Thinking in Japanese (or any L2)

The “translating in your head” issue is a huge problem for me as someone who has been monolingual well into their 20s. I definitely have the vocabulary to carry on most ordinary conversations, but I just can’t seem to construct sentences in my head fast enough to carry on a proper conversation, partially because my instinct is to construct the english sentence, then sort out the translation.


I don’t really have any problems thinking in english, it’s just natural, I don’t think about which language I use though (pardon the pun)
I don’t know if I consider 8 years of actual practice growing up with it (started around 2011, I was 11, and no school doesn’t count, I know more japanese in the month and a half of WK than I knew english in 3 ? years of english at school lol, like ffs we learn the verb “can” which is llike the most useful thing after 4 ? years of learning)

I feel like it’s just the everyday exposure that made it easier, since I was basically the english god in high school, I was the only one that consumed a loooot of english content (too much), and I was the only one who could think or speak in english without thinking about it (again sorry)

1 Like

Speaking does the trick. I remember having trouble thinking in English like 1 year ago or something because I was all about writing/reading. I only went to London… when I was 4 :rofl:

But then I started speaking quite more often and now sometimes English dares to show up in my brain even before Portuguese mad%20-%20Copy

So yeah, speak takusan.


I find this fascinating. I’ve often wondered how feral children or even deaf people think. What do they “hear” in their heads? Even animals must have some sort of thoughts. How does that work without a language? Or, I guess babies for that matter too.

Interestingly, I think I was reading on an older thread in this forum on thinking in L2 that several people don’t even have an inner voice, which I thought very strange. According to them, they think primarily in images. I wonder if that means learning a language also works differently for them

Have you tried anything specifically to combat this issue?

1 Like

You can go further than that.
There is a lot of evidence that apes think – they have complex social structures and often have to guess each other’s intentions and there can be a lot of deception going on.

Note that deaf people probably “speak” sign language which is as much language as ordinary language – even down to using the exact same parts of the brain (stroke victims that are capable of both will show simultaneous problems with both). I have no idea what thinking in sign language is like, though :slight_smile:

(There is even a theory that sign language was invented before spoken language)

I think even normal, language-using humans think without language a lot of the time.
It’s just that every time you are aware of the fact that you are thinking that language enters the picture.
It’s not that all thoughts are necessarily verbals, but we have to verbalise thoughts in order to reflect on the thought itself.


I’m trying to finish read whole sentences as much as possible without consciously translating them, and then only working to translate them if I feel lost, otherwise just studying a lot.

Ultimately this is something my brain has literally never had to do, so i’m not even sure if there’s a way of forcing my brain to do it other than communicating and consuming Japanese as much as possible.

1 Like

I would have to make a huge effort to make a phrase without translating it first, which never happened to me with any other language, but I think it’s probably because it’s actually very different to the languages I speak. I mean, English and Spanish are very different too, but they both belong to the same family of Indo-European languages while Japanese uses a completely different thought process so I don’t think I won’t be able to think in it until I start getting the hang of this language’s system.


I think making it a habit to translate thoughts did the trick for me.
Speaking helps but I think I was thinking almost 100% in English way before I spoke it to a significant extent.
But what I did was, when I had some random thought, I would think how it would translate into English, just as a fun mental exercise.
Soon I was skipping the “think it in German” step first and could immediately conjure the thought in English and then it just stuck.

Interestingly, with Japanese it’s almost automatic now. I still lack a lot of vocab and a lot of grammar so a lot of thoughts end up “stuck”, but I can definitely complete some thoughts in Japanese without completing in German/English first.

One thing that helped with Japanese was digging into the “structure”; not just superficially regarding grammar as a set of random rules, but trying to deconstruct everything, and drawing as many parallels between languages as I can think of.
(For instance, to me the “-te” form constructions are awfully similar to absolute phrases in European languages. It may not be 100% linguistically sound but I found it tremendously helpful.)
(This is sort of the opposite of the common strategy of treating Japanese as this completely alien island of incomprehensibility)


I’m going to try this, thanks for the advice.

