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When trying to become fluent in a language...

How should one approach this?

During my years of learning French, I was always told not to focus on the small, individual words when reading or listening to something in French. Understanding broadly what is being spoken or read about, as teachers have said, is the best way to feel as a native speaker. However, I have fallen into the trap of translating in my head. By that, I mean when I read a French article for example, I try to translate in my head what each word means. This can be disadvantageous because I'm not focusing on the general idea, connections between words, certain phrases that are unique.

Then, there's the idea of thinking as a native speaker by not translating words in the mind, but reading them as if they were your mother tongue. Although, since I'm fluent in English, I would find that very, very difficult to do since I would have the tendency to translate anyways. In fact, I would call it psychologically impossible (which I'm sure with training that it's indeed possible). So, I don't really understand how I should try to become more fluent in a foreign language. I'm aware that there is more to it than that, like living in a country where the language is spoken in dominance. I also apologize if this is a frequent question, as I don't mean to spam.

Anyways, thank you for listening to my insignificant issue!

July 1, 2017



For German at some point I no longer really had to think about it or "translate" in my head -- like I no longer had to think about what each word would mean in English, if that makes sense. Kinda like you said, reading it like it's your native language. This started happening for me after about three years of learning German, which was also the time I started thinking in German (for learning purposes) and writing to German friends online every day. Maybe connected?

That ability carried over for me to all other languages I learn. So when I started French (already knowing very basic vocab) I could just read the sentence and understand it. I only have to translate bit by bit in my head if I don't understand a sentence by just reading it.

Also, your question isn't spam, it's one of the most well-written questions I've seen on Duolingo in honestly years. This is the type of actual discussion/question that disappeared from the website after 2014... So have some lingots!


Oh, please, after 2014, about a quarter of all discussions were probably spam. By 2015, still about a quarter. 2016 seemed to be a bad year. I counted almost half of them were spam. Oh well, 2017 is doing better.


I joined in late 2014 and only followed the Dutch discussion, shit was good there until they added the Duolingo Classroom thingy, everything was like "hi this is jessica what is lily's username on duolingo? hi kent!" and everyone abandoned the discussions...

I dunno what you're seeing but 2017 Duolingo gave me actual mesothelioma like I have cancer now because of this website specifically


I joined in late 2014. After the Duolingo for Schools, the discussion spam rate increased significantly. Now, we just downvote, and BOOM, spam is unseen.


There's more problems than just spam... I use mild profanity in my posts (like my last one, didn't realize until I reread) that is positive and isn't directed at anyone, but there's this moderator who has been trying to run me off Duolingo. Back when we still had streams, he'd post to my stream threatening to revoke all my account privileges and he deleted a lot of my discussion comments. It was apparently empty threats, but I literally stopped using Duolingo for a year because I didn't want my account banned.

It was just so weird because this super old dude who was at the time newly modded was practically stalking me on Duolingo just to nitpick at how I type and threaten me... It's really sickening what this place has become, and it's only getting worse with the whole gems thing.


I don't blame you for developing cancer because of spam... XD


So, I guess training yourself to bear the mindset of a native is a major way to become fluent, but I'm amazed on how quickly these things adapted to you, especially with your experience carrying over to French. That's truly incredible. It's something one just has to get into the swing of, which takes courage. Thank you for your wonderful input!


Yeah also something that helped me was watching YouTube videos. When I started watching German YouTubers (after about three years of learning) I only understood maybe 50% of what people said if I paid attention, but a year of practice later I could zone out and understand everything.

It wasn't a quick process at all, because to get to the point of zoning out and still understanding, that was after ~3 years of daily classes and homework (~90 minutes total per day) as well as leisurely learning online for fun. That was my first foreign language, so the others were way faster to learn.

To me it's a skill I learned, I feel like it's maybe not specific to a single language. Once you are able to read and comprehend without translating, it carries over to any language, given you are familiar with the language. Feels that way to me, at least.

Also there's nothing I specifically did that's "incredible" -- your mind will just do it on its own over time and one day you'll realize you can read without translating... It's the mind that's incredible when it comes to language!


So in the end, hard work prevails it sounds like. This is an inspiring story. Thanks for sharing, I'll take it with me.

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your comments are encouraging. Thank you.


I'm not a fluent German speaker by a long shot, but I feel that I'm traveling along the same path I took 20 years ago to actually become a fluent Spanish speaker. I learned to not stop myself from translating from Spanish to English to read and understand conversations. I was told by some that translating was bad, that I ought to just try to grasp the broad meaning and -- I guess go with it? But, some people just don't work like that! Myself being one of those people.

But, I shouldn't have worried. I translated the little stuff, took forever and felt clunky for a long time, and eventually stopped doing it naturally when I no longer needed to do it. No forcing it necessary!

Now, with German, I translate everything. But, I don't feel like I'm doing it wrong anymore. I know it'll come -- because It did before! :-) Good luck to you!


