To Think In English Or Not To Think In English?

English As A Second Language Fluency Tips
Summary: Someone recently asked me if it's necessary to think in English to become a fluent speaker. Students are often advised by teachers to do so, but why? Here, I look at the question in terms of accelerated learning approaches that blend eLearning tools with coaching for best fluency results.

Do You Need To Think In English To Speak Fluently?

Someone asked me lately if thinking in English is necessary for non-English speakers to learn to speak fluently. We often tell our students that it's important, but we don't explain why. I had just finished designing my new module "Build your fluency-start thinking in English" for an eLearning platform, so the timing was perfect!

eLearning Module Design

It is worth noting that in the process of designing the module, breaking down my previously face-to-face intuitive instructions, building the elements into a sequential program, creating step-by-step instructions, and graduated exercises in fluency-building tools, I came to a better understanding of those processes I use with students every day. Creating eLearning modules has been a great teacher for me in terms of deepening my faith in my methodologies and simplifying those methodologies for ease of use in self-access modules. I should stress that, for me, blending eLearning with a coaching element brings the best results in terms of accelerated fluency building.

Coming Back To The Issue Of Fluency Itself

Let's first look at the term "fluency." When someone tells me "I need better fluency for my job," I start by checking in what way is their English communication not working for them. Some typical replies I've received from new clients are:

  • I feel embarrassed by my hesitation, and the other person often gets uncomfortable too.
  • People don't seem to get my point easily.
  • I often get a surprising reply, and others look confused.
  • When I try to speak a little faster it seems to make things worse!
  • People don't catch my words sometimes.
  • We are speaking the same language, but it sounds like different versions.

It seems that the problem is for second language speakers then. Their ideas don't emerge as natural English. Something gets lost in translation. This may apply equally to first language users lacking fluency in a specific area.

Hesitancy and wordiness are often big issues for both speakers and listeners. They can be closely associated with confidence in speaking, especially around fluent speakers. This lack of confidence requires particular attention in fluency training courses.

Lost In Translation

This is the root of the problem: translation. It is common for speakers of other languages to mentally translate as they speak, which seldom works, especially when speaking quickly because sounds, structures, and phrases coming in from their own language can make meaning unrecognizable.

We Think Ιn Μeaningful Chunks, Not Individual Words

The reason why translating doesn't work is because we think in meaningful segments of language (imagery, idiomatic expressions, learned phrases), not words, often pulling them from aural memory. Such language segments aren't necessarily appropriate or effective in another language.

So, what is the most effective way to learn to express thoughts in a second language? Is it thinking in English? Is this even possible for any but the truly bilingual speaker?

To Think In English Or Not To Think In English?

The thought process is certainly not my area of expertise, but we can speak broadly about what happens when a fluent, native English speaker thinks in English and expresses their thoughts in fluent speech [1].

Basically, when a thought starts to form, the brain has to search huge libraries of structures and language segments created over a lifetime in order to find the best way to express it. Then there is the creative formation of sentences combined with the appropriate sound patterns. Refer to Dr. Arkady Zilberman's article on this site regarding the complexity of the task.

On the other hand, for non-native speakers, the search for the best expression of the idea occurs in a much more limited language stock. Reverting to translation is a natural result. There is also the problem of where to place segments and what sound patterns apply. The result can be hesitancy, poor construction, wordiness, lack of clarity, and unintended meanings.

English As A Second Language: The Goal Of Fluency Training

What is possible for second language users to learn is to speak with less hesitation, to sound natural and clear most of the time, and to make an impact. This is the purpose of the kind of fluency training I do. My approach involves a degree of thinking directly in English but only a chunk* at a time. It also involves learning how sounds flow together in English and the importance of sound in supporting meaning. Mostly it involves knowing and using words, phrases, and constructions commonly used by first language speakers and if this sounds like copying, well it is! Remember, it's not necessary to reinvent the wheel.

Methodology And eLearning

In terms of the methodology for developing these areas of language, the most direct route is to focus on aural learning: creating sound memories of the target language rather than purely visual memories. The sound memories can be created in an eLearning course through extensive audio material, thinking aloud when reading, and self-recording exercises. In fact, a self-paced course has an advantage here as these aural processes tend to be individual to the learner.

Coming Back To Thinking In English In Chunks

The first step is to start learning the language in larger chunks. If you want your learned language to come together for you when you start to speak, then it's best to learn whole expressions (aurally, not just visually) and structures they can pour into. This way you can draw on them at speed to express your idea in the form of chunks of meaningful speech, instead of full sentences, as in "I'm sorry but (signal chunk) // I haven't finished the document yet (main chunk) // as I don't have up-to-date data" (secondary chunk).

* Chunk= a natural grouping of words/phrases that convey meaningful information

Additional Sources:

[1] Do you need to think in English to speak fluently?

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