Those are some interesting strategies, @aiju. Thanks for sharing!

In my case, I don’t have a problem doing it with simple phrases if I’m working through something. And it’s not that I have a specific difficulty in thinking in Japanese, it’s just that I have to choose to do it, it doesn’t happen without a conscious choice (generally). If I’ve learned a lot of Japanese, listened to a podcast etc, or if I was more exposed than I currently have time to be, it’d be easier.

I guess, though, I need to raise my ability to test the limits of this, to know if it’s a lack of vocab and grammar that’s holding my thoughts back, or the neurology of a second language itself. I suspect the former.


I think part of why the “translation game” is so effective for me is that it’s a really fun thing to do once you start to understand grammatical structures that just don’t exist in your native language and suddenly the foreign language is like a great sandbox where you can express meaning in ways you never imagined.
It becomes very playful and even though a lot of the sentences that I produce this way are probably really awful and awkward, it’s still helps a lot in making the process “complex thought => Japanese sentence” automatic.


Now the big question is, do you translate in your head to polite or casual Japanese?


I think I am currently defaulting the polite Japanese but ultimately the politeness system is just another thing to be played with :slight_smile:

1 Like

A bit after reading this thread I was doing my SRS N3 vocabulary cards for the day today and when I saw 「行けない」 my brain brought up 「あかん」 as the meaning before the English sprung forth from my memory. I immediately thought about this thread after it happened. XD


You’re not thinking in Japanese - you’re thinking in Osaka-ben. :stuck_out_tongue:



Im not thinking in Japanese enough, as I thought of writing it in upper case letters.


Here in Gifu we use a lot of words from Kansai because it’s so close and I’m married to an Osakan. Save me. :scream:


I’ve had a slightly different experience with one of my languages.

I grew up bilingual and I was exposed daily to other languages from an early age. I speak now 5 more languages and I’ve found myself think in 4 of them. I’ve had more difficulty thinking in one language, that incidentally was not the last language I’ve learned.

What has changed that allowed me to start thinking in this language? (edit: I will not mention what language it is, as I wouldn’t want to unintentionally offend anybody)

When I started learning this language I kind of resented having to learn it. Similarly to other languages, I scoured through its literature for inspiration, only to find that it was rather scarce. I then turned to its music and ended up with sparse pickings. Same results for movies and tv programs.

Still I knew I had a strong affinity with the society that was using this language. For instance, they’ve been front-runners in equality, human rights, women rights and gay rights [even before LGBT(Q…) was even a thing]. Unfortunately I find that they’ve fallen off the wagon in more recent years with excessive virtue-signalling, victimhood and being-offended mentality and consequent censoring some opinions and obstructing freedom of speech, but I digress.

I think that I finally started thinking in this language when I began thinking of myself speaking in this language. My resistance learning this language waned and I found it a place in my life. This language has become our kitchen’s language, that is the language that my partner and I use when we speak informally over a cup of coffee. However I’m still not completely sure what else clicked and allowed me to start thinking in this language.

1 Like

I grew up monolingually and have found, just in about the past year, that I can think in Japanese now (within my abilities; I may not have perfect grammar, but I’m not translating from English), sometimes.

I remember the very first time it happened, because I was visiting Hiroshima and had a thought that I wanted to ask someone on a bus near me a question, and the thought about that had zero English involved.

Since then I’ve been able to do it more and more frequently, but it’s not a sure thing. I can kind of make it happen, but that’s also not a sure thing.

This is just referring to active, passive thoughts fully in Japanese though. If I’m in the middle of a conversation, I’m not translating each and every statement in my head first, so maybe that should count too.

Edit – I really like one of the posts above about just translating some of your own errant thoughts into Japanese (or whatever your target language is). Just did that and it helped prompt some pretty sustained Japanese thinking. Going to remember that one.