Don’t Try Just to THINK in English – Speak It All Out LOUD!

by Robby on July 10, 2014

Don't just think in English - speak at the same time!

Improve Spoken English

Way back in 2012 I published an article about the importance of thinking in English if you’re serious about your English fluency development.

The reason I wrote the said piece was because one of the primary causes of foreign English speakers’ fluency issues is translation from one’s native language when speaking in English which is a direct consequence of the traditional English studies.

You see, if you’re studying the English language the traditional way, you’re bound to start translating when trying to create an English sentence.

You think of what words to say based on how you’d say the same thing in your native language.

You also tend to copy the syntax of sentences from your native language simply because it’s the only know way for you to say or write anything in English.

Basically it all boils down to you THINKING IN YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE.

Changing your life-long habit and starting to THINK IN ENGLISH, therefore, is an absolute must if you want to learn how to speak fluent English – as you can imagine, it’s not really possible if your head if full of thoughts in your native language while you’re trying to say something in English.

What I Didn’t Emphasize in the Original Article

The article in question goes in the very depth of what happens in one’s brain during speech – abstract concepts form themselves followed by thinking and then speaking.

What I didn’t stress well enough, however, is the fact that you shouldn’t be trying just to think in English in your head…

I did imply that the thought process is best maintained by speech, here’s the excerpt from the article:

Well, you see – now you can use this fact to you advantage and make your brain THINK in English by SPEAKING English. The speech process is so closely bound to your thoughts that it will make it quite hard for you to think in your native language when you have a steady and controlled speech going on.

At the time of writing the article I figured it goes without saying that when you’re trying to think in English, it has to go hand in hand with speech and the two – thinking and speaking – are inseparable as far as dealing with the English fluency issues is concerned.

Recently, however, it came to light that the concept of THINKING AND SPEAKING out loud at the same time is still quite new to many people – please watch this video!

And when I come to think of it, it’s only natural that my blog readers try to develop their ability to think in English inside their mind ONLY having read my article which clearly says: “How to Develop Your Ability to THINK in English”.

Thinking isn’t Structured the Same Way as Speaking

The simple fact of the matter is, it’s very, very hard to form a coherent, well-structured speech inside your head.

If you think about it, you’ll have to admit that for the most part you don’t even think in your native language the SAME way you’d speak in your native language!

When you speak, your mouth forms sentences.

When you think, your brain mostly operates with abstract concepts occasionally punctuated by some words.

That’s why it’s so easy for anyone to have totally unproductive thoughts – you’re trying to come up with a solution to a problem, for example, but your mind simply keeps going around in circles simply because the thought process lacks the logical structure of speech.

The same goes with the English language – while speech has a very logical structure to it, thoughts are way more abstract, vague and difficult to capture.

What Happens When You’re Trying to Think Inside Your Head in English Without Any Mouth Movement Whatsoever

Our native language is imprinted into our mind.

From the moment you open your eyes in the morning, various thoughts start popping up in your mind – plans for the brand new day, memories from the day before and a whole lot more.

Now, it’s crucial to recognize two things.

First of all, all these thoughts are mental imagery for the most part.

Secondly, your native language is closely tied with those mental images and abstract thoughts.

So, if you try just to THINK inside your head in English, you’re faced with the very difficult task of re-structuring your entire mind to operate with English-based concepts.

Why it’s hard?

The answer is quite simple:

If you haven’t attained English fluency when you’re speaking, it’s even more difficult to do it at the level of abstract thinking!

You’ll still keep having the same intrusive thoughts in your native language, and the whole thought process is still going to be quite messy and lacking structure (as is ANY thought process in ANY language – yet you’ll be blaming your inability to learn how to think in English for it!)

What Do I Actually Mean When Saying “Think in English”?

Whenever I say the following on my blog:

  • You’ve got to learn to think in English
  • You have to stop thinking in your native language and start to think in English instead
  • Thinking in English is one of the pre-requisites for fluent speech etc.

I never actually mean that you have to be able to get rid of your native language in your mind and substitute it with English even when your mind wanders and you’re allowing various thoughts to appear in your head by themselves.

Guess what?

Even I haven’t achieved such a state yet after all these years spent in an English speaking country and constantly engaging in conversations with other people and speaking with myself!

What I mean by “Thinking in English” is the ability to SPEAK, READ, WRITE in English and LISTEN to English without any involvement of your native language.

