Thinking in Japanese (or any L2)

The last time I learned a new language, I was able to think in it right away. I never encountered the dreaded “translating in your head” problem. I’m beginning to suspect this might be because I’ve always thought in two languages, so for my brain this was a normal thing to do, whereas people who grew up with one language have to figure out how to make their brain do that. That’s purely conjecture, though.

So, I was hoping we could start a discussion on this. Are there any other people who grew up bilingually that share my same experience? Are there any people who grew up monolingually that had no difficulty thinking in your L2? Does anyone have any ideas on how you could teach someone to think in their L2? (I have ideas I’ll share later if the discussion gets traction.)


I grew up bilingually, and I’ve never had trouble thinking in English (my second language), but that’s because I achieved fluency really fast compared to any other language I’ve studied since.

I studied French, and while it wasn’t hard, I don’t think I reached that level.
Now, Japanese is hard; I’ve been studying it for a few years, and I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.
I know it’s not really helpful, but my opinion is that you need to be fluent or comfortable enough with the language in order to be able to think in it. You can’t really start learning another language, and think in it, if you’re at the level of: “a bottle of water, please”, “which way to the bathroom?”, etc.

How do you get comfortable enough with a language? By studying it, of course.
But if you’re talking about thinking in it specifically, I’d say you have to be comfortable speaking, and for that you need a lot of immersion, either movies and shows, or hands-on (mouth-on?) practice.


Yeah I agree with that. Until you know enough words and grammar to actually put real sentences together, you don’t really have enough to even think about.


Maybe your question was more geared towards fluent people that have trouble thinking in that language, but I have never heard of that.

I think I’ve caught myself thinking in Japanese once or twice, but I still don’t really do it naturally. I suspect it’s one of the reasons I suck at listening.


I grow up monolingually and first learned English in sixth grade, and I believe I started thinking in English in my College years (about seven years ago). Many people laugh at me when I tell them that I can think in English, or that I sometimes speak English without realizing it, I would be like, wait did I just speak Arabic or English???
And with all of that, I never considered myself fluent. Actually I never realized how good I am until I started learning Japanese, even though I make causal conversations in English with foreigners at work all the time.


Mind sharing what you’ve tried, if anything?

I can’t really say that I’ve had any such problems either. I obviously can’t think about tons of stuff when I first start learning a language, but I also don’t really feel any need to translate stuff from some other language when trying to use the language I’m learning, even when I’m only just starting to learn the new language.

It also seems like I tend to forego the connection to English rather quickly even if I learn vocab by associating it with English words like in wanikani. I can obviously still recall the English meaning if I consciously try to, but I usually stop doing it automatically after seeing a word in context a few times.

I can’t really explain why things work that way for me, but I’m grateful that it does, because it makes language learning feel at least a little bit easier.

And yeah, I don’t really know if I’d call it growing up bilingualky since it’s not like people around me spoke English a ton or anything, but I did learn English rather early. (I think I was… 11? when I read my first English novel)

And, uh… sorry if this comes across as arrogant or anything. It’s not really meant as anything else than observations about how I experience language learning, but I’m writing this on my phone and that makes it a lot harder to be eloquent and stuff, so I guess it may come across a bit weirdly.


I sometimes catch myself thinking in Japanese, but only when I am really familiar with the words or phrases/sentences. It doesn’t happen a lot, but once in a while. I dream in Japanese once in a while, too.


I don’t really know a ton of Japanese yet and haven’t worked at output at all, but a few months ago for some reason someone in my dreams said two or three actual Japanese words that I’ve learned. It’s a small thing, but I was really excited about it. Sort of like a mini-milestone showing that things are starting to stick.


What is there to try? I’ve been lead to believe that it just… happens.


I dreamed in Japanese once, and I remember everybody being super fluent and stuff, but I chalk it up to me basically just remembering a lot of phrases and my brain trying to trick me into believing I knew all this stuff. :joy:


I was raised bilingually as well and definitely think in two languages.

When I learn a language, a term isn’t connected to the translation in my native language.

In my mind, it’s not:

木 = boom
tree = boom
Baum = boom
arbre = boom

Instead, it’s more:

Boom & tree & 木 & Baum & arbre =

(Totally not saying I’m good at French and German, though. Anything but.)

As I learn new things well and they really pass to proper long term memory or mastery, they are no longer connected to a translation. I just know.

My brain seems to want to think in Japanese, especially when I’m binging on a lot of listening things. I can’t do it yet, but I do automatically start trying to convert all my thoughts into Japanese, which is good mental exercise as I attempt to construct sentences, and recall vocab.


I think that how easily thinking in an L2 comes is based on two factors: how plastic a person’s brain is, and how similar the language is to languages already known. I’ve never had trouble thinking in Spanish, but it took me at least a month to internalize Japanese phrases. (I mean internalize, as in go straight from L2 without translating.) I think that children’s brains are more plastic, but some people’s are just naturally more plastic than others even in adulthood. Being raised bilingually may also affect this plasticity.

I’ve also dreamed in Japanese back when I couldn’t speak it very well, and it seemed like everyone was fluent, but they were probably just spouting gibberish. My dreams in Japanese now are much more coherent :slight_smile:

I think talking to yourself can help. Whenever I’m walking alone I talk about anything and everything to myself in any of the languages I’m learning. Stream of consciousness is the best. I always take out my phone and put it by my ear so people walking by don’t think I’m crazy.


:deciduous_tree: = :boom:


When I was learning Spanish, I would talk to myself using whatever words and phrases I knew. I did actively choose to only use Spanish. If you haven’t tried that, perhaps it might help you.

While that approach was something I’ve actually used, my other idea is theoretical. I feel like thinking is nothing more than hearing your inner voice (which is why I believe the first approach works). Now, when you read silently you also hear your inner voice. So, I’m wondering if reading silently might be a good way to train your inner voice. Perhaps that might have some carry-over into thinking (kinda like reading but without the “script”). This idea might be total crap, but maybe it’s not. I’d be interested in experimenting.


For the amount of time I spend talking to myself - this is a great trick! Why do I never do this?

I also talk to myself out loud a lot - that’ll also help make it easier to translate thought Japanese into spoken Japanese. Don’t want to know what to say, but get tongue tied when trying to say it.

Look, I hate trees, all right? :wink:


I think reading would help, but not because it lets you hear your inner voice. Thinking to yourself in L2 is more about producing the language, and reading doesn’t stimulate that part of your brain. It might help, however, in the department of converting words in L2 directly to concepts, instead of translating to L1 and then to concepts. When you read in L2, your brain creates images from the words you read, and that could help eliminate the need for L1, therefore making it easier to think in L2.


I think about daily life things in Japanese a lot. For example, money. It’s become very difficult for me to talk about yen in English. Even if I’m speaking English it comes out “I have manen.” But I think it’s because numbers are so different. I understand numbers in Japanese and I understand numbers in English but if someone asked me what’s 2万 is in English I have to think really hard before I say twenty thousand. I also think about I haves and I needs in Japanese (~ga iru/aru)

I’ve also developed the ability to drive while thinking in English and speak Japanese thanks to my husband. It was kind of dangerous at first. My friends think it’s creepy when I’m chatting in Japanese and writing info in English.

I think the more you consume the language the easier it gets. There are certain set ways of saying things and when you encounter and use them a lot you internalize them. Reading a lot and doing as much listening as possible helps.


Thinking in a given language?? Is that a thing ??

I think there’s a couple of books adressing this. “The Language Instinct” is the first that comes to mind, that explains a bit about the process and theories on how the brain deals with language, more like in raw data that gets translated to a given language (subvocalised or outloud), more easily or not according to fluency.