Do You Think in Spanish? Learn the Tips to Think Yourself to Fluency
Bilingual people are often asked, “What language do you think in?” For language learners starting their journey, a better question is “How do I even start to think in Spanish?” Although thinking in a foreign language may seem like an unattainable goal at the moment, you can achieve it with the following eight tips.
How to Think in Spanish
First, you first need to set realistic goals. Consider the following:
- Even bilingual people don’t always think in one language. Individuals often have a preference for a certain language and only think in the other when they need to use it—and that’s completely fine!
- Start where you are. As soon as you learn a new word or phrase, start using it and thinking about it on any possible occasion.
- Focus on fluency, not accuracy. Making sure a sentence is perfect before saying (or thinking) it is tedious and counterproductive. Use what you know. If you are able to think or say the correct phrases in Spanish, great! But if you make a mistake, the important thing is that you are using the language.
We naturally learn our first language by listening, repeating words a couple at a time, and using what we know to communicate. The thinking process in Spanish should be similar! So, what is your first goal? Is it to actively think and use the vocabulary you already know, or is it to move from thinking in simple vocabulary words to complete sentences? Either way, these eight tips will help you reach your goal in record time.
1. No Translating
This is one of the first things I tell my students: stop translating! Don’t use Google translate or an English-Spanish dictionary. Learn the language naturally. As children, we didn’t have a translator changing everything our parents said into baby talk. We learned by creating connections between spoken words and physical objects or ideas. The fastest way to speak Spanish is by not translating.
Of course, you may need to look up a word once in a while, but constantly using translation as a crutch hinders your fluency. Imagine it like this. Pathways in your brain, dug over many years, tell you that a cat is a cat. It takes time, repetition, and dedication to build a new pathway connecting the image of a cat to gato. However, once both pathways are built, you don’t need any effort to recall the word in either language. When you get to this point, you can think in both languages easily. You may even start to dream in Spanish!
So, how do you break the habit of translating?
- Don’t make the sentence first in English and then translate it word-by-word to Spanish. Even though the languages are similar in many ways, they are not identical. Constantly returning to the English way of saying things is counterproductive.
- Use the words you know. Even if this means thinking in Spanglish, it is better than nothing! Slowly add more words as you learn them.
- Don’t constantly compare the languages or try to make Spanish fit into English rules.
- Be open to new ways of formulating sentences and expressions. While they may sound strange at first, the more you practice them (in thought and speech), the more natural they will become.
2. Surround Yourself with the Language
Of course, it can be hard to cut the translation habit if you have limited exposure to what real Spanish sentences look and sound like. Languages are unique, and there are some things that cannot be directly translated into English. The only way to learn these expressions is to surround yourself with the language.
The more you hear, read, and speak Spanish, the easier it will be to think in the language. The sentence structure, vocabulary, and phrases will stick in your head from the repetition and be recalled easily. Modern technology provides so many ways to encounter Spanish without physically being in a Spanish-speaking country or investing a lot of money.
- Television: Take your pick between Spanish channels, Latino shows on Netflix, and episodes of your favorite shows in Spanish on YouTube. Depending on your Spanish level, you can use English subtitles, Spanish subtitles, or just listen to the Spanish.
- Books: Reading is a fantastic way to help you think in Spanish. As you read the words, you are silently sounding them out in your head. The forms and structure will stay ingrained in your brain after continued reading, and you’ll find yourself forming Spanish sentences naturally in your thoughts.
- Podcasts: If you don’t have a lot of downtime or are an audio learner, try Spanish podcasts. These can either be Spanish classes, books, or newscasts.
- Language apps: Various fun, engaging language apps can take your Spanish fluency to another level. Applications like Duolingo, Memrise, Babbel, Drops, and Beelinguapp use games and prizes to encourage you.
Spanish exposure is a great first step, but hearing Spanish alone isn’t enough. You need to put in some effort to retain the words you are seeing and hearing. There are two tools you can do on your own that will improve your fluency.
First, keep a Spanish notebook. Write down any new words you learn from watching TV or listening to the news, especially any difficult ones that you had to look up. If you want, you can separate the notebook into sections like verbs, nouns, and expressions. Or, you can just quickly jot down any new words you want to practice. Review the words as often as possible and read them out loud so you practice hearing and saying the words.
This next idea may seem a bit strange at first, but it is incredibly helpful. Whenever you can, try and express what you are doing in Spanish, either out loud or in your head. Whether you’re washing the dishes, feeding your dog, or just relaxing, try to recall the vocabulary and think of sentences about your activities. Or, if you have an active imagination, pretend you are talking to your friends about something—but think of the words in Spanish. If you get stumped on how to say a certain word, look it up, and add it to your mental sentence. This will help you stop translating your thoughts and form Spanish sentences quickly. It’s also one of the best exercises to activate thinking in your new language.
