Do you eventually translate a language automatically?

I just started grammar a couple of day ago and was wondering if you ever get to the point in learning a language that you can read and think in that language? I think that’s how to put it. When I see words in Japanese I instantly think of the English word for it. This is my first time learning a new language so I’m just super curious if I’ll be able to read and think in the laungage eventually or always think of the English meanings for them.


I’m nowhere near fluent in Japanese yet, but the part where you see/hear a word and don’t need to translate it anymore is more progressive than you might think – it’s not really all or nothing, where one day you suddenly stop mentally translating everything…gradually over time words you learn will stick and become references for other words. At least in my experience :slight_smile:

Then again I also know other foreigners here in France who do always mentally translate everything after years here (and they speak slower for that) - so it depends on the person I guess. It might be a question of being able to let go of the need to have a direct equivalence… :woman_shrugging:
(Maybe that’s also why some people come to over-rely on subtitles even when they speak the language really well?) (EDIT: OK I was wrong on this point and it also sounded arrogant :sweat_smile: There are many legitimate reasons for relying on subtitles, even if these uses don’t correspond to the over-reliance I meant originally. Thanks everyone :blush: )


I can speak and generally read/use/write in English well (I’m not a native English speaker by the way), but I still rely on subtitles when watching movies because I’m not used to accents.

I think I do these at least half of the time. I got to the point that I know how I can express something in Japanese, but then I got lost how to do it in English or in my native language even though that’s how I supposedly start. It’s a matter of exposure I think. Don’t worry, the more you study Japanese, the more you will be able to think in Japanese language.


If you keep at it, yep C: when I was learning English I was really slow and had to translate words into my native language first to understand them but now I am s p e d


Fair enough! I’m a native English speaker and some accents really throw me off too – it can take a good 15 minutes for me to get used to the accent in a Scottish movie for example :slight_smile:
Sometimes I watch movies with people who can understand people in real life just fine, but over-depend on subtitles to understand 100% of the dialogs - and if the movie is in English then they’ll usually understand more than me lol, because of the regional/cultural differences :sweat_smile: But I’m ok with not getting all the references or hearing all the whispers.

(Slightly edited my original message for clarification on the over reliance, not just normal legitimate reliance)


Thanks for the info everyone. I was guessing it was possible with learning and exposure.
As for the subtitle thing. I do that all the time even when I understand stuff. I have no idea why haha.

Definitely! This happened with English, and it happened with Japanese!

EDIT: French too actually (not good French, mind you, but I’m not translating in my head into French either).

(I sometimes try to think in one language and halfway through realize I was thinking in the wrong one!)

This is natural. Your only knowledge of this word is the English translation after all. When you see and use the world in a natural context, this will eventually give way to a “feel” for what it means.

Actually, for me and in the case of a language so far removed from English as Japanese, it’s most often the case that I can’t translate from one to the other! (Well, not without the result being abominations of a sentence).

This just happens naturally with exposure in my experience, so just keep plugging and you’ll get there! Don’t sweat it that it takes a bit of time!


As others mentioned above, you eventually do. It depends on your overall experience with the language, but in my personal experience the greatest trigger was immersion (in addition to some language knowledge). Like, when I first spent 2 weeks in Japan through an exchange program and my host families knew English even less than I knew Japanese at that time. My brain just changed gears as well as it could afford - and it was getting better with each passing day.

Or later, when you spend your commuting time listening to podcasts - and find yourself thinking in a mix, using half native and half Japanese words. This also works, and appears in your life perhaps faster than you’d expect.

This one is even more interesting and may be changed right now - but it depends upon your way of processing information in general. For ex, I am reliant on visualisation. Even when I speak to people over the phone or watch videos, I am scribbling sth to support comprehension. So in my mind the center of a concept is a picture. Words are linked to this picture. So instead of “りんご–>apple–>яблоко–> concept of an apple” I have sort of a cloud of words rotating around the same concept. It saves time in language learning and also gives you a shortcut to thinking in target language. Perhaps this could be your next step in learning, who knows :grin:


Eventually, I would say yes. In order to speak fluently, you’d have to do that (or lots of premeditation!).

English is my mother tongue but I speak another language semi-fluently and I never translate in my head when speaking, reading or writing (but there are exceptions). I just know. I can even translate to English on the fly if I have to without much thought.

Likewise with Japanese, I’ve been exposed to anime and JRPGs for a long time now. I can instantly tell what a kanji is if it’s a familiar word to me. An example would be 花. I can say it either in Japanese or English with little effort since I keep hearing the damn word!

In summary, yeah, fluency won’t come immediately. But eventually, you’d stop translating in your head since (biologically speaking) our brain doesn’t like to do the work. It’ll skip the translation step and just output the word/meaning.

Hope this answers your question!