You see, the thing is that when you read, for example, (regardless of whether you read aloud or quietly) the content you’re reading is also being echoed in your mind and your native language is simple shut off.

Same goes with writing and listening – the external English content insures your native language can’t intrude your mind at the same time (unless you’re trying to translate from English into your native tongue or vice versa – but you should never attempt to do that!)

Speaking is the most difficult of them all because all of a sudden you have to produce verbal content and that’s when the typical English fluency issues occur – you have native language words appearing in your mind, you hesitate and you can’t find the right words to say.

And now just think about it for a moment.

If learning to SPEAK fluent English is quite a task, then why would you try and achieve the impossible and work ONLY with your thought process? It’s much, much harder and it won’t actually result in you being able to speak fluently!

Unless you actually open your mouth and speak (at least in a light whisper), you may work with your thoughts all you want, but you just won’t achieve the same results as if you were speaking and developing your ability to THINK while SPEAKING.

The bottom line is the following:

Your ability to think in English is a SIDE-EFFECT of all your English related activities; it’s not something you can work on directly!

Any questions?

Feel free to ask in the comments below!

Robby

P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!

P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!

English Harmony System

  • http://englishharmony.com/ Robby Kukurs

    Sure enough, drawing parallels between seemingly unrelated disciplines is very helpful for the simple reason that we can have sudden realizations on how to improve our performance in a given field etc.

    All I was saying was that memorization in maths and language learning happens at a different level of understanding, if you like (with a lot of things being very similar as you rightly pointed out!)

    Many maths students learn specific trigonometry formulas involving sine and cosine without any understanding whatsoever what they actually represent in terms of the unit circle; and they can successfully complete certain tasks automatically.

    In English learning, such mechanic memorization doesn’t actually avail of any practical application unless you actually have that deeper understanding what it means (which would be equivalent to understanding what sine and cosine truly represent, for example) – that’s why the two are slightly different, in my opinion.

    By and large, however, the concepts are similar, and I agree with you on that!

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Juhapekka

    I think that you’re probably right when you’re saying that we can’t really draw parallels between the two different math schools and English learning but it’s sometimes very useful to look for surprising connections between two (maybe superficially or maybe not) different things because there is many examples of this how two superficially completely different things are actually deeply very similar to each other in science and mathematics or generally in life. And this skill, to distinguish which things are truly different and which things are only superficially different and thus very similar or even essentially exactly the same, is one of the most fundamental skills for mathematicians to learn. And I can’t imagine myself to memorize some English word combinations that I don’t understand and then use them in my writing or in my speech. Of course, there are the different levels of the understandings of word combinations and how, where and when use them and that’s why I can use some word combinations inappropriately in my writing or in my speech because I haven’t sufficient deep understanding about this or that particular word combination but this problem is perhaps simply gone if I learn those word combinations contextually in appropriate and natural situations and without overwhelming my mind too much.

    Speaking more about the role of memorization in mathematics learning process I think you’re right. And when I wrote “memorizing formulas” or something similar in Google, I found many tips how to memorize formulas and then warnings that you shouldn’t memorize them and so on and so forth. And it seems there is active debate about the usefulness of memorization. But anyway after all it’s quite easy to memorize mathematical formulas and to understand them superficially and thus you can apply them mechanically to many different situations. (And clearly if anyone memorize formulas without any understanding, they are only the collections of nonsensical symbols for him and hopefully in reality no one is so ignorant for understanding.) It’s quite good achievement to apply formulas mechanically for different situations (or if you can apply them creatively, it’s much, much better) if you’re in high school but in university it’s not sufficient at all. And even if you had memorized formulas incredibly well by heart that you can recall them even without consulting your memory and you could apply them to any imaginable situation, it’s not sufficient achievement in university mathematics. You should understand the nature of formulas and their proofs so well that applying formulas is a piece of cake. Real life is still real life in universities, though, because many students have sometimes difficulties to apply them and not even to speak of understanding them very deeply. I remember very well how hard it was to prove very simple formula or theorem at the beginning of my studies and it’s still difficult for me to prove anything. But unfortunately it’s quite common problem among students and one reason for it is that we hadn’t practiced proofs sufficiently in our math classes in school. This lack of proving practice is somehow comparable to the lack of sufficient listening and speaking practice in English classes. Because I didn’t listen English sufficiently in school I couldn’t understand spoken English at all and same goes to speaking in English and to proving practice in mathematics.

