How to Develop Thought Fluency in a Foreign Language

How to Develop Thought Fluency in a Foreign Language

One of the most powerful skills you as a language learner could hope to develop is the ability to think directly in the language that you’re learning without having to go through your mother tongue. I call this ‘thought fluency’, and it is the core skill that I aim to get kicking into action from the earliest stage when I’m learning a language.

It actually goes one step further.  If you ask truly professional interpreters what kind of interpreting is easier – Consecutive Interpreting (waiting for the speaker to say a ‘block’ of speech and then interpret it block by block), or Simultaneous Interpreting (interpreting in real time – speaking at the same time as the speaker usually through a microphone / headphone relay system), they would probably say that surprisingly, simultaneous interpreting is less of a chore than consecutive interpreting. The reason why this is true at least for me, is because as long as I have confidence in my own language ability to truly comprehend the language that I’m listening to, and I have confidence in my ability to communicate meanings clearly in the language that I’m interpreting into, I don’t really have to think.  As the speaker speaks, I see and comprehend what they’re saying in the same way you would comprehend an audiobook in your mother tongue.  All I do then is just retell the story that I’m experiencing in ‘X’ language mode.  In fact, if you were to ask me what exact words the speaker said in the original language, I might struggle to tell you exactly word for word what they said as I’m seeing and experiencing ‘meaning’ or ‘story’ rather than analysing every word.

How Can I Experience Thought Fluency?

The good news is that you don’t need to be fluent in a second language to develop this skill of thought fluency.  I have an exercise (and several variations of that exercise) that you can start doing straight away that will start to develop that core skill of thought fluency for you, as well as help you develop much more natural, functional  thought fluency in a new language that you’re learning.

Introducing Shadowing

Remember when you were a kid and you used to wind your brother or sister (or friends) up by mimicking them? That’s exactly what shadowing is.  There is a whole field of research done into using shadowing as a language learning technique. There is a lot of material out there on shadowing – after this article, spend a few minutes looking up and bookmarking some of the articles, research papers and YouTube clips.

Rather than go over academic reviews however, I thought I would prefer to show you how I personally use shadowing and how you can make it just a natural part of your life – a part that will pay off big learning dividends over time.

There are different types of shadowing exercises you can do to help achieve different things. Supposing your mother tongue was English and you were learning Chinese (Mandarin). In the following examples, we will call English ‘L1’ (Language 1) and Chinese ‘L2’ (Language 2). I will briefly mention each shadowing scenario, how to do it and what skills each one will help you develop. Feel free to substitute ‘Chinese’ with the language that you are learning. Remember, you don’t need to be fluent in the other language to do most of these exercises – and you don’t need to know any other language to do the first two which are really the most important when it comes to self awareness, speech modelling and thought fluency.

Shadowing 1:  L1 : L1 Mimicking (English : English)

Description: Listen to a person speaking English either live, on television or radio and mimic everything they do. This doesn’t just mean say every word that they say.  It means you need to copy their facial expressions, sentence cadence, produce the vowels, consonant sounds and ‘tones’ of speech exactly as they are doing them.  

Benefits:

  • Train your powers of observation.
  • Train you to hear what’s really being said and not filter them with your own dialect / accent’s nuances.
  • Become more aware of the subtle differences people have when speaking the same language.
  • Teaches you to feel comfortable to switch your brain off and let your body take over when it comes to producing language.  Your goal is to go into what would almost be a hypnotic state where no matter what you hear, your body is mimicking it in almost real time.  You shouldn’t have time to think – just act. As your body gets into that state, your mind then becomes free to step away from your body and consciously observe what your body / mouth is doing.  You will understand what I mean when you arrive at this state.

 

Shadowing 2: L1 : L1 Interpreting (English : English)

Description: In my opinion, this is the most powerful exercise of them all.  Just like in exercise one, sit and listen to a person speaking either on the television or live and start to speak over the top of them.  Rather than mimicking them, in real time, tell YOUR version of what they’re saying. Accept that there is no wrong interpretation.  Whatever you understand them to be saying is what you say.

For example, the speaker might say:

“When we walked into the nightclub, the decibel level was excruciating – so much so that we decided to leave”.

Your L1 : L1 Rephrasing rendition of that (said at almost exactly the same time as you hear it) might be:

“As soon as we got into the club, the music was so loud that we decided to up and leave”.