4. Learn What You Want to Study
What do you think about the most? Things you enjoy or things that bore you? We all love to think and daydream about our goals, dreams, and passions, so start with the things you love most.
If you are in Spanish class, you might not be learning vocabulary related to your hobbies. However, it is incredibly important to maintain your enthusiasm for learning Spanish so you won’t get discouraged with complex grammar topics. So, take some time to look up vocabulary about your favorite topics. If you want to avoid using a dictionary or an online translator (which often don’t have the right translations!), search for a YouTube video or TV show about your topic of interest. Turn on the Spanish subtitles, and write down keywords.
Then, the next time you think about your hobbies or passions, make a conscious decision to do so in Spanish. Make sentences in Spanish and look up any words you may need to complete your thoughts. While it may feel awkward at first, push through and it will soon become a habit!
5. Seek out Native Spanish Speakers
Just like exposure to the language helps fill your mind with Spanish words, talking with native Spanish speakers helps you put all your hard work into practice. Having conversations in Spanish, even as a beginner, is an ideal way to start. It’s fine to stumble through broken sentences at first, this is the most natural way to learn and think in a new language. Your journey to fluency will also be much faster, as you don’t have the option to switch to English when you don’t know a word (in other words, it helps you stop the habit of translating).
If you have friends or relatives who speak Spanish, talk to them and ask them to speak to you only in Spanish. If you are already accustomed to speaking to each other in English, it can be hard to make the transition to Spanish. However, they will surely be delighted to share their language with you.
Another option for finding native speakers is to travel to a Spanish-speaking country. By spending time studying Spanish, traveling, or just talking and getting to know the locals, your fluency will improve in no time. However, the downside is the high cost of travel and leaving your job. A great compromise would be to talk online with native speakers. Homeschool Spanish Academy offers classes at affordable rates with teachers from Guatemala. The classes can be formal learning sessions or just a chance to converse in Spanish; they can be whatever you want them to be. Take a free trial class and see for yourself how talking with a native speaker can improve your fluency.
6. A New Approach to Grammar
The one thing that trips up most Spanish learners is grammar. When forming a sentence in your head, the word that takes the most thought is usually the verb. What tense should you use? How do you conjugate an irregular verb in that tense? Spanish grammar is extensive and often not exciting to learn.
But there is hope! One of the best ways to learn Spanish grammar is to not study grammar specifically. Instead of learning lists of conjugations and sentences, learn grammar in a more natural way. As children, we learn to say verbs and conjugations first; not until years later do we even learn what verbs are. A similar approach to learning Spanish will help save you from awkward silences in conversation as you try to remember the right conjugation and instead let you “feel” what is the right word.
So, what is the best way to study grammar? Listen and repeat. Exposure to the language is essential so that you can hear Spanish in its natural context and pick up verb conjugations without having to know the name of the tense or conjugation. For example, as you are watching your favorite Spanish-language show, you hear the word venga a lot with a hand motion saying “come.” You can deduce that the meaning is “come here,” even though you don’t necessarily know the name of the tense or that venga is actually an irregular form.
If you don’t have much exposure to Spanish, another way to use this method is to memorize the verb conjugations in context. For example, instead of practicing the complete list of conjugations for the past simple tense of escribir, memorize the conjugations in a sentence or phrase. Don’t practice escribí, escribiste, escribió, etc., but instead form sentences like Yo escribí el ensayo (I wrote the essay). Putting the verb in context makes it seem more natural and easier to remember.
7. Create Visual Connections
As mentioned, to learn Spanish you need to create new pathways in your brain connecting the Spanish words to objects or activities. A great way to do this is with visual tools, like flashcards, labels, images, or physical activities.
- Labels: Write or print out Spanish labels for all your household and office objects. Every time you use those items, you will see the word and your brain will start digging those new pathways.
- Flashcards: These work best if there is an image on one side (no English, no translating!) and the Spanish word written on the other. Practice the vocabulary words whenever you have the chance to think in Spanish more and more.
- Images: These are similar to flashcards in that you only have a picture and the Spanish word. However, instead of being two-sided, these are just one-sided images you can hang on your wall, fridge, or bulletin board.
- Physical activities: Connect your daily activities to Spanish words. If you like to go running, think correr. As you wash clothes, think lavar ropa. If you are working on Spanish with kids, play a game like Simon Says in Spanish, asking them to saltar, brincar, and dar una vuelta.
8. Be Intentional about Fluency
Our last tip is to be intentional. Learning a new language takes work, and it isn’t something you can do only once a month. The new pathways you want to dig in your brain need daily, if not constant, attention so they don’t fill back up. Repetition and intentionality are key. Remember, if you put in the work and practice, you will progess in no time!
Do you have any other tips to share with Spanish learners wanting to improve their fluency? Leave a comment below for us and share your experience!
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