  • http://englishharmony.com/ Robby Kukurs

    When writing my response, it kind of went without saying that any hard-to-understand sentence that one may memorize would have to consist of words/concepts that one is more or less familiar with for the whole technique to be workable, so I totally agree on a total uselessness of anyone learning something that they completely haven’t got a clue about.

    So basically what I’m saying is – yes, I wholeheartedly agree with you on the following – you have to have your mind prepared previously to memorize something and then expect your mind to have the subconscious “light-bulb moment” where it suddenly makes sense of a memorized sentence/phrase etc.

    Now, speaking of the following “Some say that you mustn’t memorized anything (neither sentences you can understand nor sentences you can’t understand) because in mathematics you should be able to formulate all sentences from very simple obvious facts that everyone knows and therefore it’s better you learn to formulate necessary mathematical sentences and theorems from these obvious facts without consulting your memory at all from the very beginning” – I’d like to point out that once you’ve truly MEMORIZED something in English, for example, you don’t even need to consult your memory. It just HAPPENS.

    I guess that in terms of mathematics what they mean by saying one mustn’t memorize anything is the following – one mustn’t memorize anything automatically (like a formula, for example) without understanding the workings and principles behind it. If we transfer that onto language learning and improvement, I believe it’s pretty impossible for anyone to try and cram something they haven’t got a clue about and then expect it to work in a live speech, for example. In maths, it’s more doable – you can, for example, apply a formula to solve an equation but eventually you still don’t know the real meaning of what it is that you’ve solved – you’ve just got answers but you can’t explain what they actually represent etc. I can’t see this happening in English learning though – when you say/write something, you have to have an understanding of what it means so I believe that we can’t really draw parallels between the two different maths schools English learning because memorization and practical application of the learned knowledge without understanding what it actually represents can’t really happen when one speaks/writes in English.

    What do you think?

  • Juhapekka

    Thanks for your encouraging words, Robby! Although I write slowly and sometimes I struggle with some simple aspects of written English like word order because in my native language Finnish you can use almost any word order you ever like and those native habits tend to transfer into my written English.

    Speaking of the technique where I have memorized hard to understand sentences, I have to remind myself sometimes that it isn’t any kind of magic technique where you simply memorize sentences and then you suddenly understand the meanings after some days. It’s quite clear that it doesn’t work like that because the essential prerequisite for this is that your mind is CONSCIOUSLY PREPARED TO WORK SUBCONSCIOUSLY with the same concepts and sentences. I mean by the previous sentence that before I memorize some hard to understand sentences I have thought about the possible meanings of them quite a lot already and I have worked with and thought about the similar concepts and sentences of the same subject for many months as long as I learn to understand them consciously or I have noticed that I’m in some kind of stalemate and my mind keeps going around circles, the same unproductive thought processes over and over again. And after this long conscious thought process I memorize some hard to understand key sentences from the topics that I haven’t understood and only then your subconscious mind can do this “magic trick” that you’ll suddenly understand the meanings and the connections between them. Maybe it can work also in reverse order where you memorize hard-to-understand sentences first or in any stage of thought process and then you think about them and you continue working with similar topics and in the some stage you can suddenly understand the meanings.
    However, the sufficient conscious effort is the crucial factor but subconscious mind is also crucial as well and also sufficient overall context whereof your mind can infer the meanings. To understand this relation better we can think about running, for example. In order to develop your running you have to run but without sufficient rest and relaxation our fitness doesn’t improve. In fact, I have read that fitness improvement happens in rest according to some researchers. One of my older friends told once that he had run his records after the time when he had been sick because he was very hard-working runner and he didn’t rest sufficiently but sickness forced him to rest. The same goes also with thinking. But in the case of thinking I’m afraid that without the conscious long effort memorized incomprehensible sentences remain just quite similar incomprehensible sentences for you and even after long periods of time you feel as if they’d be pure nonsense. It’s however personal which of these two (effort or rest) is more a problem. To support these claims I quote also some famous proverbs: Firstly: Intuition doesn’t come to an unprepared mind.(Probably from Thomas Alva Edison or from Albert Einstein. I’m not sure.) And secondly: Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.(From Edison.)
    One topic we (and also Benny Lewis in his own blog) wrote about in the comments before came to my mind again and it’s relation between passive listening (which is actually hearing by the definition of the word), active listening and speaking because above mentioned proverbs apply also to listening comprehension and speaking. But anyway, no matter what the truth is about passive and active listening and speaking or about memorizing sentences, everyone has to be careful choosing the best approach because tendency to self-deception and thus tendency to choose easier option belongs to human nature as you, Robby, have said many times.

