So, I’m going to be totally honest with you.
Speaking Spanish doesn’t automatically lead to thinking in Spanish.
Sorry, but it’s the truth. We language learners would love it if that weren’t the case.
It we be incredible if, by learning a language, thinking in it came along somewhere in the first few chapters.
If we had a magic genie who could grant wishes like that, life would be super.
But hey, we all know that’s not how it works.
Being able to think in Spanish—to find the right words naturally and without having to rely on mental translations—is an important step on the path to fluency, and it takes a lot of hard work to get there.
Even after you have a solid grip on verb conjugations, are comfortable writing in Spanish and can understand your Spanish-speaking friends, thinking in Spanish can prove difficult.
Difficult… but not impossible.
Any Spanish learner can train his or her brain to start thinking in Spanish with a few mental tricks. It won’t be easy all the time, but the leaps you’ll make toward fluency will make it all worthwhile.
We’ll show you seven practical hacks you can use to make this happen—and they’re all based on the very important idea of controlled thinking.
So let’s start by chatting about what that means.
Why You Need to Start “Controlled Thinking”
Most people learn a second language initially through translations. We see the word ventana and we learn that it means “window.”
But you can be fluent if you’re always translating.
Thinking—without translating—is what you need for real fluency. For learners who are totally immersed in Spanish (like anyone living in a Spanish-speaking country), this process is natural. They’re forced to use Spanish all day, every day and can’t use their native language as a crutch.
For the rest of us, controlled thinking is the key. In essence, we can apply strategic mental tricks to suppress translations and prioritize Spanish in our internal monologues.
The ultimate goal is to stop relying on translations and to make Spanish thinking a more natural, even habitual, process.
You’ll eventually see a window and think of the Spanish word ventana instantly, without starting in English.
Now that you’ve been introduced to this concept, we’ll show you some specific ways you can use controlled thinking in Spanish every day.
How to Think in Spanish: 7 Mental Hacks
1. Set Time to Block Out Your Native Language
Set a timer if you must, but allot specific segments of the day where you don’t think in any other language. Hold internal conversations with yourself. Sing songs in your head. Tell stories to yourself—but do it all in Spanish.
This time should be dedicated to intentionally thinking in Spanish.
At first, don’t set yourself up for failure by having unrealistic expectations. You’re just acquiring the technique of thinking in a new language, so don’t plan for two hours of exclusive Spanish thought or you’ll quickly get frustrated and lose your motivation.
Choose reasonable pockets of time when you’ll dedicate yourself to thinking in Spanish. Say two minutes at first, then five, then ten… you get the idea.
2. Use Associations Instead of Translations
Form concrete associations with Spanish vocabulary. Connect Spanish words, expressions and ideas with feelings or images to convey meaning.
If you use flashcards to memorize new vocabulary, put pictures on the back rather than translations. When you look up on a sunny afternoon, take note of the sol (sun) and how you feel caliente (warm).
Try setting up an immersive environment in your own home by labeling objects with their corresponding Spanish word. It might sound silly, but you’ll quickly see it works!
You can even cut out the busywork of making labels and get straight to absorbing Spanish with resources like Vocabulary Stickers. You’ll get more than 130 durable (but removable) Spanish labels for all kinds of household items, from kitchen utensils to clothes to technology.
Plus, they’re color coded for grammatical gender, which is especially helpful for anyone trying to start thinking in Spanish. The visual aid will help cement each word’s gender in your mind naturally.
3. Watch and Read Authentic Spanish Media
Reading in Spanish is a great way to build thinking skills if you concentrate on comprehending without translating.
It’s a new sort of reading, this step in the process. Language learners typically read and translate, and now you’ll do the opposite. Read, but don’t translate—use the vocabulary you have to master this endeavor. A Spanish dictionary (not a bilingual dictionary) will be helpful when you get stuck.
Television is also a great tool! Telenovas can help with thinking in Spanish if you, again, don’t try to translate. Just watch, fall into the story and absorb the action as naturally as possible.
To really ramp things up, check out FluentU! FluentU takes real-world videos, like music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks, and turns them into Spanish learning experiences.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the Spanish language and culture over time. You’ll learn Spanish as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of videos—topics like soccer, TV shows, business, movies and even magical realism, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts. You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used. If you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.
Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s robust learning engine. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and it recommends you examples and videos based on the words you’ve already learned. Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re learning the same video.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store for iOS and Android devices.
4. Try Writing in Spanish
Journaling will help you transition from translating to thinking. Every morning and/or evening, write about your day in Spanish. Writing thoughts out means you’ve got to think—if you’re writing in Spanish, you’re thinking in Spanish.
Another writing exercise that encourages thinking in Spanish is sharing thoughts old-school with a pen pal. Writing to a native Spanish speaker not only forces you to think in Spanish, it’s also a great way to pick up cultural references and social nuances.
Remember, don’t translate the letter—write it naturally, thinking of what you want to say as you’re writing. Again, keep a Spanish dictionary at your side if you’re lost for words.
5. Put Your Social Media in Spanish
We’re all attached to social media, so it makes sense to use it to ramp up every available language opportunity. Set all your apps and browsers to their Spanish language mode so no English shows up.
Once you’ve done that, start browsing and clicking like a Spanish speaker. Follow Spanish-speaking celebrities on Twitter, “like” Spanish-language pages on Facebook and start bookmarking some Spanish blogs.
Focus on language learning whenever you’re online. There’ll be time for funny cat videos later!
6. Talk to Yourself in Spanish
Talk to yourself out loud. Yes, that’s a valid way to begin to think in Spanish. Don’t translate—just talk! The more you use the language, the more likely it is that your transition to thinking will occur in an almost natural wave.
Name items in the house, on the street, in the market and everywhere else, keeping up a steady stream of Spanish in your head. Make tangible associations with phrases so they’re quickly remembered the next time you need them.
And when you’re writing your daily Spanish journal entry (see tip number four), try reading it aloud as well. Not only will this help keep your mind in Spanish mode, it’ll also give you some pronunciation practice.
7. Be Patient with Yourself
Thinking in Spanish—or any foreign language—is a process. It requires intentional, mindful training.
It won’t happen overnight, but if you’re serious about it and apply some of the exercises above, it can happen. Then, you’ll be daydreaming in Spanish—and eventually, dreaming at night in Spanish, too.
Bilingual speakers code switch, which means that according to the situation, they move between languages. Code switching shows it’s possible to think in more than one language.
The switch is possible—and it’s also achievable to mimic that ability even if you’re not a heritage speaker.
These tips for controlled thinking should get you automatically thinking in Spanish sooner than you might… think!
¡Buena suerte! (Good luck!)
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.