Student: “Depend of how people is”.
Professor: “Oh, you mean IT DEPENDS ON how people ARE?”
Student: “Yes, depend of how people is”.
Professor: Guys, remember you must not think in Spanish when speaking in English; otherwise you make mistakes.
Student: But professor, how can we think in English?
Whenever a situation like this occurs in my EFL class, I remember when I was a student. I kept hearing my professors saying: “You have to think in English”, but I always wondered: “How can I do that?” Now my students are the ones who ask me that, and although I try to recall the exact moment when I finally managed to do so and how I did it, it is difficult. Is it probably because this fascinating instant happens without us noticing it? Can someone realize when he or she is thinking in the language being learned?
Thinking in English while learning it is definitely a challenge for students, especially the ones immersed in an EFL environment. Since learners practice the language mainly in class, the process of acquiring English demands more time, effort and persistence. Nevertheless, this goal can certainly be achieved; we have all experienced it ourselves, regardless of having been in an ESL or EFL context. So, what about our students? Can we explain to them how to think in English?
Beginners are, by far, the ones who experience more difficulty when having to think in another language since they lack a good command of grammatical structures, pronunciation, and their vocabulary is usually limited. However, this does not imply that students in other proficiency levels do not experience this challenge; it might occur but to a lesser extent. Given that students at the beginning levels struggle more with having thoughts in English, they need to be encouraged to monitor their speech, realize when they use the wrong structures, be able to correct them and avoid making the same mistakes again. Obviously, they must be aware of how necessary it is to think in the second or foreign language and how this helps them improve their level.
But, is it really crucial to think in the language being learned? What are the consequences of thinking in the L1? Are they merely negative? Teaching English to Spanish speakers has made me realize students make fewer mistakes in grammar and pronunciation if they avoid thinking in their mother tongue. If they speak or write in English while thinking in Spanish, their ideas would probably be confusing because of the many mistakes. When this occurs in my EFL class, I can immediately notice it as a result of being a Spanish speaker myself. This means that speaking the same language our students do, either as an L1 or L2, is an advantage for us teachers in terms of identifying errors.
During my college years I learned to think in English; I rarely had any contact with native speakers of English, though, and all my professors were Costa Rican. But I do remember them telling me some tips on how I could manage to think in the foreign language: thinking in English 24/7, reading extensively, keeping a journal, watching TV, listening to music, talking to others, and so on. I am certain that helped me a lot. The experience of successfully learning English as an EFL student was truly beneficial when studying my third language, Portuguese. I can say it was much easier for me to be aware of not thinking in Spanish when speaking Portuguese, despite of how similar these two languages are.
Some people might say that in order to think in another language, it is essential to live in a country where that language is spoken. I cannot deny that being surrounded by English helps in an incredible way, it does without a doubt; however, it is not the only way to reach that goal. We as ESL and EFL teachers should make our students understand the importance of thinking in English, especially at the beginning level, since this will make the teaching and learning process very effective. A way to do this is by creating awareness, offering ideas for thinking in English, encouraging them to practice the language at all times, monitoring them and teaching them how to monitor themselves, among others.
What are your insights regarding this matter? Do you recall not being able to think in English or other languages? Do you remember the moment when you did? Would you like to share any experiences with students on this topic? What do you do to help your students think in English?
Nuria Villalobos was born and raised in a Spanish-speaking family in
and currently teaches English as a Foreign Language there, at Universidad Nacional. Costa Rica