Speaking a Foreign Language without Translating

Friends of mine have asked me many times: can you really speak Chinese without translating it first in your head? And when I answer yes, the follow-up question is: but how can you get to that point? I have to translate everything!

There’s both an implied lie and a rather direct lie in that follow-up question.

“But how can you get to that point?”

The problem is that it’s not a “point.” There’s no instant when you can suddenly stop translating completely. Rather, you stop translating longer and longer stretches of language. Over time, what was once long stretches of language which needed to be translated, interspersed with only occasional words you understood, eventually becomes long stretches of language which don’t need to be translated, interrupted only by the occasional need for translation.

“I have to translate everything!”

Do you? Do you have to translate 你好 (“hi”)? Do you have to translate 谢谢 (“thank you”)? To tell someone you don’t want something, do you have to consciously translate “I don’t want it” into 不要? Or do you just blurt them out?

Sure, when you first start out, you have to learn these expressions, and then you do have to translate them when you first start using them. But especially if you’re in the target language environment, their usage starts to become automatic quite quickly. I observed 你好 and 谢谢 becoming automatic for my parents during their recent two-week visit. They don’t speak a lot of Chinese, but even they were “speaking without translating” relatively quickly.

With enough practice, more and more words and phrases become automatic. You don’t feel your brain shirking its translation duties; it just happens so naturally. When you finally realize it’s happening, that you’re starting to understand and process not just individual words and short phrases, but whole sentences without even translating them, it feels a little surreal. It’s kind of like one of those Escher works. You really can’t pinpoint at what point the bird became a fish.

But the truth is, if you’ve been not just “studying,” but using your language skills for any length of time, the ebbing of conscious translation has already begun. If you try, you can sort of feel it. It’s this weird sensation called “fluency” creeping up on you, ever so subtly.


John Pasden

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


  1. Matthew Stinson Says: February 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    This is a great post, John. The moment I knew Chinese was really getting into my head is when my English-speaking coworkers said something to me and my possible responses flashed in my head in English and Chinese simultaneously. Like your picture I had no idea when that process actually started happening.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post! I like to listen to Chinese music at work. There was a song that had english and chinese in it, something like – “你是我的 Everything” and I didn’t even notice at first that they were switching back and forth. My brain just understood the meaning. It was weird.

  3. Nice post. That moment when you first realise youre “thinking in Chinese”, that ‘first kiss’, is a great feeling.

    Scientifically, I wonder. You’d know better than I would, but I read a while back that we never actually get to that point with L2. Instead, we’re still translating, we just don’t notice it. In other words the L1 part of the brain still flashes on the screen a moment before the L2 part does, but it’s all so fast that we never realise it.

    Being the same kind of person who tries lucid dreaming, I’ve tried to catch myself having momentary English thoughts while deep in a Mandarin conversation. Of course, doing so pretty much sabotages my groove every time.

    • Do you maybe have references for the L1 flashing before the L2 concept? I’m quite interested in SLA. We all know the L1 transfer that occurs in SLA, but does it really stay there if you don’t notice it anymore?

      Some people claim that acquiring languages needs to be done the same way as a child, ie natural acquisition. No translation into L1 etc etc. Which seems a bit silly to me, as I’ve always thought that a word, is a link to a concept in your mind. The whole lemma/lexeme thing. Thus, if you translate your L2 word into L1 you just establish a quicker route to a concept. Of course there are different boundaries involved, each translation is not the exact same concept.

      So, with time, your L2 word links to its own concept, rather than going past the L1 to the first time you learned that concept. With fluency, both forms L1 and L2 are linked to their own lemmas (sometimes the same one if the translation are closely linked).

    • One of those English ESLs told that me once, it’s seems very counter-intuitive, because I don’t feel like translating, and if we really need to reference to a L1 then we would never forget it, but people who forgot a great core of their L1 (or even the entire language) do exist.
      What CL said makes more sense, a word can first go to word>other word>idea and then move to word>idea

  4. Very interesting post.

    I also can add, that I may generate sentences in my head in all three languages which I have to use everyday.
    But there is no doubt, that there are people who can do it in five, six or more languages.
    Yeah, I always have a feeling that I am too lazy in improving my language skills and need to learn more and more.

  5. I’m starting to think that my brain thinks in L0. I sometime feel like I’m fully aware of something instantly and I have to wait while brain constructs a L1 (English) sentence to describe what I already know.

    It’s almost as if L1 and L2 are constantly pre-caching possible sentences like a search engine prediction does. While I’m sure L2 does get a lot of its input by translating L1, there are definitely situations in my life where L2 is the most practiced and provides the words much faster than L1 does.

  6. What an uplifting post! I came feeling a little down about my progress in recent years and finished feeling great about how much Chinese I do think in at work on a daily basis.

