I quite often get told, whether by students of foreign languages, or in learning material aimed at them, that I’ll know when I’m making progress when I can ‘think’ in the language I’m learning.
Ergo, if I can’t ‘think’ in a foreign language, I’m doing something wrong, and/or still have a way to go.
Personally, I think this is nonsense.
,What does ‘think’ mean, for a start? And what has ‘thinking’ got to do with speaking, or writing?
“Well, a LOT!” you might reply. To speak CORRECTLY you obviously need to think through your conjugations, review the gender of your nouns, verify that the adjectives and the nouns agree in number and gender, and so on and so forth. First. Before opening your mouth.
Nonsense! I reply. That’s not how ‘speaking’ is at all. When we interact in a foreign language using speech, so producing vowel sounds, and modifying the positions of our lips and tongues to add consonants to them, what we’re doing is not ‘thinking’, but engaging in a physical act, which will have been learned over a period of time, until it becomes familiar, so automatic.
It’s not ‘thinking’, it’s ‘doing’.
And if your spoken Italian is not automatic, then not only will you not be ‘thinking’ in a foreign language, you will likely not be actually using it to produce anything that approximates natural speech.
The occasional preplanned, grammatically-coherent utterance, ennunciated clearly and delivered solemnly only once you’re sure that everyone is listening attentively, may have involved some careful thought on your part, but bears little resemblance to a normal speech act.
When someone greets you with ‘Ciao!’ and you reply, ‘Ciao!’, THAT’s a normal speech act – one that didn’t reply either ‘thinking about’ or ‘thinking in’.
Language, for the most part, is habit, like how you clean your teeth, or use the toilet.
When an Italian driver cuts me up at a junction, or pulls in sharply after passing, forcing me to hit the brakes, I have a range of handy, automatic responses.
They’re all curse words, and these days all in English, so as not to teach Roomie things that would shock the dade at her zoo.
Stimulus > response! No thinking needed.
Do you dream in color?
Of course, that’s a silly question.
Dreaming isn’t like watching Netflix, nor is it like looking away from the screen you’re reading this on and noticing the hues that surround you. The warm color of the pine table my laptop is sitting on as I type, the brown spots on the banana in the fruit bowl to my right, and so on.
You don’t use your eyes when you dream, just as you probably don’t use your language skills (unless you talk outloud as you sleep), not in your native tongue, or in your foreign language or languages.
Not to say you can’t dream ABOUT language, just as you might dream about work traumas, or debts.
But you don’t dream IN a language, as you don’t dream in black and white, color, or infrared for that matter.
Dreaming, like speaking, like writing if done well, is an automatic process, an output of the brain using learned resources and calling on past experience.
The learned resources and past experiences that make up your knowledge of your native tongue come from the many years when you were a child.
And not only, as adults are continuously learning new words, idioms, expressions, and so on, too. One of the things we notice when meeting someone who is very old, and perhaps rather isolated, is that their language seems dated, as if they have fallen behind the rest of the world. Because they probably have (unless they watch a lot of TV, of course.) There comes a time when keeping up is too much hassle.
So, want to speak (and understand) Italian AUTOMATICALLY? Without having to think about it?
INPUT is the key.
Reading and listening, as much as possible, as often as possible, if not continuously, then as near to continuously as you can manage.
No matter that it’s hard, lascia stare that you don’t understand much at first. Just do it.
Without input, and vast quantities of it – hours, days, weeks, months, years – any other approach to language learning, such as for example deliberate study and memoriziation, is ineffective and sterile.
Not to say that studying and memorization are a waste of time, but that’s only one way, and without INPUT, there’s no fertile ground for the seeds to grow in.
Studying = thinking ABOUT a foreign language, not thinking in it.
Watching a TV series in the language you’re learning, with or without subtitles in that same language = thinking IN that language.
Or better, avoiding the ‘thinking in’ fallacy = using your learned resources and experience to make what sense you can, even if that’s not very much.
Hence, by the way, you shouldn’t be watching an Italian movie with English subtitles. It totally helps you enjoy the film, but is close to pointless if your goal is to improve your language skills.
Così, gotta go, but remember – it’s the doing it that matters, not the knowing how to do it, or even the doing it well.
We don’t analyse life before we begin to live it.
Nor should we waste time trying to master the grammar of a new language before forcusing on our communication skills.
Don’t forget to read/listen to Thursday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news, which is free.
As is subscribing, and so getting free bulletins via email each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning.
Read/listen to each one and within a few months you’ll notice a difference in your Italian!