How would you feel if you were able to think in English?
For many of us, achieving fluency means we’re able to stop translating and start thinking in a language that isn’t our first.
When I became fluent in Spanish, I realized that I had stopped thinking in English. I was finally coming up with words and ideas in Spanish rather than translating from my native language.
This was not an overnight process. I had moved to Argentina, Spanish-speaking country, and I chose to speak Spanish all of the time, even with my American friends.
The reason many people suggest immersion experiences like this – traveling, working, or studying abroad – is that you’ll have daily opportunities to “access” the language your brain has stored for you.
But you don’t just magically become fluent just because you’re surrounded by native speakers. ✨
Even if you’re living in the US or other English-speaking countries, you have to work to access the language that’s stored in the depths of your memory, patiently waiting for you to actually use it.
To start thinking in English, you need to solve what I call the “access problem.”
When you try to produce English through writing or speaking, you’re basically signaling to your brain:
It takes work to move language from passive (something you can understand) to active (something you can use).
It requires action. It requires effort. It requires commitment.
It requires you to make thinking in English a priority.
But if you don’t have a lot of opportunities to interact with native English speakers, you may be wondering how you can achieve fluency in English.
If you want to start thinking in English and “access” your vocabulary, this article will help you.
Why You Want to Start Thinking in English
Before we get started, let’s talk about the benefits of thinking in English.
Thinking in English will help you feel more fluent and more confident when you have the opportunity to speak English.
Whether you’re interacting with native speakers, being interviewed in English for a job, college entrance exam or graduate program, talking with someone online, or interacting with people in English, you want to feel like your words are right there and ready for you to use.
When you’re translating from your native language, you’re hesitating and searching for the right word or expression.
Sound familiar? I receive emails and comments almost every day that sound like this:
As I mentioned above, this is what I call an “access problem.”
Even if you’re living your life in English and you’re speaking in English every single day, you may have this problem.
You know that you have the vocabulary somewhere in your memory bank, somewhere in this wonderful computer of your brain, but you’re not able to “access” this information because it’s not readily available.
Now I want assure you: this happens to native speakers as well.
Seriously! There are times when the words just don’t flow out of my mouth.
I know it’s hard to believe, but it is true. There are times I just don’t feel articulate, or I’m having trouble accessing the vocabulary that I know that I have.
The good news? There are exercises you can do in order to prepare your brain for when you need to write or speak fluently in English.
I’ll describe several practical writing and speaking exercises you can do on a consistent, regular basis.
Best of all? All of these exercises can be done on your own.
And you don’t need a lot of time – for most of them, I suggest setting a timer for five or ten minutes.
Limit yourself. Make it something you can easily achieve in a short period of time, every single day.
(I also suggest making as many mistakes as possible – you’re trying to bypass that internal editor that wants everything to be perfect. 🤓)
I encourage you to make some time to read through these suggestions and start with just one exercise.
Commit to five or ten minutes a day.
A simple practice can lead to amazing results.
Practical Writing Exercises to Start Thinking in English
I want to start with writing in English, because this is accessible to anybody, anywhere.
So many people say, “Well, the solution to speaking English more fluently is to speak more English.”
But if you don’t regularly have the opportunity to socialize in English, this advice will leave you feeling a little frustrated. 😕
You can, however, write in English. Writing is readily available to you!
You can write on anything. You can write on a napkin, on a piece of paper, in a notebook, on your computer, or even typing into an app on your phone.
Writing is something that you can do from just about anywhere.
At this point, you’re probably asking me, “Okay, Kim, what should I be talking about? What should I be writing about? When I think about writing in English, I think about writing academic papers. Or I think about writing emails or quick text messages to my friends. What should I be doing in order to improve my fluency? What should I be doing in order to start thinking in English so that the ideas start flowing?”
Now I want to encourage you: the following exercises are frequently used by people who want to become better writers, regardless of the language and whether they’re native speakers.
What you need to do is to challenge yourself to keep writing in order to access the language.
