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How can we help our students think in English?

Student: “Depend of how people is”.
Professor: “Oh, you mean IT DEPENDS ON how people ARE?”
Student: “Yes, depend of how people is”.

Later on…

Professor: Guys, remember you must not think in Spanish when speaking in English; otherwise you make mistakes.
Student: But professor, how can we think in English?

Whenever a situation like this occurs in my EFL class, I remember when I was a student. I kept hearing my professors saying: “You have to think in English”, but I always wondered: “How can I do that?” Now my students are the ones who ask me that, and although I try to recall the exact moment when I finally managed to do so and how I did it, it is difficult. Is it probably because this fascinating instant happens without us noticing it? Can someone realize when he or she is thinking in the language being learned?
Thinking in English while learning it is definitely a challenge for students, especially the ones immersed in an EFL environment. Since learners practice the language mainly in class, the process of acquiring English demands more time, effort and persistence. Nevertheless, this goal can certainly be achieved; we have all experienced it ourselves, regardless of having been in an ESL or EFL context. So, what about our students? Can we explain to them how to think in English?
Beginners are, by far, the ones who experience more difficulty when having to think in another language since they lack a good command of grammatical structures, pronunciation, and their vocabulary is usually limited. However, this does not imply that students in other proficiency levels do not experience this challenge; it might occur but to a lesser extent. Given that students at the beginning levels struggle more with having thoughts in English, they need to be encouraged to monitor their speech, realize when they use the wrong structures, be able to correct them and avoid making the same mistakes again. Obviously, they must be aware of how necessary it is to think in the second or foreign language and how this helps them improve their level.
But, is it really crucial to think in the language being learned? What are the consequences of thinking in the L1? Are they merely negative? Teaching English to Spanish speakers has made me realize students make fewer mistakes in grammar and pronunciation if they avoid thinking in their mother tongue. If they speak or write in English while thinking in Spanish, their ideas would probably be confusing because of the many mistakes. When this occurs in my EFL class, I can immediately notice it as a result of being a Spanish speaker myself. This means that speaking the same language our students do, either as an L1 or L2, is an advantage for us teachers in terms of identifying errors.  
During my college years I learned to think in English; I rarely had any contact with native speakers of English, though, and all my professors were Costa Rican. But I do remember them telling me some tips on how I could manage to think in the foreign language: thinking in English 24/7, reading extensively, keeping a journal, watching TV, listening to music, talking to others, and so on. I am certain that helped me a lot. The experience of successfully learning English as an EFL student was truly beneficial when studying my third language, Portuguese. I can say it was much easier for me to be aware of not thinking in Spanish when speaking Portuguese, despite of how similar these two languages are.   
Some people might say that in order to think in another language, it is essential to live in a country where that language is spoken. I cannot deny that being surrounded by English helps in an incredible way, it does without a doubt; however, it is not the only way to reach that goal. We as ESL and EFL teachers should make our students understand the importance of thinking in English, especially at the beginning level, since this will make the teaching and learning process very effective. A way to do this is by creating awareness, offering ideas for thinking in English, encouraging them to practice the language at all times, monitoring them and teaching them how to monitor themselves, among others.
What are your insights regarding this matter? Do you recall not being able to think in English or other languages? Do you remember the moment when you did? Would you like to share any experiences with students on this topic? What do you do to help your students think in English?

Nuria Villalobos was born and raised in a Spanish-speaking family in Costa Rica and currently teaches English as a Foreign Language there, at Universidad Nacional.


  1. English is one of my first languages, so I'll comment on German, which was the first foreign language I learned.

    I started learning German as an adult in 1997 and would frequently translate in my head what I heard in German (for example, the teacher's questions or comments) into English before translating my answers or responses from English and then finally articulating them in what must have sounded like painful German. It was so very slow, as all of you who have done that in your own L2 learning journey would testify. I'd wanted to be perfect - grammar, vocab, pronunciation and what-have-you - but of course I was hardly ever perfect, at least not fluently so!

    The teacher kept nudging me not to translate, but to think in German, and I thought, "How on earth do you do that? Of course I want to do that! Ah, you're a native German speaker, easy for you to say!" After a few months - I can't quite recall - I was better able to "think in German", and when I did, I looked less like an idiot because at least some gap-fillers like, "also" (well), "guck mal" (look) or "sag mal" (say) started flowing out. The same thing happened when I was learning Korean about 5 years ago. It took me a shorter time now before my head was swimming with the music (rhythm, intonation etc) of Korean words, phrases, clauses and sentences, and it was quite hard not to at least start thinking in Korean!