Perhaps try associating words more with imagery rather than English words (your native language?), also focus more on the meaning of the sentence than every single individual word. Also, how often do you speak?


The only problem is, I don't trust myself... So, I feel like I need to know the meaning of every word instead of taking the smarter route you mentioned. I think it's something I have to really train my brain on doing and I will definitely take your advice!

I talk to myself in French everyday or every other day, but not to other people. I'm pretty... Well, not dissociative, but introverted, I suppose.


This has sort of happened to me in Japanese. I've been studying it for about 5 years or so kind of off and on and I still translate the characters in my head in some contexts. But when I listen to songs, there are simple phrases and stuff in them that I can just understand (even if there's no english translation anywhere for the songs). There was one song in particular recently where I just listened to it and was able to understand a good chunk of it, but at the same time I couldn't translate it back to english. It's kind of a hard to explain experience.

And no, this definitely isn't spam and haven't seen a discussion like this before. Although I rarely visit the discussion forum anymore.


This is one of the best discussion posts to have come to this site. Thank you MasterZsword. Keep at your language learning, it'll come with time. I too am trying to think in another language, for me it's Italian and Polish. Several friends and fellow professors (who learned Italian as an english native speaker) suggested:

1) Talking and thinking to yourself in your target language, with small bite size sentences.

2) Try walking around the room, and identifying everything only in your target language. To jest łampa, to jest łóżko, to jest moje spodnie, to jest moja poduszka...

3) Here's the one that made it so much easier for me: Link the target language words to images, rather than English words. I.e. don't use the pathway "Object - English - Target language", instead make it more direct: "Object - Target language." For me, this means comprehensive studying on Quizlet with no English, just Italian vocab alongside a PICTURE. Picture is emphasized here for a reason! I believe it truly helps bypass wanting to think in English.

Hope this helped a little, have a good one! Do widzenia, arrivederci!


Echoing DogePamyuPamyu, my experience has been that I gained this ability in French after substantial study, and since then it's sort of just been there for other languages, obviously in proportion to how much of them I actually know. This is the primary reason I think it's good to focus on one language as one begins one's language learning journey.

If you'd like an exercise to work on this, just look around you and describe what you see in French. Like another person said, it's about connecting the French words to the real-world realities as opposed to the English translations. When you see "papillon," think and not "butterfly" :)


I think the ability to think in another language is a very interesting phenomenon. Thinking in a language is the natural result of being familiar with the language and the culture of the people who speak it. It is not an on/off switch, you first start with simple thoughts and gradually move up to dreams and complex narratives. It is really funny, one can even dream in 3 or more languages, for example you find yourself translating between someone who speaks your native language and an English speaker and hear adversaries speaking whatever language in the background which may be gibberish half the time if you’re not fluent in that language yet. Having to translate (in reality) means that you have not yet internalized the language fully and that word associations are not cemented in your brain yet.

Rather than simply translate what you’re reading or hearing, try to picture or feel it. Movies are very effective as you can often see what they're talking about for example 'building', 'gun', 'police', 'car', and actors and background music materialize feelings 'love', 'fear', 'happiness', 'sadness'. The more shocking or crazy the image, the stronger the association your mind creates and thus your memory. In fact, creating a visual narrative in your mind is a very cool mind hack that helps you remember lists of seemingly unrelated words, including their order. I visualized a narrative for the planets of our solar system once and I still remember it despite doing it a couple of years ago.

You can combine visualization with translation, they are not mutually exclusive. Aim to become fluent at translating, this means that you can recognize both spoken and written words and immediately know what they mean. Bonus points if you see, hear and/or feel what they describe as well. It is very hard to grasp ideas and connections if you do not understand the words they're conveyed with so this is very important. Simultaneously practice summarizing, even better if you do this in your target language. Ask yourself questions like 'what are his/her main points/arguments/conclusions?', 'what did I learn from this?', 'what was this sentence/paragraph/section about?'. It doesn't matter if you have to reread sentences or replay a few times at first. When you speak with someone you can practice rephrasing 'did I correctly understand that ...?', 'so, are you saying that ...?', etc.

Videos and documentaries without subtitles and podcasts, radio, etc., are excellent sources for practicing listening comprehension, and don't forget to do plenty of speaking and writing as well, even if just to yourself or in your mind. If you have to use a dictionary try to use one that is entirely in your target language, e.g. Fr/Fr for French or En/En for English because it will help you learn words' descriptions and synonyms more so than a translated one.


I will take everything you said into consideration! I get very intimidated with podcasts and other audible media because I have such poor listening comprehension no matter how hard I try. But, nothing is better than to just jump into it and give it another shot. After all, mistakes are important in the learning process. Thank you!