    By the way, actually by exaggerating there is two school of thoughts in one of my subjects, mathematics, when it comes to memorizing in mathematics learning process: Some say that you mustn’t memorized anything (neither sentences you can understand nor sentences you can’t understand) because in mathematics you should be able to formulate all sentences from very simple obvious facts that everyone knows and therefore it’s better you learn to formulate necessary mathematical sentences and theorems from these obvious facts without consulting your memory at all from the very beginning. And on the other hand others say that you should memorize sentences that you don’t understand because then your subconscious mind can work with them.
    I don’t know what is truth about this mathematical issue and I was a bit confused about it at the beginning of my studies but the first school of thought (where you don’t memorize anything) is ideal for all mathematicians but I think that probably in practice almost every mathematician has to use memorization as a tool to achieve sufficient understanding and finally they can forget all memorized sentences completely because they know those mathematical sentences so well that they can formulate them from obvious facts which every average Joe knows.(It can sound weird but generally mathematicians think like that.)
    But the memorization of the hard-to-understand sentences doesn’t necessarily work similarly if one’s subject is other than mathematics because sentences usually contain only words but mathematical sentences contain both words and mathematical symbols (though mathematical sentence and ordinary sentence can be exactly the same because you can paraphrase mathematical ideas from mathematical symbols into words at least in theory but this paraphrasing can be difficult even to experienced professional mathematicians). Hopefully this short fact sheet about mathematical background is useful also in the case of English fluency issues. To avoid confusion I mention that I have used the word “sentence” in two different meanings: both as normal linguistic sentence and as mathematical sentence but those two can be exactly the same if you paraphrase from mathematical symbols into words.

  • http://englishharmony.com/ Robby Kukurs

    You really have a way with words, thanks for such a lengthy and thorough comment!!!

    I’m really glad that my writing and video production has helped you to understand the true nature of all these fluency issues and what happens in our foreigners’ brain when we speak in English.

    What I like most about our communication is that every time you publish a comment you make me think of specific aspects of the fluency issues thus making me analyze and think about it even more – for example, you mentioned in your comment a method of repeating sentences and phrases that your brain mightn’t comprehend at that moment in time only to find later on that you can suddenly understand it – and I have to tell you that you’ve put a really interesting angle on it by highlighting this method.

    Sure enough, the principle of memorization and repetition is something I’ve been going on and on about on this blog and guessing meanings of new words as well, however, I never thought specifically about memorizing sentences you find very hard to understand and then letting them “settle” in your brain.

    If anything I would have said that processing hard-to-understand texts would serve little purpose and it’s best to memorize simpler content and then move up a notch.

    Your particular experience with dealing with academic texts (I’ve had more people contacting me about it, by the way!) highlights a problem – what to do if it’s a must-read and people find it hard to comprehend such texts?

    Method like the one you describe seems to be an answer (or at least part of it) but is still leaves the translation issue to be dealt with (as you rightly pointed out) – but then again, I guess you’ve partially answered it as well. I mean – for as long as you’re aware that you shouldn’t build unnatural associations between English words and your native language words and you’re doing your utmost to prevent it (avoid describing new words in your native language, use as much English as possible, or if you absolutely must use your native language as reference then at least don’t hammer it into your brain but allow the realization to sink into your brain and from then on use the English equivalent when thinking about that particular concept) – then you’re fine!

    Keep up the good word and I hope to have more such productive exchange with you in the near future!

    Best wishes,

    Robby

  • http://englishharmony.com/ Robby Kukurs

    I was just about to respond to your e-mail when I noticed you’ve published a comment here – and I’m really glad you found the answer to your question in the article above!

    Any more questions – let me know!