Improve Your Writing in English with Journalling Prompts
To start accessing all that vocabulary you’ve spent years acquiring is that you’re going to need to give yourself some prompts.
Prompts are cues or suggestions that inspire you to describe a specific topic or experience.
I encourage you to search Google for “journaling prompts” and come up with lists of questions that you can start writing about.
(You can find prompts on just about every theme imaginable, so they eliminate the excuse that you don’t know what to write about.)
After you choose a prompt, sit down and set a timer on your phone for five or ten minutes.
No matter your internal resistance, you want to force yourself to write in English for that short period of time.
It may seem challenging at first, but the more you practice on a daily basis, you’re going to start accessing more vocabulary.
If you don’t have the vocabulary, you’ll need to find other ways to express an idea. (Be sure to review my suggestions on how to use your words to sound more fluent in English.)
The purpose of this exercise is to encourage your brain to access the vocabulary you already have by searching for ways to express your ideas.
You’re challenging your brain to think in English, just for this short, but productive, period of time.
Because you don’t have to come up with the topic yourself, journaling prompts are a great way to get started.
Writing Lists to Start Accessing Your Vocabulary
Another exercise that gets ideas flowing so you start thinking in English is to write lists.
Once again, you can search your trusty friend Google for things to write lists about. (Try “what to write lists about” or “lists of lists” or “lists prompts.”)
If you look, you’ll find lots of suggestions because making lists is a great way to access your creative power.
Here are some ideas of lists you can make:
- Create your “bucket list,” and talk about all the things you want to achieve in your life.
- Write down a list of places you want to visit and describe the reasons why.
- Start noting down a list of all the foods you’ve ever tasted and give details about them (this will help you access vocabulary related to food and descriptions)
- You can make a list of every person that you’ve ever dated or every friend you’ve ever had, and then write some descriptions of their personalities or things that they did.
With practice, these lists will help you access your vocabulary, simply through writing.
As with journaling prompts, you should set a time limit so that you don’t feel overwhelmed or exhausted.
Set a timer for five or ten minutes at first; you can increase the time gradually as you feel that it gets easier to access your vocabulary.
Keep a Journal to Start Thinking in English
Another way to improve your writing and start thinking in English is just to keep a journal.
Write about your daily experiences. You can write one to three pages (or even more) about what happened to you that day.
When I moved to Argentina, the study abroad coordinator told me that if I really wanted to become fluent in Spanish, I needed to keep a journal about my experiences in Argentina written entirely in Spanish.
So I did! This definitely helped me start accessing the vocabulary I already had but that I wasn’t able to produce automatically.
I continued to write for quite a long time in Spanish and even today I tend to write a little bit in both languages.
It can be easier to express ideas from another culture in the language that you learned them in.
I encourage you to get started journaling. There are many different suggestions for how to keep a daily journal, but the easiest is to just start writing about your daily experiences and your daily routine.
From there, you can go deeper into your journaling skills. Maybe you’ll start philosophizing, talking about past experiences, or dreaming about things you hope happen in the future.
While you can always use the journaling prompts I describe above, simply writing about your personal experiences is a easy, effective way to access the language that you have so that you start thinking in English.
Practice Your Speaking Independently
So now that you’ve got plenty of ideas to inspire your writing, let’s talk about speaking.
A very real challenge for many non-native speakers is that they have very few opportunities to speak English.
When they do have the chance, it often feels high pressure, like a job interview or important business meeting.
With these suggestions, I’m going to encourage you to practice your speaking on your own, even if you don’t have the opportunity to interact with native English speakers, you can’t find a convenient conversation club locally, or it’s too much work to find a conversation partner online.
(Remember, there are many ways to find language exchange partners online; you can probably find someone who wants to practice with you.)
If you don’t have the time to socialize with people in English, you can can maximize your free time with independent speaking exercises that will move you towards accessing the vocabulary that you have but don’t use on a regular basis.
Practice Speaking About Daily Habits and Routines
I often encourage my clients to do is to talk about everyday processes.
I encourage you to speak out loud to yourself and explain what you’re doing as you’re doing it.
