Many teachers tell you to think in English and to stop translating in your head. This causes concern for many learners when they find they are still translating. They worry that they’re not really fluent in English because they can’t ‘think in English.’ If this is you then worry no more, because ‘think in English’ is the most terrible advice ever!

This piece of terrible advice has been around for years but doesn’t have much research to support it. Scientists, linguists, and psychologists can not agree on what language actually looks, or sounds, like in our heads. Some people say they think in pictures not language! Bilingual and multilingual people too have different reactions, depending on time and situation. There’s no easy way to think about thoughts!

So instead of giving you more terrible advice about training your brain to think in English, I’ll give you three more useful pieces of advice, which I hope, will help you stop worrying about ‘thinking in English.’

Learn English in chunks

When you learn new vocabulary in English, remember to learn about the other words that go together with the new words. For example, with sports you might learn, tennis, judo, skiing, athletics, but do you know the verbs for each one? We say play tennis or basketball, but we do judo, go skiing, and do athletics. We practice hitting with a tennis racket, in baseball, it’s a bat.

Learning the collocations (how words fit together) is so useful for all sorts of words. Today’s Word of the Day in the Oxford Learners Dictionary is ‘kiln’ – a type of oven for baking clay or brick, drying grains or wood. But we don’t use ‘bake’ or ‘cook’ with kiln – the usual verb is ‘fire’ maybe because the temperatures are very high in a kiln, higher than a food oven. Meriam Webster’s word of the day is ‘perpetuity’ a word that is nearly always used with ‘in’  and means continuing forever or for a very long time. ‘The university grounds will be open to the public in perpetuity.’ is an example.

When you know these collocations it’s easier to make natural-sounding phrases because you’ll know the words that fit together. You won’t need to think too hard, because you’ll automatically put the words together. Don’t think about it, automate it! Learn more about collocation with Christian here

Learn about the ‘when’ of the phrases

Semantics is the study of the meanings of words, when a word or phrase is used, how and to whom. When you’ve learned new phrases it’s really important to learn when to say them, and to who, and also who you shouldn’t say it to. For example: ‘Dear Mr Smith’ or ‘Hi John’ one’s ok for the bank manager, the other is not.

Try to notice when you’re reading, watching or listening to English when people use certain phrases. For example, have you ever noticed that you only say ‘good morning’ once to a person per day – when you see the same person later the same day you should say ‘hello’ otherwise that person will think you’re a bit mad! When you leave the office there’s no need to say goodbye to each person, nor to say thank you for your hard work (at least in Britain) but in Japan that’s normal (お疲れさまでした otsukare sama deshita, in case you were wondering)

‘When’ can also be cultural, depending on country, company or even family, so you might find phrases acceptable in one place aren’t acceptable in another. But don’t worry, you’ll learn if you notice these things – keep your eyes and ears open and alert to the ‘when’ and you’ll soon know it. You already do this in your first language(s) so your brain can adapt to English too.

Listening not thinking

When you’re listening do you find you get lost? Do you get stuck on a word and then miss the rest of the sentence? It can be very stressful to try to listen and understand every word that’s being said. Teachers might say ‘stop translating in your head’ when you’re listening but often in a conversation there’s no time to translate anyway – then this piece of advice is really useless too. Sometimes there’s no time to even ‘think in English’ when you’re listening to rapid English – so then what do you do?

Listen for your general understanding first, try to catch the keywords. Concentrate on these keywords.  Depending on the situation you might find you’ve understood about 80% of the conversation – your keywords would be the words you didn’t understand. If you’ve understood 20% of the conversation the keywords would be the ones you do understand. Now use your keywords to clarify.

But don’t just say ‘Could you repeat that?’ If you ask for repetition the asker will probably just repeat the same thing and you’ll be no clearer. Ask questions like ‘I’m sorry, do you want to know when/how?’ ‘Did you ask me about my education?’ ‘Do you want to know about my children?’


Are you still worried about ‘thinking in English’? Instead of training your brain to ‘think in English’ use these other strategies to understand English and use it better.

What’s your biggest struggle with learning English? Let me know below.

If you want to boost your English quickly, spend the day with me chatting via voice messages. It’s a fun and easy way to feel better about your English by tomorrow! Get all the details here 


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