    I don't know how to think in the target language except to allow myself to. I gave up being - or needing to be - correct and precise all the time. I didn't always have to sound too intelligent. After all, learning a language is both a science and an art, and learning an L2 in particular is a highly rewarding and richly humbling experience!

  2. Spanish and English are my first languages, so I can tell you I find myself "thinking" and speaking in either language.
    As a teacher, however, what I noticed was that when we included collocations from the very fist levels as part of vocabulary; i.e., teaching "to depend on" instead of "to depend," dramatically reduced the common mistakes that we interpreted as 'not thinking in English.'
    In today's world it is a lot easier to ask students to be exposed to as much English as possible since satellite TV and internet access make any language available almost anywhere. In some developing countries, such as Mexico, however, these services are not always affordable.
    In EFL schools we can create English-only environments where students use the language from the moment they walk in. They can communicate in English with the secretary, greet the office boys, and have personal conversations with coordinators and teachers. The clue, I believe, is taking English out of the classroom and using it to express themselves freely. One day, as if by magic, people start thinking in English.
    I have asked several students and co-workers when and how this happened, and no one seems to know!

  3. It's been an intruguing question for me. For a long time, I've been interested in teaching my ESL students to think in English. Growing up in China, I didn't have the kind of language environment my students enjoy in the US. However, I've found some approaches helpful in my effort to think in English during my early years of English study. I often ask my students to try them out.

    1. Reading aloud - daily sustained reading of texts written by native speakers of English. Novels are a good choice as they help create vivid mental images.

    2. Writing journals - another daily regimen - writing without stopping. This practice is an added bonus for ESL learners as it only only helps them record/reflect on their thoughts and experiences but also forces them to think in English with no time to translate from their native languages.

    3. Using a monolingual dictionary. Selecting a level-appropriate dictionary is crucial, but there's no lack of choices in the market now. I especially try to disuade my students from using the electronic dictionaries produced overseas.

    4. Talking in authentic situations. I have my students call 1-800 numbers (travel agencies, government offices, etc.) to inquire something they might be interested in. On those non-face-to-face occasions, they feel less intimidated and more willing to take the risk.

  4. Those are great suggestions, thanks for sharing them with us!

    Teaching collocations is really important and necessary to avoid future mistakes, I totally agree with that. The ideas Lin told us are also pretty useful! I find that when students watch movies, sitcoms and others with the audio and subtitles in English, they internalize the language even more, which can help them think in English. The same with music.

    What about dreaming in English or in any other language? Have you experienced this? Some people say that dreaming is a synonym of having internalized that language, but others disagree. What is your opinion about it?

  5. My first language is Spanish, and I studied English as a second language and also French.I totally agree with Nuria because I can remember my Professors asking me to think in the language I was learning. At the beginning I wondered, How is it possible for me to think in English if I don't speak English? Learning English was my dream so I immersed in my ESL practices. I didn't realize when I started thinking in English but I noticed that it was not necessary for me to get the idea in Spanish when speaking or writing as I did before.As an English teacher, I say my students that they don't have to think in English.Most of them argue because as they say, they are not English Speakers;it is the time when I tell them how was my experience as ESL student. I ask them to avoid translating words because it doesn't function. What I recommend is to read loudly in order to get skills with pronunciation but also getting the message in English, later on, it is so helpful to write creative writing about the reading. Thanks for sharing your suggestions with us! They'll be so helpful.

  6. Hi,My name is Augusto from Colombia and my first language is Spanish, I am an English teacher in my contry.Well, the experience with English is great , fantastic and amazing because living in a latin contry as mine is quite difficult to master a second language in this case English.
    I began studying it on my own when I was 12, I recall studying with my uncles`s Course for months, but i wanted to learn it because I love it, it is in my blood, and I couldn travel to USA to live and to learn it.
    But I never gave up on my dreams, so I put a lot effort into it and never translated words from Spanish into English because I knew it doesn`t work and would be adquiring a bad habit, I realized that translating words from Spanish into English will slow down the process of learning.
    there are many tips that I use to get the habit of thinking in English such as translating words that I hear outside, watching tv in English, movies in English and subtitles in English as well, or just talking to myself in English. I good technique is to imagine someone in front of you who you are talking to, and practice , practice and practice. people dont come to realize how important and crucial is to practice listening and set aside time for it. I am always listening podcasts, radio, news on my ipod or tv.I never misuse my time because time is important is worthy in the process of learning.Sometimes I dream in English and that is a good signal because I know that my technique is working out.

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