might say in a real
For example, let’s say the imaginary person asks you a question like,
“What did you think of the award show last night?” How would you answer?
Imagine the conversation and practice it in your head.
You can do this out loud or in silence.
For all of these exercises, there will of course be words and phrases
that you do not know. So, at some point you will need to use a
If your skill level is high enough, you might consider using an
Hinshaw suggests writing down just five to 10 new words and phrases each
Keeping a notebook, he says, helps you remember the situation that you
needed that word or phrase for. This makes it easy to recall when you
are in such a situation again.
Practice it daily
So, how much time should you spend on these exercises?
Thomas says do a little every day.
“So when you’re doing it every day, over and over again, little by
little, that’s the key. Because, when you make things a habit, then it
just pops up into your mind without thinking and then, before you know
it, really, you’re thinking in English.”