Several years ago, I was talking with a young ESL student of mine in South Korea. She excitedly told me that she had just had a dream that was all in English. I remember feeling happy for her, but also a little jealous. My Korean wasn’t good enough for me to reach that cool milestone. (And it still isn’t.) A few of her classmates, who were present, also looked a little sad too. In Korea (and many other non-English speaking countries), students see the ability to dream and think in English as the best measure of English learning success.
If you have reached the point where you can think in English, that’s awesome! If you want to get to that point, that’s cool too. But it’s also important for English learners to know that they never absolutely need to get to that point. In fact, there are quite a few advantages to thinking in your native language while you study English or learn in English.
Mentally translating English words and sentences into your own language can help your comprehension. Even if you know some English words fairly well, you probably know your home language’s version of the words even better. And you’re probably more comfortable with words in your native language. So thinking in your language while taking in English can boost confidence as well as understanding.
Taking a moment to think in your language can also help a lot when you get stuck, and can’t quite find the right English word to say or write. Recently, a student of mine from Saudi Arabia was trying to describe how he felt about life in big cities. He couldn’t quite find the right word to describe his feelings. I asked him what the word would be in Arabic, and he said something like “غير ودي.” (I have reproduced his word via Google translate.) I then asked him to explain in English what “غير ودي” meant. He told me it meant “not friendly.” And by doing that, he found the word he’d been looking for. He wanted to say that he found people in big cities to be “unfriendly!” (You may or may not agree with this if you come from a big city, of course…)
So pausing for a moment to think of the right words in your first language can be a powerful tool for better English speaking and writing.
Even after reading this, you may still feel like learning to think in English is a good goal. If you do feel that way, reach for it! But if you’re not there yet, don’t get discouraged. You can be very good at English without actually thinking in the language.