Lifestyle of A Linguist: A Second Atomic Habit To Take Your Language Skills To The Next Level—Thinking In A Foreign Language

thinking in a foreign language
Best known for his contributions to theoretic physics, Albert Einstein also studied English, French, Italian, and Latin at different stages of his life.

[You can follow me on Twitter @creatorvilla.] Human beings are constantly thinking, and many of those thoughts consist of words. According to The National Science Foundation, the average person thinks anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day. That’s a lot of action between the ears, and with it comes a lot of opportunities to improve language ability. There’s a reason almost all humans are proficient in at least one language. Our brains have evolved to utilize language at a prolific rate, both as passive recipients of the communication of others, and also as active creators of our own. Thinking is something we are already doing all the time, and requires no special time provision.

In the prequel to this article, Lifestyle Of A Linguist: An Atomic Habit To Take Your Language Skills To The Next Level, I talked about the daily habit of interpretation. Many of us studying a foreign language live in a country where our native language is spoken. Practicing interpretation on a daily basis–that is, translating in our minds from our native language to a target language, is an excellent way to advance language skills. I did this for years in college, from English to Spanish, and from English to Arabic, when I was in a lecture that wasn’t particularly important. And I do it from time to time today, if I am watching an English broadcast or otherwise feel like honing my foreign language skills. Check out the article ^ for the complete scoop on interpretation.

Today, I want to talk about another daily language habit that also yields great dividends over time: thinking in a foreign language. When we think in a language all day, it becomes a second nature. Our level of comfort, ease, and fluency in the language dramatically increase over time.. As with interpretation, you want to be at an intermediate level before you begin this process, so you have something of a linguistic base to fuel your efforts.

Thinking in a foreign language, like interpretation, will be laborious at first. There will be a lot of words you don’t know, and it may take you a while to formulate sharp, coherent thoughts. However, in the weeks and months that follow, you will find that both processes get a lot easier, and also more enjoyable. What started out difficult, like running, will wind up being easy, like breathing.

While interpretation and thinking can help us better organize what we already know, they should also be a prompt for further language acquisition. When you first start interpreting and thinking in a foreign language, you will quickly be able to identify words you do not know, or words that you may be able to recognize passively, but that have not become a part of your active vocabulary. Start looking them up. As you research words, structures, phrases, etc. that surface in these processes, your active vocabulary will increase dramatically. As active vocabulary goes up, language level rises.

It’s one thing to hear and recognize a word once a week. Or once a month. That is a kind of passive knowledge. It is another thing to actively create words in context via interpretation or thinking on a regular basis. There is a special fluidity and ease that accompany words that we ourselves routinely use. Words, put differently, that have become a part of our active vocabulary. Interpretation and thinking in a foreign language, to build on the idea of the previous paragraph, help grow and sharpen our active vocabulary.

Today, my level is C2 in Spanish and C1 in Arabic. Lately, I’ve been thinking primarily in Spanish, although some days I will switch over to Arabic. Occasionally, I will interpret from English to Spanish or English to Arabic, as time and interest allow. I can say that these two skills have helped advance my level significantly during the last 7 years. They have also helped me to maintain my language skills when life would otherwise have gotten in the way.

Have you ever experimented with either of these habits?

If you like this post, check out How To Score Superior (C2) On Official ACTFL Listening Proficiency Test (LPT) (5 Pro Tips!).


  1. Thanks for the post! I’m starting to write down words I hear over and over and then trying to look them up later. Sometimes this works, but other times google translate fails me…

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