Do you believe that dreaming in another language means that you are fluent? What about if a thought pops into your head in a foreign language? And if you can’t understand the words “target” or “pop” in English, does that mean that you should just give up and stop reading this article?
Well, let me assure you that any dream or thought you have in your target language is a good sign! However, that thought could be somewhat incorrect. And even if you think you can understand every word that the little British rabbit is saying in your dream, it’s possible that his pronunciation is awful.
Therefore, the solution here is not to think in black or white. In other words: don't panic or shut down if you come across a new word (or words) and be sure to let all those mixed thoughts into your brain.
Here are a few methods and tips that I, along with my students, have tried and tested over the years, with very positive results:
Have classes only in your target language
Needless to say, you must immerse yourself completely in a language in order to be able to properly absorb it. That may seem scary, but it’s necessary. Otherwise, your progress will be very, very slow.
Get rid of your dictionaries
This is a very controversial idea to many students and teachers, but it’s always good to have an open mind towards new and proven ideas, even if they are hard work. Dictionaries are, in fact, a very useful tool at certain times. However, that time is not in an actual conversation or class.
In general, it’s a very good idea to consult a dictionary before your lesson, during a break or at any other time when you are alone. This is because you tend to want to be sure, 100% sure, of the meaning of a difficult word. However, if you panic when you forget a word, are too shy to ask for more examples or get too embarrassed to ask for help when you don’t understand, you may be tempted to take the quickest, safest and most comfortable route and check a dictionary, even when you are talking to someone.
However, this can be unhelpful because you really need to learn how to ask, describe, put into context and say things on your own. This allows you to learn synonyms directly by using them. It also helps you to learn how to express yourself better, as well as focus on the holistic meaning of what people are saying. Your aim should be to understand 80% of your lesson.
By abandoning your dictionary until later, you will force your mind to adapt. Slowly but surely, it will get easier and your brain will stop trying to translate words into your native tongue.
An example I give my students is: “Do you know what a chicken is? Can you imagine it? Can you see it? Is it an object, an idea? What is it? Is it big? Is it red? What is it for? Where can you find one? Do you need to always translate that word in your mind before you see it?”
Once you can fully describe something while simultaneously seeing it in your mind, you truly know a word. If you rely on a dictionary to do this for you, you won't learn how to think of it in your target language. Moreover, if you look up a word in a dictionary, you may get confused because that word could be associated with many different contexts and situations. Simply memorising when to use it and in what context can make the word seem overly complicated and hard to remember. This will lead you to making mistakes. As a result, letting go of dictionaries does, in time, truly work.
Make to-do lists or shopping lists
Plan your day by making a short list and only writing important key words down. You could also write a shopping list in your target language. This way, you will look at your list repeatedly throughout the day and recognise those actions as they happen or those items when you find them.
Write a diary
After having followed your list, you could then look back at what you did during the day. Write a simple diary focusing on what happened, how you felt, what you are planning to do or maybe even what you want to do.
If you don't like to use paper because you're a device addict, there are many useful and free websites. I use this one.
Choose a swear word or phrase
Although it isn't good to swear, it is handy to have a favourite word or phrase to express your frustration. When we are angry, we tend to react quickly and without thinking. Therefore, saying a bad word in your target language means that your instincts are working in this language. Furthermore, people who don't know that language will be less likely to realise that you’re swearing because they don’t understand what you just said.
Choose some fillers
Fillers are little phrases that buy you time when you are thinking about what to say. Select at least three and memorise them. Start using them frequently so that you will get used to them. These phrases are useful because people don't want to hear “uuuuuuuhhhh…..” every two words when you are speaking. Plus these words will help your confidence.
Read children's books
I know, I know. You probably think that your level is too high to be reading children's books. Well, I can assure you that I have taught up to proficiency level and this was still challenging for those students. And I don't mean for you to read comics because they can contain excessive amounts of slang. Instead, choose thin storybooks, preferably a classic story that you already know. The sentences are short, but there is always a lot of vocabulary in context. This means that you can guess the meaning because it is logical.
You will also find verbs of movement, onomatopoeias (words related to sounds) and reported speech (He skipped. The dog howled. She told me to go). Furthermore, the pictures really help!
There are some good websites where you can read classic children's books, although I personally think that the feel of a real book is much nicer.
In any case, here is a helpful, free site. Some stories are longer than others.
Play Taboo-like games
This follows the same idea as not using a dictionary, but it can be a lot of fun with several teams! Write down words for other people to guess without actually saying the words on the paper. This forces you to describe the word in detail and the other person to visualise it and maybe ask questions. You could make it harder by writing down easy words that the speaker cannot use. These are called “banned words.” For example, if the word was “Christmas,” but you weren’t allowed to say “Father Christmas,” “Santa Claus,” “Christmas tree” or “presents”... it would be much harder for someone to guess. There is a lot of material online, being that the classic game of Taboo is so popular. Here is an easy example.
Watch your favourite film
Most of us have a film we know by heart because we have watched it a hundred times or more. Now, watch it in your target language! You can also watch it dubbed, but don’t use subtitles; these distract you from following people's body language, facial gestures or tone of voice. That is why you should choose a version where people are or look like they are speaking in your target language. Please keep in mind that neither subtitles nor dubbing constitute a word for word translation, but instead provide the same general meaning as the words of the original film. If you enjoy films with songs, then this could be a good way of remembering sentence order by singing along.
By following these techniques, you will be able to remember what you need to do in your target language, as well as write better and make your sentences more interesting. Furthermore, you’ll be able to have a conversation without fear of getting stuck, easily speak with your foreign friends and comfortably read a book like Aladdin! Enjoy!