Your thoughts make you who you are.
Your deepest, darkest desires. Your dreams and goals. Your fears and anxieties.
And they’re literally with you all of the time.
It’s the little voice that helps you remember your keys before you step out of the house—hopefully.
It’s the tiny, invisible (and opinionated) friend in your brain who’s always telling you not to wear that unflattering top to work.
But have you ever noticed that your thoughts are more than just ideas?
They’re not pictographs or sudden bursts of abstract concepts.
They tend to take the shape of sentences in your native language. You think, “I’m thirsty!” to yourself.
You don’t generally picture a glass of water in your mind.
This is because our brains are wired to learn languages. It’s a natural part of life for most humans, and while the skill may diminish, it doesn’t vanish as we age.
Of course, thinking in a foreign language isn’t natural for most new language learners. You tend to process your thoughts in your native tongue because it’s what you’re used to, and habits are powerful things.
That doesn’t mean you can’t learn to think in Japanese. You can do it. As a matter of fact, this is a vital step on the road to fluency.
It will make your conversations smoother and your use of the language more natural when having conversations. Like any skill in language learning, this is one that you can master. But it’s one that takes time, energy and effort.
Why Do I Need to Learn How to Think in Japanese?
Chances are you won’t wake up one morning and find yourself thinking through your morning routine in Japanese. Even people who have years of study behind them aren’t always doing this.
It’s not impossible, but it’s not very likely unless you get deliberate about it.
Not only that, but it’s a valuable thing to be doing. You don’t want to always be thinking of what to say in English first, then translating into Japanese word by word. Rather, when you’re engaged in Japanese conversation, you’ll want every single word and phrase to come to your brain in Japanese, sans translation.
Another important reason you should start formulating your thoughts in Japanese is that it helps words transition from passive vocabulary (words you know but have a hard time using) to active vocabulary (words you can use fluidly and in natural sentences) more swiftly and allows you to reach fluency faster.
And think about it this way: Whenever you’re thinking in Japanese, you’re practicing Japanese. That can add up to become a lot of extra study time!
Now let’s talk about how you might do it. With the help of the following tips, you’ll get to thinking in Japanese in as little time as possible.
How to Think in Japanese: A Beginner’s Guide
1. Use Real or Imaginary Stories and Conversations
Take note of those small interactions throughout the day
On any given day, you’re likely to talk to at least one person, maybe a few, right?
I don’t mean deep or complicated interactions, either. Think of any conversation you had today. The 30-second snippet with the cashier down the street or the guidelines you received for a project at work would be fine fodder. In fact, the more common the conversations you choose, the stronger your everyday Japanese vocabulary will become.
Keep snippets of that conversation in your mind for later translation. Perhaps pretend to have that conversation again and act it out. By moving words back and forth in context, you’ll create stronger connections with those words and help your brain put the vocabulary to active use.
Narrate your morning routine
If you’re not into chatting or you have a bad memory, don’t fret. You can use the things in your home and your everyday routine to help. Let’s say you get up in the morning and you head to the bathroom. As you get up to go get your toothbrush, start talking to yourself about your day.
You can talk about all of the things you’re going to do in Japanese. Since you use these words on a daily basis, it’s easy to see how you’ll get more and more comfortable with these words.
Create fine fables
If you’re feeling more creative or looking to stretch your vocabulary, then you could make up a story about your toothbrush. What’s he going to do today when you’re gone? Will he save the soap from the perils of your faucet? Romance the floss? Or try to avoid the fate of accidentally falling on the floor?
Every story, day after day, that you tell yourself in Japanese will help you think more in the language. Plus, your morning routine will be a lot less boring!
2. Translate and Practice Monologues in Japanese
When you first begin to think in a different language, you’re translating, translating, translating. Until one day, the word or phrase you’re looking for doesn’t pop up in your native language first, it begins to immediately occur in Japanese. But you’ll need to take your translation skills to the next level and purposefully include new vocabulary. That’s where monologues come in.
Unless you were into drama class in school, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time in the land of monologues. That’s a shame—they’re valuable tools in learning to think in Japanese. They’re also great for introverts since all you need is yourself and some basic tools.
First, get a camera or audio recorder. Most of us have apps for that built into our smartphones and tablets for this already, so check before you download.
Pick your passage
Next, pick a favorite passage from a book or a movie that you love. It could be anything from Shakespeare to “Star Wars.” If you’re more web inclined, you could choose your favorite fan fic or Creepypasta to begin translating.
Just don’t pick something that’s already in Japanese, for obvious reasons. You could choose a subtitled anime or a translated manga if you like. If you’re the creative type you could even write your own story for source material.
Translate the text
Next, translate it into Japanese. This should be done as much from memory as possible, but don’t be afraid to look up words when you need to. Just don’t auto-translate the whole thing at once. It’s tempting to get it done as quickly as possible, but the process is what matters here. Now, start the recorder and begin talking.
Once you have your translation of the piece recorded, play it back. Listen to what you said and translate it to your native language in your own mind. This type of translation back and forth helps to take advantage of your existing pathways, and it holds your interest because of the material.
Keep it short to start
Try to keep paragraphs/recordings under five minutes to begin. You’ll be surprised how far you can get in that little bit of time. Then as you find the translations are getting easier, you can move onto longer and more complex passages. Remember it’s a process, not an end goal.
3. Dive into Complete and Total Japanese Immersion
Immersion is about making the language a part of your everyday life. You can do this in several ways. One of the more common ways is to read news or entertainment sites in Japanese. This will not only help you think more in the language but also create a better ear for it in real life.
Change up the settings on your devices
Another option would be to change your social media or phones language. If you’re at the place where you can read Japanese with some basic skills, then consider changing over one of your social media sites (or your phone if you’re feeling bold) to show you text in Japanese.
With the variety of things that people post, you’re likely to get some great conversational practice and add to your vocabulary swiftly. If you’re feeling really adventurous, then change your whole browser.
Binge watch your way to success
Be sure to put the captions on in your native tongue. This will allow you to hear the words in Japanese and attach them to your English thoughts. In time, you’ll realize that you no longer need the subtitles, and your brain begins to think of what it hears as the natural language of the media you’re consuming.
If you’re looking for something easy to use on the go, then get into J-pop. Song lyrics tend to be catchy and stick in your brain easier than prose normally would. If you need some inspiration, check out this YouTube channel with the top 50 J-Pop songs to get some ideas. By enjoying lyrics in Japanese, you’ll help your brain latch onto complete thoughts in the language.
Get structured immersion with FluentU
Combine the fun of YouTube learning with accurate subtitles and supportive learning tools thanks to FluentU!
FluentU takes real-world Japanese videos—like music videos, movie trailers, documentaries, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs, to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
Final Thoughts About Thinking in Japanese
Remember that you can do this and that it’s a great step up from memorizing vocabulary. It’ll go faster if you make it fun, so find the techniques that appeal to you and use them. Don’t feel locked into one thing just because you started with it.
Just don’t forget that the translation is a vital step in this process. You don’t want to memorize sounds without meanings attached to them.
Don’t be afraid to use tools like your favorite Japanese dictionary—they’re great for words you don’t know, and can be valuable. But don’t abuse them.
If you auto-translate with tools like Google Translate, you’ll miss half of the point of these exercises. You need the words to be strongly associated with your natural thought if you want to be able to think in Japanese at the end of this process.
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