How can I start to think in Spanish and stop translating word-for-word in my head? – Real Fast Spanish Subscriber
If you want to produce Spanish confidently, quickly and accurately, you need to learn how to start thinking in Spanish. And, how to avoid translating each and every word in your head from English to Spanish.
In this article, you’ll learn how to start developing your thinking in Spanish, how to view the problem, and how to reduce the need to translate word-for-word.
How to think about the problem
Almost every day, I receive a question from a Spanish student asking why there isn’t an exact translation for a given English sentence in Spanish.
English: I have to go to the bank.
Español: Yo tengo que ir al banco.
Student question: why do we say ‘que’ since the Spanish word ‘a’ is ‘to’ in English?
Or another example:
English: Have you met María?
Español: ¿Conoces a María?
Student question: why do we say ‘conoces’ which is present tense in Spanish when ‘have you met’ is the past tense in English? And why do we need the ‘a’?
For me, part of what makes learning Spanish so fun is the different ways English and Spanish address similar ideas.
To respond to these questions, I often start by saying that English and Spanish are different languages. And, students will universally accept the idea that English and Spanish won’t have identical vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure.
But, they’ll still be frustrated by a lack of consistency, logic or simple rules we can apply in several situations.
Part of the problem is that there are many sentences in Spanish that we can translate exactly word-for-word.
English: I can finish the project tomorrow.
Español: Yo puedo terminar el proyecto mañana.
Here we can translate word-for-word because both languages have equivalent vocabulary and an identical sentence structure in this context.
This happens a lot in Spanish which means students can get accustomed to finding word-for-word translations.
But, then there are situations where a word-for-word translation ends up a long way from where we need to be.
English: I haven’t got any soup left.
Español: No me queda nada de sopa.
Here ‘haven’t’ may tempt a student to use ‘tener‘. ‘Got’ may tempt a student to use ‘conseguir‘. ‘Any’ may tempt a student to use ‘alguno‘ or ‘ninguno‘. And, ‘left‘ may cause more confusion.
So, what do we do about this? How do we deal with the contrast between sentences that we can translate word-for-word and the ones we can’t?
In other words, how do we start to think in Spanish?
Step 1 – To think in Spanish, learn to let go
Probably the most important step in the process of starting to think in Spanish is letting go of the need to find exact word-for-word translations.
I’ll admit this is easier said than done!
But, it starts by acknowledging that word-for-word translations don’t always exist.
And, getting accustomed to phrases that don’t translate well is a skill that you can improve.
Instead of trying to push your understanding of an unusual Spanish phrase by searching for the best possible equivalent in English, remind yourself that English and Spanish are different languages and that a perfect word-for-word translation may not exist.
Every time you see a Spanish phrase with a translation that doesn’t line up exactly as you expect it would, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I roughly know what this Spanish sentence means?
- Do I know enough to attempt to use this Spanish sentence in a conversation?
If you can say ‘yes’ to both of these questions, or even two strong ‘maybes’, then this is enough!!
Try the sentence out in a Spanish conversation and see if the native you are speaking with can follow you.
If so, fantastic, you can move onto another concept.
It may be true that you don’t have a deeply internalized understanding of what the Spanish sentence means in English.
But, if you can use it, and a Spanish native understands it. The process of letting go has done its job.
Then, over time, as you use the sentence more, it will start to feel more and more comfortable.
The next step is to look for better ways to think about learning new Spanish structures.
Step 2 – Ask ‘how’ questions instead of ‘why’ questions
“An approximate answer to the right question is worth far more than a precise answer to the wrong one.” — John Tukey.
If you ever work as a language teacher, you’ll see a pattern emerge around ‘why’ questions.
You might have noticed the two examples I provided above both had ‘why’ questions from students.
Here is another example:
English: The night, the day.
Español: La noche, el día.
Student question: why is ‘night’ feminine and ‘day’ masculine in Spanish, especially when ‘día’ ends in the letter ‘a’?
(As an aside: I actually got this question today while writing this article. How would you respond to this question?)
The pattern that occurs is that some students want to know the ‘why’ behind almost everything. And, often there isn’t a good answer.
With Spanish noun gender, the gender is assigned based on spelling, etymology, analogy or some other convention.
And, there are exceptions to almost every case.
Why would some words be assigned gender based on etymology when other words from Latin are assigned gender based on spelling or analogy?
Often, there is no good answer, and chasing an answer can be a waste of time.
The main problem with ‘why’ questions:
Firstly, the problem is if there is no good answer, it can leave you feeling frustrated.
But, then, if there is a good answer to a ‘why’ question, knowing it may not actually help you with your Spanish goals.
For example, if we combine direct and indirect object pronouns in Spanish, we get:
English: I need to give it to him.
Español: Necesito dárselo.
Student question: why do we need to say ‘se lo’ instead of ‘le lo’?
Here, there is a really good ‘why’ answer. And that is ‘se lo’ is easier to say than ‘le lo’.
But, while this is a reasonable answer to the ‘why’ question, this information may not help a Spanish student remember the words ‘se‘ and ‘lo‘ when they need to use it in a Spanish conversation.
This is because knowing the answer to the ‘why’ question doesn’t necessarily assist in creating useful memory associations or improve a student’s knowledge of the actual phrase.