Nothing fancy here: you’ll talk yourself through your normal, everyday routine.
Go through making a cup of tea or coffee and talk through the process.
As you do so, you’ll probably notice that there are vocabulary words you don’t quite have ready yet.
You may need to challenge yourself to access the language in your memory, look up the right word, or find another way to explain.
You can talk through a recipe when cooking a traditional meal that you really love, your spouse’s favorite dish, or something that your kids really enjoy. Step by step, describe making this particular recipe.
You can talk through a process you go through every single day at the office and simply speak through the steps so that you can feel confident discussing it in English.
Remember, the topics that are most familiar and natural to us in our native language are often hardest to express in our second language because they use vocabulary that we don’t use frequently.
After all, we’re usually thinking about these processes and routines in our native language.
Practice Storytelling to Access Your English Vocabulary
Another simple, but effective suggestion is to practice storytelling.
You can decide to tell stories about yourself, your childhood, your family, past experiences, truths that you know about yourself, or experiences you’ve had recently.
You can simply tell a story about one particular situation or experience. This will encourage you to use transition expressions and grammar structures in order to put ideas into a logical order.
The goal is to try and tell the story in a way that makes sense, but it doesn’t have to be perfect!
You can make mistakes and go back and continue to fix what you’re saying to make your story more clear.
This is how native speakers actually tell stories. We don’t tell stories in a logical order most of the time!
We remember details and refer back to them. Then we circle back to our original point. We may get distracted, or be asked a question, and then we have to find our way back to the main story.
Don’t worry about following a logical order; just try and make sure that you tell the whole story!
Practice Answering Typical Interview or Conversation Questions
Another way to start accessing this vocabulary and thinking in English is to practice typical questions.
You may want to practice job interview questions if you find yourself using English a lot in professional or academic situations where you need to talk about yourself and your strengths and your weaknesses.
Or you may choose to practice conversation starters or find lists of questions that are good for sparking conversation.
As always, you can search on Google (try “conversation starters” or “conversation questions”) and start collecting your own list.
There are hundreds of thousands of potential questions you can ask yourself!
By answering them out loud, you start accessing the vocabulary that you already have in your memory and start filling in the gaps by explaining concepts you don’t quite have the vocabulary for.
As I said earlier, you do NOT need to interact with another person in order to practice your speaking in English and start thinking in English.
You can do this on your own! You can record yourself using your cell phone or using an app on your computer. Or you can just speak out loud to an empty room!
(I think it feels a little more normal to record yourself because you feel like you’re achieving something productive.)
The goal is to access the language you have stored in your memory. Keep talking! Keep using your words in order to start thinking in English.
Don’t Edit Yourself – Perfection is *NOT* the Goal
As you start practicing, understand that perfection is not the goal. You do not need to sound perfect. Avoid editing yourself as you’re writing or as you’re speaking out loud.
With these exercises, your goal is simply to keep trying to access that vocabulary, access that language, access that knowledge that you already have.
If I’m honest, the goal is to avoid perfection and to make as many mistakes as possible! This allows the vocabulary to flow through you. 🌊
As you become more fluent and as you start thinking in English, don’t worry, you’re going to fix your mistakes more automatically.
But as you’re working to develop this skill, you don’t need to worry about perfection!
Even professional writers who are native speakers of English don’t usually edit as they write. They get ideas on paper, and then they go back and edit.
Their focus is on getting the ideas out.
I hope these exercises have inspired you to create a regular practice that will help you start thinking in English.
Now it’s your turn! Which suggestion did you like best? Have you tried any of these exercises before? Have you set a timer and forced yourself to write? Do you have a regular practice that enables you to access your vocabulary?
If you try out these suggestions, please be sure to leave me a comment and let me know how it’s going.
Remember, if your goal to become advanced and even fluent and start thinking in English, that’s going to take consistent effort and work.
But it is possible and you can do it whether or not you have regular opportunities to speak with native English speakers.
Start with five or ten minutes a day and see how quickly you build momentum and make progress!
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