    This really is a glass half-full way of looking at things.

  7. Jared Turner Says: February 22, 2012 at 12:03 am

    This makes sense. A lot of the research I have been reading lately points to the concept that it takes 15 to 20 encounters, more if it is increasingly abstract, with a word until it is truly learnt. At this point the brain will automatically process words and phrases so that you don’t have to start think about the words that you are hearing/using and instead you start to read/listen/speak with ideas the words represent; i.e. the transition to speaking by words to speaking by ideas.
    This definitely makes sense with the most common words we encounter like the ones John pointed out (你好,谢谢, etc), but as we encounter words, phrases, ideas that we have not had sufficient encounters (15-20 or more) to truly learn them in that language, we either have to translate back into the language that we do understand or use other resources to understand.

  8. lynnefrw (Lunchroom English Project) Says: February 22, 2012 at 2:16 am

    This is a wonderful insight to fluency. Language learning should be considered a life-time adventure, and there are always words and expressions that will be new to you. Some will become fluent faster than others and get to the point of non-translation in many areas quickly. If you think about it, there are new vocabulary words, structures and phrases to learn even in your mother tongue. As you say, it’s a gradual process that creeps up on you in a foreign language. Thank you for posting!

  9. I notice it when I have to translate in my head. When I speak a difficult sentence, I will mix up the grammar (usually simple things like putting the time/place at the end because I focus on the noun/verbs). A lot of times I will think over a conversation I had with a bilingual friend here and I cannot remember which language we were speaking.

  10. You ain’t gonna learn a new language if you keep translating. It will mess up nearly everything: grammar, speed, flow.

    Grammar cause you can only translate word by word and not sentence by sentence.

    Speed because you put the translation process in there.

    Flow, because you take every word for itself.

    Just get your basic vocab right and kick out the source language.

  11. M. L. Pasden Says: February 22, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Yes, John, very interesting post. I believe what you described happened to me by the end of my junior year of college spent in Rome. I had had two years’ worth of studies every day, and by the end I could carry on a conversation quite easily a lot of the time, even with some abstract concepts sometimes. It was exhilarating!

  12. SLA, as in, “second language acquisition”? But the world is full of bilinguals! Would it be third to them, or TLA? Why not “new language acquisition”? The process is roughly the same, and gets just easier after, some say, the sixth or so. It all becomes a comfortable mash in your head, and you can activate any one of them by spending 15 minutes in company that uses that language.

    • The term “second language” refers to a non-native language acquired later. So you can actually have plenty of “second languages” (frequently referred to as “L2” in the literature).

  13. […] speaking a foreign language without translating in your […]

  14. I always find it refreshing when I’m in Korea with the in-laws watching KBS and I have no idea what’s going on and then all the sudden I’m following the news and pictures are jumping in my head because they are talking about China and doing an interview with some Chinese bloke. Having to translate means having to push a bunch of buttons in your brain to make it flow; fluency happens when those buttons get pushed automatically.

  15. Jean Park Says: March 30, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    Hi! I found your site from Carlgene’s blog. Another great find for me. I am in an unique situation. I am Chinese who was born & raised in Korea, and attended Chinese overseas school. So I am tri-lingual. I’ve been living in U.S. since 1988, and now I consider my English as the strongest language. But in all conversations, I’d be thinking in three languages simultaneously, so I thought I’d be more than able to translate. But, I was wrong, big time. I am imparting on a journey to become a translator and interpreter, mainly Chinese and conversational Korean. My first move was to take an online translation course as a primer before I try for the in-class NYU medical interpreting certificate program. It is a month into the program ( 1 more month to go), I find myself inadequate in Chinese, gluing myself onto mixtures of online dictionary and my physical & personal dictionary (Continental’s Concise English-Chinese Dictionary). How could this be? Have I misjudged myself? So, here I am, searching the web for some guidance and help. I find many of your topics helpful and can relate to them. Thank you!

  16. Patrick O'Rourke Says: November 29, 2022 at 5:15 pm

    I still have to translate everything into English to understand except for greetings and a couple of other words that are similar to greetings. I’ve been studying for over 8 years now and I’ve visited Brazil 18 times. I practice every day with my girlfriend who only speaks Portuguese and we’ve been doing it for over 5 years now but I still can’t understand her. I have classes, use apps, read and watch movies and YouTube videos but I still can’t read without translating everything and it prevents me from conversing. My son can converse and he’s never studied Portuguese. I need to find a way to learn without translating. Any ideas? Thanks

    • Well, what can you understand? Your girlfriend might be particularly hard to understand (and maybe even a terrible teacher, despite being well-meaning).

      I’d focus on building on what you can understand. This is called “i + 1” in second language acquisition circles. The key is to make the challenge surmountable, but not too easy.

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