Thinking to Oneself Productively

This is a follow-up to an older post of mine called Talking to Oneself Productively, and the advice this time comes from JP Villanueva. I recommend that you read the full post, but here’s the essence of it (emphasis mine):

> Some functional L2 speakers talk about switching languages like throwing a switch; when they hear a language, they start to ‘think’ in that language, sometimes at the detriment of the other languages. A lot of very highly functional L2 speakers, on the other hand, code switch between L1 and L2 when with peers; both for pragmatic reasons, but also for effect… and for fun; in other words, their switch is pretty loose. In any case, regardless of proficiency, it seems to me that the ability to switch the language of the interior monologue is the mark of a functional L2 speaker. I know plenty of ESL people who say “I mostly think in English now” even if they don’t have superior proficiency.

> So if you’re looking for a language learning tip from me, there it is; try switching your interior monologue to the target language. It will be hard at first, but you’ll make new habits, and it will be come easier, especially if you’re immersed in L2. If you’re not immersed, it won’t hurt either. At the very least, it’s communication practice, even though you’re only communicating with yourself.

> What if you don’t know enough words? Then ask someone for the words, duh. And yes, you should try to ask in the target language. L2 interior monologue might be good practice, but remember that real, target language communication feeds your language instinct, the same instinct that got you from zero to fluent in your L1 in under five years.

Obviously, this is advice that becomes useful at a later stage of development than my “Talking to Oneself Productively” advice. My advice can apply to someone still struggling to form coherent sentences, whereas JP’s “inner monologue” advice will be difficult (or at least frustrating/exhausting) to apply without some degree of fluency already under one’s belt.

Still, this is great advice for someone who can communicate (perhaps haltingly), but finds it difficult to get beyond the need to translate everything mentally. It’s easy to shrug off techniques which are purely mental, but I can tell you from my own experience that these work. They also go a long way toward explaining why some people learn languages much more effectively, even though they seem to be engaged in the exact same activities as other learners.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. This makes complete sense to me. In fact, when I was living in Turkey and trying to improve my Turkish, I would try to think in Turkish as much as possible before going to sleep so that I would dream in Turkish. Now I know I have no proof of this (even to myself), but I am convinced that I would sometimes dream in Turkish and that doing so made me more comfortable speaking Turkish. The bottom line is that the more you use a language (in any way), the better you get….

  2. I can switch my inner monologue from English to Chinese pretty easily, but I admit that I don’t do it very often. If I’m actually speaking Chinese then I think exclusively in the language, but for most of my normal thinking it comes out in English.

    What I have found, though, is that when I’m thinking about something that is totally Chinese in context — the things I need for my visa, for instance — I tend to think in Chinese because its less work than thinking in English and switching back into Chinese for terms (in my example, document names) whose English names I don’t know.

  3. I absolutely agree. It’s something my high school German teacher told me (and she was a true polyglot), and advice I have repeated frequently to students and colleagues.

    I’ve also had a similar experience to John B, in that some information is stored in my brain in Chinese (frequently that’s phone numbers and similar such things, for whatever reason).

  4. Thanks for the link, Alto. I was having a French-heavy day at work, and I walked to the subway station feeling bad about my French. Once on the platform I remembered I use to make a concentrated effort to “think” in French (my first L2). I repeated this strategy when I studied other L2s.

    My mind used to race when I lay in bed, waiting to fall asleep (doesn’t happen any more…) so that was the first place I tried switching my thoughts to French. I was only an intermediate speaker at the time, but I filled in the gaps by either creating words (i.e., Frenchifiying English latinate words) or by circumlocution, which is another skill worth practicing. And if there are gaps, there are gaps; in Romance languages, it’s the grammar that needs practice… the words can fall into place later.

    I realized later that I could be thinking in French the rest of the day, as well. And the point I’m trying to make is that I did it as an intermediate speaker; you don’t have to know all the words to do it, just a high tolerance for ambiguity.

    Tolerance for ambiguity is a term from 1970s and 1980s SLA, one of the marks of a successful language learner. Sometimes, when talking to you, Alto, or when reading John B’s blog, I feel like discomfort for ambiguity is a major motivating factor for the two of you. Me, I grew up in a multilingual house, and I can honestly go years without knowing what words and expressions mean.

