Think Differently

Written by Yuri Karabatov. Follow me on Twitter.

The best way to learn a language is to use it all the time. Apart from speaking, reading and writing, it means thinking.

The ultimate way to learn a language is to think in it.

Now, there is a major point you should remember. Thinking in a language is the best way to retain knowledge, and that’s it.

Thinking won’t teach you anything. You still have to read and listen to learn new grammar and improve vocabulary.

Thinking, nevertheless, helps you solidify everything you’ve learnt so far. So, how do you trick your brain into it?

It depends on your level of knowledge. A beginner can’t think in another language: he or she doesn’t know enough words. An advanced student, on the other hand, can do it with little to no effort.


If you are a beginner, your main goal is to set words and simple sentences firmly in your memory to be able to use them without hesitation. You will improve your active vocabulary.

What are the guidelines?

1. Walk

Have a look at this post by Seth Robers: walking improves your brain function, and it’s easier to recall or memorize words. Personally, I often go for a walk when I need to do some serious creative thinking. It really works.

Moreover, it’s enjoyable to walk around and look at things.

2. Name things

Walks are good, because you engage with the real world around you, and real world is full of things you can name.

Remember about the natural way of learning language, the way children learn? Act like a child.

A child walks in the street and names things around: “Look, a house!”; “Look, a car!”; “Look, a tree!”. You should do the same.

By naming things around you, you are actually using words you know, and by this set them firmly into your memory. They are now in your active vocabulary, which means you can use them at will, without hesitation. Isn’t that good?

Besides, if you forget some word, you will try and remember it, and after that you’ll have a successful path of remembering it again. In time this path becomes automatic, and the word won’t present any more problems.

Walking and actually seeing and interacting with things improves your ability to memorize — immensely. Use as many senses to memorize as possible. You do if you see, touch and hear things around you.

3. Simple, everyday sentences

Make the task of naming things a little harder by using sentences, not just words.

Just some examples:

‘Look, a car!’

‘This is a house.’

‘Do you see a tree?’

‘Birds are there.’

These sentences are simple, but we use them every day. It’s useful to have them at the ready.


What I know for sure about intermediates is that they are hesitant when composing sentences.

They know enough words and grammar, but it’s mostly passive knowledge, that’s why they have to rummage through memory for proper words before speaking.

Active vocabulary is built by enough practice.

1. Describe

Describe everything you see around in long nice sentences complete with adjectives.

Do not rush, make it slow. Speed will come over time. It’s more important to get the words right than to be quick.

Besides, you can usually remember the word if you think long enough.  Passive vocabulary may be quite large, depending on the volume of reading. You may know the word but not know that you know it.

2. Translate

I don’t mean “sit down and translate a thick book”, quite the opposite: try and translate short expressions you see around, especially the ones in the street.

What you are training is the quickness of thought. You are training to get the immediate translation of any words you see right in your head.

First, translation, secondly — meaning. The ultimate result of this flash-translation is the ability to look up words in your internal dictionary really fast, without you even thinking about it. Just look at the word and see its meaning.

The key factor here is that it works both ways. It doesn’t matter if you translate from or to your native language, you are training the connection, and connection works both ways.


If you are at an advanced level of knowledge of the language you learn, you are lucky. You can actually carry out all your thinking processes in the target language.

The key here is to start with something. The best trigger I know to start spontaneous thinking in another language is live speech. That is, you listen to someone speaking, and start thinking in the language of the speaker.

This works only with advanced students, because intermediates just can’t keep up with fast-paced live speech, and lack active vocabulary.

1. Separate activity

Brain is not a machine and you can’t switch gears to another language just like that. It takes time and effort. Instead you can separate a part of what you do and think about it in another language.

Thinking in a particular language is tied to the context. I’ve read somewhere about a woman, who was raised in one country and then moved to another one, where she spoke another language. She said that while she was thinking about her everyday life in a foreign language, the memories of her childhood were all in her native language. The context was different, and so was the language.

Take me: my native language is Russian, but I’m writing this blog in English, and think about it and other related things in English. It’s easy, because it’s not interfering the context of my daily life, like shopping for groceries and whatnot.

Fun fact: a couple of weeks ago I was talking to a friend of mine and wanted to tell him about this blog, in Russian. I had a really hard time, I should tell you. Basically I had no appropriate phrases to use so I had to make them up in mid-sentence. Finally I gave up and told him everything in English, and it was much easier.

So you can do the same: take some activity of yours, a hobby, and think about it in the language you learn. Over time you will be thinking about anything related to this activity or hobby in the target language with little to no effort.

2. Conscious thinking

Conscious thinking takes the “separate activity” business a little further. If you’re human (I really hope you are!), you often think about various things to do, plans, memories and whatnot.

What you can do when you’re consciously thinking about something is to think about it in another language.

A quick example. Let’s say you need to shop for groceries. You start thinking (in your target language): “What do I need to buy? I need bread, there’s little left; milk for the cat; meat to make a stew and salad for the dressing…” and on and on and on.

You define the limits when thinking consciously, and keep them. In the example you were just compiling a list of things to buy, nothing else. You controlled your thinking, and it was all in the language you learn.

You can think in your target language every time you think about something consciously. Over time most of your thinking processes will be in your target language, and your brain will be used to it.

After that it will be easy to make the next step and think in the target language subconsciously, too. Of course, you don’t need it if you don’t live in the appropriate environment, like in the country where everyone speaks your target language. The important thing is, now you know how to transfer all your thinking to the target language if you ever need it.

Small steps

Remember: you will succeed if you don’t rush. A new language doesn’t come easy to your mind, so you should ease it slowly. As you practice, speed will come all by itself.

If you are a beginner, don’t wait to build a larger vocabulary, start with as many words as you know already. The more you practice, the faster you’ll learn.

If you are an intermediate, going out into the fresh air presents the possibilities to know more synonyms and vocabulary in general. Dedicate your walks to topics: colors (compare colors and describe them), sounds (is it high or low, loud or quiet? what is it like?), speed (as fast as what? slower than what?) and so on. Limit yourself to delve deeper.

If you are an advanced learner, all the luck to you. You have infinite possibilities to practice your target language, all the time. Start small and build up from there. Human lives are all about words.

Good luck to you in your studies!

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