Getting Students to Dream in English

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

  1. Focus on meaning. Don’t always worry about being correct. Concern yourself with being understood.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Eric Roth says:

    Excellent post!

    Like you, I had a similar recognition about advanced students and their lack of English in their dreams. As a result, I now joke with students that they need English lessons until they dream in English – and they understand entire sentences spoken in English in their dreams. A co-worker asks new students if they dream in English, and follows up with a question about their American dream to check comprehension.

    Of course, teaching international university students and adult immigrants is quite different than teaching EFL students. Yet your insight works with these students too.

    Finally, your four groups of suggestions are exceptionally reasonable. Far too many of our students still prefer “perfect” silence to speaking and making “good mistakes.” Creating a tolerant, yet rigorous, atmosphere remains a challenge.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Dear Eric,
      How happy I am to know that other teachers have given thought to the importance of dreaming in the target language!
      And I think that distinction between “perfect” silence and “good mistakes” is very accurate – – well put. Thanks.

  2. Fanees says:

    Nice blog. I like the style of this articles.
    About the article: I am always trying to think in English, and now almost always think and dream in English, but sometimes I found myself saying some regular phrases in my native language (Russian), and that’s irritate me very much. Hope soon I will know enough idioms and other important parts of language to have 100% thinking in English.

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