Yes, it's difficult and laborious at first but even if you can only make out the punctuation marks (stops, end of sentence, etc.) and understand just a few words you are literally rewiring your brain and you get better over time. It tends to be better to practice 30 minutes every day than once a week for 3 hours because it's easier to pay attention during shorter sessions and your mind gets to process and store what you've learned overnight. The effects combined ensure that you retain more of what you learn and can progress faster. You can also try to remember words and strengthen associations during idle moments of your day: waiting for the bus, on the train, on the toilet, lunch hour, while cooking, etc.


You know French, so that's good. Your only problem is the way that you are using it. You need to retrain your mind to think in French instead of English. You have to practice thinking in French. I would start by trying to think of easy sentences without translating. As the easy things become automatic, you move to more difficult sentences until you find that you can think in French. It may take some time, but I'm sure it is possible. I see that you are also learning German on Duolingo. Why don't you try learning German from French?


You know what, German from French is actually a smart idea. I think someone told me to do that in the past, but I didn't realize how helpful it would be. Thank you so much for the input!


One of my biggest tips for learning a language is to repeat or read the sentences out-loud in that language. This helps pronunciation and memorization naturally and irons out a lot of issues.


I'm late to the discussion, but read it when it was first up. There are many helpful comments here.

I'll add my own experience- I am learning French.

There is my "daytime" French learning, and my "night time" French learning. "Daytime" is what I do during the day to improve my French, mostly via the internet. "Night time" is what I do when I can't fall asleep. I think about French. I practice new words, I practice pronunciation, I ask myself questions about something I haven't understood, just whatever comes to mind. Oh, and I always read something related to learning French, in bed before I turn the lights off.

It's hard to explain my thought process during my "night time" learning/ adventures. Mostly my "thought process" is free association.

It's also hard to explain how this relates to your question about "thinking in French" w/o translation between French and English. But, somehow, for me at least, talking to myself (in my mind) in French has resulted in a lot of aha! moments, and also has helped me get past the translation barrier. I don't know why this works for me. Maybe this "night time" practice helps me tap into a different part of my brain.

FWIW, my 2 centimes.


I am repeating what has been said mostly, but I started by being able to think in French. When I noticed that I could, but it was difficult, I practiced it whenever I could remember and had spare time. It eventually became second nature, and I no longer had to translate.

That was 30 years ago when I lived in France, but despite not going back for 30 years, I can still do it when I go back there now. It's a skill you never lose, so it's well worth persevering.

It also makes conversation much more natural and fluid, by the way.


As others have mentioned, this is an excellent question. Learning meaning in small chunks rather than literally word for word is helpful. Otherwise your sentences in the other languages will be awkward if they mimic the syntax or word usage of your native language. Each word can have many different meanings depending on the other words in the sentence and the overall context. If you are too literal, you can get into trouble. Hence the warning. This is also the reason that Duolingo generally teaches sentences rather than single words (except for tinycards).

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by getting in the mindset of a native speaker.

Here are some techniques that you can try to learn to translate in your head less often:

  • Read in another language without consulting a translation dictionary. Either use a french dictionary with french definitions and/or try to get the gist of the word/sentence from context. This works best for those who have at least an intermediate level of proficiency. (At other times, you can read looking up every word you don't know but I tend to find that boring personally. I only look things up if the word comes up a lot and I'm not able to get some idea of the boundaries or different meanings of a word.)

  • Watch foreign movies, TV, videos and so on with close-captioning or subtitles turned on on that language. Sometimes, this can be a problem if the subtitles don't match, but this is a way to stop relying on your native language.

  • There are apps which give you a word and you select a picture. Ironically, I'm having trouble remembering the name at the moment. You can also try drawing or searching for words in images, then printing those out and adding the name in the other language.

  • Take an immersion class. My classes in French for two years were French only. There was zero translation. I remember that I was talking to someone about the Petit Prince, which I had read in French, to someone who spoke English. I remember having to think what the English word was for épines and either having to think to myself (or maybe I asked the other person): what are those sharp pointy things on roses? Thorns? Right, that's the word.

  • Try listening to dialogs for basic conversation with questions and answers in common situations. If someone says "Comment ça va?" the response in your head should automatically be "Ça va bien!" rather than "How that goes?" or "How am I?" so my response should be "I'm good" or "Everything is going well" which is "Je vais bien" or "Ça va bien."

This is obviously a very simple example but it illustrates that not only can the same word can mean many different things depending on the context, but it takes lots of extra time to have to translate to understand what people are saying, then answer in your head in your native language, then translate that back into the language you are trying to learn.


The exact advice you gave me is actually a step forward to what I am talking about when saying "getting into the mindset of a native speaker". As an English speaker, I think in English, even when I am speaking or writing French. However, I don't want to do that, as I will not get far if I continue to think as an English speaker. When having the mindset of a native French speaker, it means to hear or read something and just understand naturally. No translating. It's as if French was my first language. I hope that clears up some confusion!

Also, thank you for taking the time to read and giving such helpful advice! I truly cherish every one of your opinions.

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