    I spent a year and a half working with two Mexicans and a Spaniard, willfully ignoring words I didn’t know, never asking, never looking them up. Nowadays I’m speaking more French than Spanish, but when I do speak Spanish, and those words do come up, not only do I seem to know them, but I also have an intuition about them… in other words, I acquired them, rather than learned them. They’re part of my thoughts and habits now.

    Anyway, I digress…

  5. Hmm, I’ve been doing a lot of this recently, and not on purpose. I guess since I listen to so much Chinesepod and other Chinese podcasts throughout the day, it happens.

    Recently, I have caught myself passing by attractive girls here at my college, and thinking to myself “哇!她非常可愛!”

  6. JP,

    Interesting observation… I definitely feel that I have a high tolerance for ambiguity; otherwise I wouldn’t have become relatively fluent in Chinese in just over a year, or relatively fluent in Japanese in a year. However, there are definitely things I want to know, and it does drive me, to some extent.

    I have less of a vocabulary acquisition drive than John B (I like the idea of SRS, but have trouble sticking to it), but when I encounter a new word in a meaningful context, I tend to either learn it in context or look it up later.

    One thing I also do is to treat teachers as people that answer all my questions. I rarely do that to my “conversation partners” when I’m learning the language through practice (they rarely have much metalinguistic awareness anyway), but for me, answering questions is the teacher’s most useful role. (And I did treat you like a Spanish teacher quite a few times…)

  7. Alto, I saw your high tolerance of ambiguity in action in Mexico a year ago! What I meant when I said discomfort for ambiguity was a big motivating factor for you was a reference to writing Newbie lessons, haha!

    I’m glad John B just wrote a post about not working so hard. Because honestly, that man makes learning language look like a full time job. Me, I feel like I ate and drank my way to proficiency; the vocab I didn’t learn from short stories, I learned from dinner conversation. I guess that explains my entertainment-oriented approach to teaching….

    Anyway, having a high tolerance for ambiguity when running a target language interior monologue just means leaving holes in your interior monologue…. and not worrying about it. So you don’t have to wait until you have a higher level to start switching periodically, even if it’s just a small part of the day at first.

    When I studied in Hangzhou, my proficiency was abysmal in all four skills. But we took a language pledge, and spoke little to no English for 6 weeks. I’m not sure if I consciously made an effort to switch off English at that point, but I do remember once the pledge was over, it was awkward to start speaking English full time again, in some funny ways.

    So in some way, my surroundings dictated an interior monologue switch, despite my low level.

  8. JP,

    Hm… definitely a misconception I need to fix, if that’s the way that I’m coming across. Looking at my recent Anki stats, I’ve spent ~1 hour a day reviewing over the last six weeks, and the vast majority of that time has been “in-between” time, on the subway, waiting for meetings to start, etc.

    Becoming professionally literate in Chinese, though, is a lot of damn work, though, and I’m not sure of any way around it.

  9. RE: discomfort with ambiguity (sorry, I read the comments from bottom to top), you’re probably right, for me at least. I don’t think I’m particularly uncomfortable with ambiguity in the short-term (like, when actually talking to people I don’t constantly whip out my dictionary and look things up), but in the long-term I do feel like ambiguity is a problem to be solved.

    Perhaps this is a relic of my translation experience, where ambiguity is an issue that has to be taken care of up front before any real work can be done.

  10. I used the technique as well. I used to “rehearse” before meetings with Chinese engineers. This allowed me to look up any words I needed, or ask my gf how best to say something. All of this in the target language, to me, is a key to successful acquisition.

  11. David Moser Says: November 25, 2009 at 9:57 am

    This is a really fascinating issue, and deserves to be explored more in depth. The only thing I want to add is that, for me, the language “switch”, like the light switch on my desk lamp, is a little faulty, and sometimes flickers between on and off. The result is that often when I’m speaking English, the Chinese switch inputs a little syntactic or grammatical “current”. I’m “in” English, but there’s Chinese lurking there as a disruptive background process. So, for example, I walk into a crowded room and say to my friend “Wow, the people here are really…uh, numerous.” Interference, of course, from a Chinese structure “Zheli de ren zhen duo.” I have a whole file of such Chinese-influenced glitches that I and others have produced over the last decade.

  12. […] Have Shower Conversations. Ah, talking to yourself… and you don’t even have to do it in the shower! My take: Talking to Oneself Productively, later followed by Thinking to Oneself Productively. […]

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