For the purists there, you might be alarmed that this isn’t a perfect translation of the sentence.  I don’t care.  It’s my mind’s interpretation of the sentence and it is how my mind realised and reacted to what I heard. The reality is that whether translating into another language or into the same language, there is no such thing as an ‘exact’ interpretation where every single nuance is matched one to one.  You need to feel comfortable with that concept and as that song in Frozen that we love to hate says, you just need to “Let it go!”.

Benefits:

  • Master the skill of switching your brain into ‘meaning’ mode and not be so concerned of every single word / grammatical structure, rather focusing more on producing comprehensible meanings.
  • Take ownership over the message.
  • Build up an arsenal of alternate terms to communicate similar meanings.
  • Feel even more comfortable just speaking without having to engage conscious thinking.

 

Shadowing 3: L2 : L2 Mimicking (Chinese : Chinese)

Description: Listen to a native L2 (Chinese) speaker and speak over the top of them, mimicking them in real time in their own language. As you do it, allow your mind to step out of your ‘mouth’ and observe all the little things that are being done by the speaker.  How are they breathing?  What is the cadence of their voice like? What sounds run into each other? What sounds don’t? What new words or phrases do you hear? Do they say things in a different way to how you would communicate a similar meaning? How do their vowels, consonants and tones differ from your normal way of articulating them?  This exercise shines a light on how you use the language and can identify very quickly opportunities for you to work on in developing your own skills in that language.

Benefits:

  • Further train your powers of observation.
  • Train you to hear what’s really being said by the foreign language speaker and not filter their sounds with sound or meaning versions and expressions from your own language.
  • Become more aware of the gaps between the way they speak their language and the way you speak their language.
  • You will start to develop more natural prosody (rhythms of language) as the native speakers of that foreign language as you imitate their facial expressions, breathing, tongue placement, vowel placement, tones, throat positions etc.

Shadowing 4: L1 : L2 Interpreting (English : Chinese)

Description: Listen to a native L1 (English) speaker speak and speak over the top of them, interpreting what they say in real time into L2 (Chinese). The key is to keep your mind in the same mode as it has been in for the past few exercises.  If your language skills in the language aren’t up to that level yet, don’t worry.  Go back to the L2:L2 shadowing exercise, record yourself and then analyse what’s being said and what’s going on in their mouth and yours. Working out the meanings, idioms and nuances through this exercise can build you up to L1 : L2 interpreting stage.  Don’t be afraid to come back and visit this stage from time to time – using different levels of L1 speech.  You won’t wake up one day and instantly be able to do it.  It is a skill that will happen gradually over time.  It IS a skill however that will have a profound effect on how you communicate naturally in the language and is a sign of true thought fluency in the L2 language.

Benefits:

  • Further train your powers of observation.
  • Train you to hear what’s really being said by the foreign language speaker and not filter their sounds with sound or meaning versions and expressions from your own language.
  • Become more aware of the gaps between the way they speak their language and the way you speak their language.
  • You will start to develop more natural prosody (rhythms of language) as the native speakers of that foreign language as you imitate their facial expressions, breathing, tongue placement, vowel placement, tones, throat positions etc.

 

Shadowing 5: L2 : L2 Interpreting (Chinese : Chinese)

Description: Listening to a native speaker of a foreign language speaking their language on television or live, speak over them interpreting what they are saying into YOUR version of their language.  This is something that can actually be done at all stages of the language learning process, and for some is even easier than L2 : L2 interpreting.  You often hear people say ‘I understand more than I can speak’.  This exercise by its own nature, is paced to your own personal language level.  You have the chance to re-communicate a meaning in your own way – and it might be just as understandable or even more understandable than the way that the original speaker communicated it.

Benefits:

  • Further train your powers of observation.
  • Train you to hear what’s really being said by the foreign language speaker and not filter their sounds with sound or meaning versions and expressions from your own language.
  • Become more aware of the gaps between the way they speak their language and the way you speak their language.
  • You will start to develop more natural prosody (rhythms of language) as the native speakers of that foreign language as you imitate their facial expressions, breathing, tongue placement, vowel placement, tones, throat positions etc.

How Do I Start?

The wonderful thing with today’s technology is that everyone is walking around with earphones plugged into their ears and nobody will think that you’re crazy if they see you speaking into the air just as long as you’re wearing a set of earphones.  As you’re driving, walking through the city or taking a shower, just keep audio playing either in your L1 or L2 and do the exercises as you go about your day. You may set some formal time to seriously concentrate on it, but you can really develop some very advanced language skills through just maximising ‘dead air’ time during your day.  That is, time that you’re not having to actively concentrate on something else even if you are in the middle of doing something else like driving, walking, cooking, washing etc.

