Thinking In English

Did you know that thinking in English is a habit you can acquire?

by Louis Alexander

We are creatures of habit and we all know from our experience of life that bad habits are the hardest to shake off. The only way to avoid bad habits is not to acquire them in the first place. It is far easier to resist getting into a bad habit than to re-educate your way out of one. Where learning English is concerned, one of the very worst habits you can acquire is mental translation when you want to say or write anything in English. Whenever you do this, you first think of what you want to say in your mother tongue and then attempt to translate it into English. This immediately sets up a barrier to communication. Say, for example, you want to cancel an appointment. You first rehearse in your own language the phrase, 'I'd like to cancel my appointment' and then you attempt to translate it directly into English. You are immediately tongue-tied because you can't recall or don't know the English for 'cancel' and 'appointment'. If you had acquired the habit of thinking in English, the problem wouldn't arise because numerous other ways of expressing yourself would come to mind. You might say, 'I'm sorry, I'm not free tomorrow' or simply, 'I'm afraid I can't come tomorrow', and so on. Very often there aren't exact equivalents between languages. 'I've been invited to a party by John' might prove quite difficult or impossible to translate, whereas if you were thinking in English, you might say, 'John's invited me to a party' or 'I'm John's guest at a party'.

Direct English uses various devices to train you to think in English. For example, you are constantly required to listen to new language without any prior preparation and to try to understand from context any words and phrases which are outside your range. In the conversation exercises, you are asked to role-play the parts of various characters, or to tell us about yourself and your experiences. You are frequently invited to express your own opinions about various topics. You are invited to make notes in English and then refer to them to express your own views. Here, for example, is a typical exercise taken from Direct English Book 4 about the topic of 'fame':

Listen to the questions on the CD and answer them as briefly as possible in English. Refer to the printed questions below only if you need to.

What kinds of people are generally famous and always in the public eye?
What is one of the good things about being famous?
What is one of the bad things?

Would you like to be famous?
Think of a very famous person who's always in the news. Think in English about his or her life and imagine what it would be like to be in that position. Think of the advantages and disadvantages of being famous. Make notes for and against in English.
Look at your notes and talk about the advantages and disadvantages of fame.
You may begin: It's nice to be famous because ... On the other hand ...

Additionally, you can train yourself to make a habit of thinking in English by listening to the BBC World Service and the Voice of America, while providing a mental commentary (in English!) on everything you hear. Once you have acquired the habit of thinking in English, you will never even consider the possibility of translating fixed phrases from your own language into English. Who knows, if you acquire this habit well enough, you might even end up dreaming in English, which would give you a very big surprise!


© LG & DE Limited 2006


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