I remember being a little surprised not too long ago to learn that an advanced student of mine had yet to dream in English. At some point when a learner is immersed in his or her studies, it seems likely that conscious practice in the daytime will slip into the subconscious at night. When I was studying Russian on a regular basis, I eventually began to hear Russian in my dreams. I’m not certain all the speakers in my nocturnal dramas used correct grammar or possessed a vast vocabulary, but they did speak Russian.
Do you agree that dreaming in the target language is an indication that a learner has begun to think in the target language? I haven’t done any research on this to support my claim, but it’s long been an assumption of mine. I think a dream in the target language is cause for a celebration. Enough language has been internalized that it surfaces naturally, without effort, and in a meaningful (though possibly bizarre) way. I hope all ELLs have a dream in English now and again.
From time to time, students ask me how to stop translating and start thinking automatically in English. I wish I had a great answer, an easy 1-2-3 series of steps that led to spontaneous communication in English. I think it’s a matter of following certain practices over the course of time that leads to automatic use of the target language. What are those practices? Here are a few that come to mind. Perhaps you can help me add to the list.
How Students Can Learn to Think in English
- Focus on meaning. Don’t always worry about being correct. Concern yourself with being understood.
- Learn common expressions and whole lines of text that serve a specific purpose, from How’s it going today? to I’m sorry s/he’s not here right now. May I take a message? Repetitive use will make those utterances automatic.
- Learn to have fun in English. Sing songs, tell jokes, watch movies, share a glass of wine and chat in English. Anything that focuses your attention on enjoyment and relieves you of stress and self-consciousness.
- Put yourself in situations where communication is key and your existing knowledge of English is valued by others. International college students can teach one another how to cook a dish from their native countries. An EFL student might find an opportunity to volunteer as a tour guide.