For example, maybe the student that asked this question, in the future, will need to say “I need to give it to him”. And the first thing that comes to their mind is “I know I need something here that is easier to say but I can’t remember what it is” or maybe just “what is the word for ‘it’ and ‘him’?”
I know that a lot of students love to ask ‘why’ questions because it helps them spot patterns and understand what they are learning.
But, the key goal with language learning is not ‘understanding’ a Spanish sentence but simply ‘remembering’ it.
And, as I mentioned earlier ‘understanding’ often comes in the form of trying to figure out why English and Spanish are different. And maybe the problem is English, not Spanish.
For example, when it comes to negation in Spanish, there is a pattern that is quite different from English:
English: I don’t have anything.
Español: No tengo nada.
Student question: why do we say ‘nada’ in this Spanish sentence?
Here another way to look at this question would be “why don’t we say “nothing” in this English sentence?”
Then, if we do a bunch of work, maybe we can find out the etymology of negation in Spanish and English.
But, all of that work may not help us with our original goal of simply wanting to speak Spanish well.
And, it comes back to the quote at the start of this section, that is an approximate answer to the right question is worth far more than a precise answer to the wrong question.
So, how then can we start to ask the right questions.
A better approach is to start asking ‘how’ questions:
Instead of asking ‘why’ questions, when you are learning a language, it is much more powerful for your memory, retention and understanding to ask ‘how’ questions.
- Why is ‘el día’ masculine and ‘la noche’ feminine?
Ask questions like:
- How can I remember that ‘el día’ is masculine and ‘la noche’ is feminine?
- Or, how can I get used to ‘el día’ being masculine and ‘la noche’ being feminine?
- And, how can I use ‘el día’ and ‘la noche’ in a Spanish sentence?
If you can come up with a good answer to these questions, you’ll end up with everything that you need.
Moreover, the answers can be different for every student. And, they don’t have to be perfect.
Question: How can I remember that ‘el día’ is masculine and ‘la noche’ is feminine?
First student: I can remember ‘e’ and ‘d’ are close in the alphabet. And, ‘l’ and ‘n’ are close in the alphabet. Therefore, it’s ‘el día’ and ‘la noche’.
Second student: I have a male friend ‘Ed’ that reminds me of ‘El día’. And, I have a female friend ‘Lana’ that reminds me of ‘La noche’.
Third student: I can remember that in the day ‘el día’ we see the masculine sun ‘el sol’. And at night ‘la noche’ we see the feminine moon ‘la luna’.
The key is that coming up with answers to these questions helps you remember what you need to know.
In contrast, if we answer the ‘why’ question and learn that both ‘el dia’ and ‘la noche’ are masculine and feminine because of their etymology, where they match their original gender in Latin, this doesn’t help us when we need to use these words in a Spanish conversation (unless we already know Latin and how many words match gender between Spanish and Latin).
So, now you have let go of the need to find exact word-for-word translations. And, you have started to ask ‘how’ questions for memory. The last step is to continue learning.
Step 3 – Continue to build your knowledge of Spanish
As a Spanish student, it’s simply your job to continue to learn and grow your knowledge of Spanish.
That way, over time, you’ll have an ever-increasing toolkit that will allow you more ways to think in Spanish.
And, as a Spanish teacher, I feel it is my central job to help students ‘think in Spanish’ by introducing concepts that are different from English.
In our Spanish courses, every lesson of every week involves an explanation of how Spanish is different from English and how you can develop your Spanish thinking.
And, every time I share a lesson, give an example, answer a question, teach new vocabulary, or explain a grammar rule, I’m helping students find new ways to improve their Spanish thinking.
That said, over the years, I have had a number of students propose the idea that ‘thinking in Spanish’ is a switch that you can turn on and off.
In other words, they have spent enough time learning the language and they just need to ‘turn on’ the magic ‘thinking in Spanish’ part of their brain and instantly achieve fluency.
However, it doesn’t work like this.
If you don’t have a word, phrase, or grammar rule, you won’t be able to find it in your mind by simply changing the way you think.
For example, if you want to say:
English: Yesterday I went to the beach and saw crabs on the sand.
Español: Ayer fui a la playa y vi ______ en _______.
If you can’t remember or have never seen the word for ‘crab’ in Spanish (el cangrejo) or the word for sand (la arena), then you won’t be able to say this sentence.
Here is another example, with a few tricky grammar points:
English: What is the first thing you think of when you get up in the morning?
Español: ¿Qué es lo primero en lo que piensas cuando te levantas por la mañana?
Again, if you haven’t been exposed to the use of ‘lo’, sentence word order, reflexive verbs, or preposition use, this sentence will be hard to produce.
In essence, your ability to think in Spanish comes down to how well you have been exposed to the language and retained the ways that Spanish is different from English.
And, to improve this, you need to keep learning and building your knowledge of Spanish in a systematic way. As well as using techniques such as letting go and asking better questions to retain what you have learnt.
Thinking in Spanish and avoiding word-for-word translations is important for your development as a Spanish student.
Start by working on letting go of the need to find exact word-for-word translations.
Then, look for ways to ask ‘how’ questions for retention (e.g. How can I use this idea? How can I remember this idea?)
And, continue to build your knowledge of the Spanish language, and you’ll see that your thinking in Spanish will simply get better and better over time.
How else can you improve your ability to think in Spanish?