I think exposure is the key. I allways thought I am terrible at learning a language, school didn‘t do it for me. Then I moved to England and now I actually think in Englisch. I don‘t translate back, well maybe sometimes but not very often. The language is just present. I don‘t speak flawless but well enough.

I think one has to be fully immersed in order to get to that point. But then again, people are different.

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You don’t translate at all, unless you need to for an actual translation or interpreting, eventually.

This happens long before you can necessarily speak it fluently on your own, too.

Also, as was pointed out above, it’s not like an all-or-nothing switch gets flipped. As you build up exposure to more words, phrases, and patterns, they may not need mental translation, whereas a brand-new piece of vocabulary still might until it gets more fully ingrained. Languages and brains are strange things.


Yeah, you absolutely start translating a language automatically after a while. I’m not a native English speaker but English comes super naturally to me now. Even easier than French on some instances, I’ve found. For reference, I started getting serious about English maybe ~6 years ago, and I’ve been at a decent level for for around 3 years now.
With Japanese, I’m just starting to read texts naturally without translating. It’s a bit hard at first :sweat_smile:, since you have to fight with your brain who REALLY wants to translate everything you’re reading in your native language.
Reading mangas that I was already familiar with helped me a lot; since I already knew what the story was about, I did’t need to struggle too much on every sentence and my reading was much more fluid and natural.

At the end of the day, you shouldn’t worry about it too much, this kind of stuff happens on its own; you can’t force it.
You’ll need a lot of exposure before it starts happening, but when I does, the hardest part is done :slight_smile: and the language become way more fun afterward.

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I use subtitles for my languages because I don’t like to turn up the volume high enough that I don’t miss anything :woman_shrugging:t2:

OP, at some point you just don’t translate anymore. The language becomes a natural part of you.


I’m not a native english speaker, but I consider myself fluent, I basically never translate anything, I understand english just as naturally and automatic as I do spanish (My native language).

I did learn english somewhat young though (I think I was already fluent by… 14, probably younger) and I don’t know if that had any influence… probably though, it’s always said it’s easier to learn languages younger. That kinda makes me worried about japanese and that I won’t get to that level now, but in the end all you can do is keep studying and practicing

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I wouldn’t worry. To me the process seems inevitable :slight_smile:

First of all, I think the effects of age are exaggerated (I’m 41 myself)

Secondly, I have a hard time seeing how you could not get to that level and still be able to hold a conversation, read a book, listen to something etc. In the long run translating back and forth just seems unsustainable to me.

That’s not taking into accound that a lot of things don’t really lend themselves that well to direct translations anyway.

Just my thoughts… I mean I have no experience with anybody’s brain than my own so I can only really speak with any authority from a sample size of one here…


Didn’t you know that watching with subtitles actually means you’re smarter than if you watch without? :slight_smile: (If it’s true for Japanese, surely it must be true for any language!)


Yeah I’ve realised now that there really are a whole lot of legitimate reasons for using subtitles on languages you already know well. Thanks for reminding me :blush:

(Edited my original post for that reason :sweat_smile:)


I’m fluent in English (as in, I often think in English etc.) even though my native language is Swedish, so I’m sure it’s possible if you really immerse yourself in Japanese music, TV, movies and games. Or if you simply move to Japan of course.


Yes you can. Not maybe on a full native level, but on a level where small mistakes and knowledge gaps wont bother you anymore.

I am that type of person that always has a narrative going in their head (compared to some people that tend have mostly feelings, sensations, abstract thoughts etc). Because I narrate most of my thoughts, it is impossible for me to become good in a language without narrating in the same language.

When I talk/listen/read in Japanese (or English/Swedish/Finnish), all the narration in my head turns to the same language in order not to confuse to languages. So now that I am writing this, I am actually narrating my thoughts in English in my head. Once I go to supermarket and start to read labels in Japanese, I start to think about my shopping list in Japanese. Most likely my narrative is full of errors and mistakes, and if I don’t know a word I make a note of it if I have energy to check it later.

When I was teen and living in total immersion, I even reached a point after 7-8months, where my dreams were mostly in Japanese. Nowadays in my dreams Japanese people tend to use Japanese as well :smiley:

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Hell i think in english more than my native language, also engineering terms make so much more sense in english than in danish…

More onto japanese.
I only started reading seriously 2 months ago with grammar somewhere around mid N3.
(i should have started sooner tbh)
Im already having moments where i just “feel” the meaning of a sentence without thinking about it. But im also fine with reading with partial understanding until my brain tunes itself in (took years with english, but im enforcing it more with japanese)

The brain is amazing, it can do things without you telling it to do it, all you gotta do is set up the environment in which it can adapt and it will do it all on its own.
That is not to say it doesnt take effort on your side tho, you still gotta feed it that exposure so it has something to work with and heavy dictionary use at the beginning.