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How to Stop Translating in Your Head

by Madeleine Lee
woman and child coloring mandalas

Looking for a way to slow down a conversation? Try translating in your head. By converting the thoughts you have in your native language into another, you’re guaranteed a conversation filled with extended silences, awkward pauses, and just enough time for your companion to give you the side-eye and find the nearest exit. 

We’re kidding, of course. If you’ve stumbled on this article, you’re probably not planning to repel anyone with a meandering conversation—instead, you want an antidote to the slowness. 

Language learners at every stage can relate to the frequent choppiness of conversation. When your mind is accustomed to thinking in one language—and is then forced to translate thoughts or speech to another—it can take time to set the right words in motion, or fully understand what’s been said. 

In this article, you’ll find proven strategies that help you change the way you think, so you can have free-flowing conversations that feel natural. Here’s how to stop translating in your head and start thinking in your new language. 

Identify nouns and verbs in your new language 

When training your brain to think in a new language, it’s helpful to remember how you first learned your native language. Toddlers don’t turn to textbooks to learn language. Instead, the bulk of what they learn is through a careful balance of context and repetition. 

For example, a parent feeds their toddler an apple every day. The toddler learns the word “apple” through complete immersion as they see the apple, eat the apple, and hear its associated word each time the parent puts it in front of them. 

Now, imagine you’re that toddler, all grown up. Every time you see an apple, you name it without hesitation. But when learning a new language, you have to rewire your brain to summon the word “manzana” or “pomme” as fast as you can summon the name in your native language. 

Here’s an easy way to stop translating in your head: practice naming objects in your new language as often as possible. It’s easy and preferable to do this while doing something else, maybe while you’re on the way to work or waiting for a friend to arrive. Then, branch out to actions. How quickly can you summon the word for “swimming” or “dancing?” 

Don’t worry about grammar at this stage. The point is to start with single word-image association and then expand from there. This way, you can lay a solid foundation for thinking in a new language. 

How do we know it works so well? Rosetta Stone’s Dynamic Immersion approach to learning, —built into every lesson—relies on a combination of contextual learning through images, repetition, and audio from native speakers. Learn more about how it works here

Don’t overwhelm yourself with grammar 

To have a natural conversation—one where you don’t need to translate in your head—you’ll need more than just vocab. When you’re ready, you can use the same strategy outlined above to practice thinking in sentences. 

Work on transitioning your inner dialogue from your native language to your new language with simple sentences like these: 

  • I need to grab milk at the store. 
  • I should take a left here. 
  • I have ten minutes until the train leaves. 

Simplicity is key at this stage. You may be able to speak or understand far more, but in order to practice continuously thinking in your new language, it’s important to start with straightforward and uncomplicated sentences. Make learning easy on yourself, and understand that you’re undoing decades of thinking in your native language. 

As thinking in your new language feels more natural, you can begin incorporating more complex grammatical elements and phrases. 

Find reading opportunities 

Every year, tons of people vow to read more. And every year, many of them leave their resolution unfulfilled. If you find yourself a familiar party in that camp, here’s your chance to schedule reading into your everyday life—because reading can significantly increase your ability to think in a new language. 

If you’re a beginner language learner, don’t start with Tolstoy (if you’re learning Russian) or Proust (if you’re learning French). Find books that are challenging, but manageable. Children’s books are rich in description, relatively simple, and an awesome way to expand the complexity of your inner dialogue in another language. 

Not a book lover? Scan foreign language news sites for articles that interest you. Or, create a dedicated social media account to follow people who post in the language you’re learning. Every minute of exposure benefits your ability to speak and understand language naturally, without getting lost in translation. 

Get more ideas here >>

Listen and converse as much as possible 

Thinking in a new language—we can’t say this enough—takes time and practice. The best way to put the above strategies to the test is by having frequent conversations, both with strangers and with people you care about. 

Having a conversation with a stranger places you in the deep end of language learning, requiring you to think more on your feet. Conversation with a friend or family member may help you eliminate any nervousness getting in the way, and help you focus on the dialogue at hand. Both settings are important to growing your ability to learn, speak, and think in a new language. 

If you don’t have as much time to dedicate to conversation, listening opportunities can come in handy. Like reading, listening opportunities are an immersive experience that require your brain to process language in a different, more natural way. 

From podcasts to movies, try listening to native speakers several times a week to build your familiarity. Since podcasts are often styled as interviews, you can get extra practice in by providing your own answers to questions out loud. 

Give yourself the time and tools you need to succeed 

Mastering a language is a gradual process. Even advanced speakers have moments where they need to pause and translate—there’s no shame in that! You can accomplish amazing feats, make genuine connections, and reach your language learning milestones while you work toward your goal of thinking like a native speaker. 

For smoother conversations—and less translating in your head—we recommend learning with Rosetta Stone. Beginner and advanced learners alike can perfect their accent and build their conversational skills with immersive lessons that challenge you at just the right level. Plus, you can supplement your learning with engaging reading and listening opportunities

Choose one or all 25 languages available at www.rosettastone.com

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