Friday, October 21, 2011

Thinking in different languages

A friend who was visiting from the United States listened to me speaking Turkish with merchants in the Grand Bazaar and then translating our negotiations in Turkish into English for his benefit. “How do you talk in one language and then translate into another one so quickly?” he asked. “What language do you think in while you're talking?”

Until he asked me this, I had not given much thought to which language I function in while speaking. I explained that when conversing in Turkish, I think in Turkish, and when using English, I think in English. Because my friend is monolingual, he found it intriguing that people who speak two or more languages are able to think in a language that is not their native tongue.

My son and I both were raised speaking two languages at home, so for both of us, as bilinguals from the start, it is normal to think in the language we are using. There is no conscious switching over to another language, but rather, it is an automatic action. Even though I am still far from fluent in Turkish, I often have internal dialogues in Turkish instead of English. I have noticed my son does the same thing, sometimes talking to himself in English, sometimes in Turkish. Both of us also dream in different languages -- my son in Turkish and English, while I dream in English, Spanish, Turkish and sometimes even Arabic.

I spoke about this phenomenon with a friend who is a linguist and he explained that this is completely normal and in fact, the desired goal when studying a new language. There is not set amount of time or fluency level that needs to be reached before a student begins to think in another language. It varies from person to person and depends on how much time and effort students put into immersing themselves into the language. For instance, within a few months some students may begin thinking in a new language instead of translating in their head into their native tongue. Other students will take longer. There is no set timeframe, but depends on each individual.

When I speak English to the Turkish students in my son's fifth grade class, I can tell that some of them are beginning to think in English, while others are still listening to the English and translating it into Turkish before responding. The students are also now learning German and Mandarin. If they continue with their studies, eventually all the students should be able to switch between all four languages as they become more confident and fluent. It is interesting to watch my son as he begins learning the two new languages. As he grasps new words and phrases in German and Mandarin, he is starting to see objects in different ways. It will be interesting to see how long it takes before he begins to think in another language.

Learning a new language is not just about learning the words. Instead, one is required to think with a new set of labels for everything around them. Recognizing this, many language courses use pictures and symbols to illustrate the meanings of new words instead of handing out vocabulary lists with translations into one's native language. Using pictures or symbols to teach words helps students to gradually change the labels they have for the world around them. For instance, when I began learning Turkish, I put notes on items throughout the house with the Turkish name written on it. By seeing the notes every day, I began to think of different objects by the Turkish name without translating it first from English. A table automatically became “masa,” the cupboard became “dolap.” This was my first step in not only learning the vocabulary in Turkish, but also the beginning of thinking in Turkish.

Learning to think in a different language is a process that cannot be rushed. It takes time for the mind to adjust to a new language. However, with effort and perseverance, it will happen. Over the many years that I have studied foreign languages, I have felt a sense of accomplishment when I suddenly realized that I was communicating without translating back and forth between my native tongue and the new language. I had found that eventually I not only think in another language, but I begin unconsciously employing the facial expressions and body motions used by native speakers as well.

My monolingual friend found it hard to grasp the idea that people can think as well as speak in different languages, but it is a natural occurrence. While I still struggle daily with Turkish, I know that slowly I understand more of what goes on around me. Learning to think in Turkish was a major step in communication.



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