In my Cracking Thai Fundamentals book, I have a whole section on ‘Thinking in Meanings’, and I also have interactive activities set up in the online ‘Thinking in Meanings’ modules.  While the book is focused on developing Thai language skills, you can use the principles that I teach in that section and apply them across to any other language.  You will learn how to anchor meanings into all different things including shapes, body signs and emotions outside of language and then start to cognate and create new meanings outside of your mother tongue and develop thought fluency using those as your meaning building blocks rather than your mother tongue.  That way, you can then create shortcuts directly into whatever language it is you’re learning. The most important thing is ensuring that you have that fundamental ability of ‘thought fluency’ outside of the actual words that you hear in your mother tongue.

 

Stuart Jay Raj is a polyglot who specializes in the languages and dialects spoken in South East Asia and China. His talents have allowed him to earn a professional living as a simultaneous interpreter in Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Indonesian, among others, providing language and cultural training for multinational companies in the region and hosting his own TV programme on Thailand's Channel 5. He holds a degree in Cognitive and Applied Linguistics from Griffith University and has become an expert in the field of language acquisition with a strong track record of success. Stuart's background knowledge of Sanskrit, Khmer, Lao and various Chinese dialects and minority languages enables him to present a fascinating and unique perspective on the Thai language which makes everything fall logically into place.
  • Ann Norman

    That is so interesting! I am totally going to try this set of exercises. And I do know what you are talking about when you say “thinking in meanings” and I experienced it most directly like 30 years ago when I was leaving Thailand and gave a going away speech in Hmong which I wrote in English.(Because there was no way I was going to be able to read the speech fast enough if I had written it in Hmong). So I’d glance at the words in English and then simultaneously speak out the meaning in Hmong. It was fascinating to me that there had to be some third way of thinking the meaning in my brain which was neither English or Hmong.

  • Andromeda Romano-Lax

    This is fascinating! Thanks for breaking down all the steps, especially the L1:L1, which I wouldn’t have thought to do first. After over a year of intense Spanish learning I had one of my best acquisition evenings recently, listening to an audiodocumentary (Radio Ambulante) and shadowing it (L2:L2, pure mimicry) for close to an hour. I had only tried listening passively or reading the script before that point. When I shadowed–with earphones in, even though I was home alone, to really focus)–the sense of getting the meaning and absorbing syntax etc was so much stronger. I look forward to trying the many variations you’ve explained here.

  • Mimicry is definitely the way to go. In fact, one way to develop a good ‘native’ accent in a foreign language is simply to talk English (or whatever is your mother tongue) using the accent of the language you are learning. “I wanta to learna Itaalian, so maka sure-a dehr isa clina shit ona de table whail I drinka ma koffi!”

    I’d like to share a technique I use in the Rapid Method for becoming fluent in Thai (but it’s applicable in any language). Similar to Stu, I define ‘fluency’ to mean being able to speak without thinking. You can very effectively mimic native speakers if you watch a movie and read/study/understand the ORIGINAL NATIVE LANGUAGE subtitles. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I’ve discovered that reading conversational dialogues helps you to hear, understand and speak more clearly (I sometimes even switch on English subtitles while watching an English movie so that I don’t have to listen so damn hard). Don’t watch the subtitles in your native language, your ear will tune out the original dialogue and you will learn nothing! It also doesn’t really help to watch a movie without subtitles because you simply won’t hear what’s being said.

    It takes a bit of preparation, but it’s worth it. Rip the subtitles from a DVD – or ask someone to transcribe the dialogue if necessary (it should be in the native language of the movie, of course, dubbed movies won’t work). Study and understand the subtitles. Memorize the vocabulary (using Anki and mnemonics, say) – a particular advantage of building up your vocabulary in this way is that you learn directly from the context.

    Get the app called Listening Drill (available on iPhone or Android) and upload the movie and the native subtitles. Listening Drill is a remarkable app that plays each line repeatedly several times (so that you can read/hear/understand/mimic) the dialogue. It even slows down the speech if you prefer.

    I have a number of Thai fluency products where I’ve already done the donkey work: a romance novel called Sydney Remember configured as a karaoke-style audiobook, a business autobiography called Top Story, various Thai movies and a stand-up show by Note Udom. (I had to transcribe his dialogue from scratch, but it was worth it because he talks about everyday topics using everyday slang and colloquial Thai in such an amusing way that it’s really fun to learn: you feel compelled to understand what he’s saying in order to get the jokes and have a good laugh!)

    http://www.learnthaionline.com