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Anubhav

    before i was in habit of thinking in my mind in english and when i think so the best case scenario which occors was that i was able to speak to me eloquently but when it came to speak in front of some one ,the worst thing happened to me and that was “i was not able to pronounce a single sentence also in english.
    A big big big thanks to you my friend for letting me know why this scenario occurs…
    thanks alot

  • Juhapekka

    This clarifies the issue more. After all, I think that it’s too easy for foreigners to make the above elaborated mistake that they are trying to only think in English inside their head in order to solve their English fluency and translation problems from/to their native language. It’s only logical to try to solve the root cause of English fluency problems directly and it can be the right approach as technically but the problem is it’s much too difficult in practice and even if you had accomplished the task that you can think in English you should still learn to speak because your mouth would be uncomfortable and unfamiliar to produce English speech. That’s why you’re astonishingly right in this issue. Thinking in English or in any other foreign language is truly a whole new ball game compared to thinking in your native language because there wasn’t any language words that abstract concepts can associate with in your mind when we were babies and no other language bonds that can interrupt the association process between abstract concepts and English language. And it’s definitely crucial to speak thoughts out loud while thinking as much as possible when English fluency problems are concerned. If some foreigner don’t experience English fluency problems at all it’s not necessarily necessary to speak out loud but it’s still probably beneficial in many cases. I’m also sure that you’re right in your few years old article that abstract concepts and ideas come first. Initially, thinking in itself is just thinking and it doesn’t involve any language in the world (of course thinking and languages are interacting with each other when you have learned your first native language but it’s different thing altogether).

    Most likely the main cause of the difficulty in thinking in English is that when you’re thinking abstract concepts are appearing in your mind and very likely those abstract concepts associate with the words of your native language because the bonds between abstract concepts and native language words are very strong and the bonds with English are too weak if there is any sufficient bonds at all with English words. Associations seems to play very crucial role in language learning process and I have to bear it into my mind when I’m learning or improving English or any other foreign language. I have also noticed that it isn’t usually reasonable to study too difficult materials and it’s much better to develop my overall general English fluency. But, however I must (and usually I also want to) read and study too often too difficult English texts for my university studies and sometimes it seems almost impossible to understand those English texts and not even to speak of thinking in English about those things issued in those texts but I’m becoming slowly better at it when I have followed your advice. Firstly I skim text trying to figure out the main ideas, then I read it through and finally I read it once more but in parts. I read one
    paragraph out loud and then I’m using the same sentence patterns in my speech while I’m trying to speak my thoughts out loud and it’s much easier to do it in English when there is some ready English sentences from text for my mind’s abstract concepts
    to bound with. I can also memorize some key sentences from text but sometimes I don’t understand at all what I have memorized
    and what I’m speaking out loud but the idea of memorizing is that your mind works with those memorized sentences and with
    abstract concepts subconsciously and tomorrow after sleeping I go through the same process once more and finally after some days or even in the same morning I can understand things I hadn’t understand before. Guessing the meaning of new English words plays very crucial role in this process and it’s one thing I have to pay particular attention. Improving your guessing skills is easier said than done especially when I am so used to use dictionaries and the problem is that sometimes dictionaries don’t help and
    they can be also misleading if you’re reading special literature. So, guessing English words from context is sometimes only way forward and I have noticed that there is surprisingly many more or less obvious or subtle hints in texts or then the overall context of text can reveal the meanings and thus if you’re sufficiently patient and attentive you can guess the most meanings from context. Of course, it’s very slow process and sometimes I try to find university books that are easier to read and sometimes I feel it’s better to read easy English fiction instead of too difficult text books and applying the quite similar techniques and thus developing my overall general English and focusing on specific English expressions only if they are essentially crucial for my studies. It’s some kind of mad to read texts which even native English speakers probably find hard to understand and trying to think and speak about them in English when in the same time I have problems to say even the most elementary things in English.

    As the bottom line my difficulties reading academic English texts and speaking about them boils down to the lack of my overall English fluency and other skills that I have difficulties with. There is some techniques to read (and to understand!) difficult English academic texts even if your overall English skills are quite poor. It’s some kind of short-cut to understand academic English texts without developing your English skills at all. But I guess those techniques apply completely only if the structure of English texts follow the structure of academic texts. Some of those structures can be subsconscious and therefore they can be also present in ordinary English texts written by non-academics, maybe. Those techniques are usually taught in academic reading comprehension courses but I’m afraid that if you apply them wrongly they can have very detrimental effect on English fluency because you’re translating almost constantly when you’re applying them. But thanks to your advice, Robby, I can combine the techniques in academic reading comprehension course and your advice such that they haven’t detrimental effect on my fluency. But one problem is still left because I have to translate anyway due to my studies and that’s one challenge more to deal with it. In spite of this, I’m not too worried about it because my English is however improving and that’s the main thing.

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