How to think in Japanese: changing your inner monologue

think-in-japaneseThe idea of learning to think in Japanese—actually switching one’s “inner monologue” from English to Japanese—is one I have been thinking about and working with for some time.

I have read advice on this, which essentially boils down to making yourself say the things you normally say to yourself in Japanese. Like “what a nice day”, or “where did I put that pencil?”

Eventually, because the mind is a creature of habit, Japanese will begin to dethrone English as your default means of thinking.

That is the theory and, given a lot of determination, I think it works. But it is possible to make the process much easier and more effective.

Let us just think things a little further and wonder to what extent does one actually have an inner monologue? In English or Japanese?

Having an inner monologue to a large extent rests on being alone. If you are in company you say what you think to those you are with. If you are alone you say it to yourself. Maybe.

We all work differently, so I can only talk about my own experience. I am an extravert and a person to whom communication is a paramount need, even though circumstances lead me to mostly live the life of a hikikomori (sometimes it is hard being a doll in a human world).

My word-world revolves around communication. When I think things in words it is usually because I am thinking in terms of communicating them. Otherwise I tend to think in a vague non-verbal kind of way.

Now when I say “thinking in terms of communicating them” I don’t mean that I am necessarily going to communicate them. Often I am not. But I am thinking them in words with a view to their potential communication. What I might have said if such-a-person was there. How I might tell the story. How I might blog it. If I used Facebook, I would probably think what I might post there. Etc.

You might state things in a somewhat witty or sardonic manner. You are not trying to amuse yourself. You are saying what you might say to amuse someone in your circle if they were present.

Now you may not be the same. I don’t know how other people are. But in my experience “inner monologue” insofar as it is really “monologue” (i.e. verbal) at all is actually potential outer dialogue.

In practice—at least if you are anything like me—this has important effect on how (and whether) we can change our thinking to Japanese.

When I am thinking about writing or talking, to a person or an audience, in English, I think in English. When I am thinking about writing or talking, to a person or an audience, in Japanese, I think in Japanese. It really is as simple as that.

The “brute force” method of making myself say things to myself in Japanese is really doing it the hard way, and it only lasts as long as I am actually thinking about it. But if I think in terms of expressing it, say, on the Kawaii Japanese Forums, or to someone with whom I habitually communicate in Japanese, it comes out in Japanese naturally.

Language is made for communication, and communication (at least in my case) determines our language. Even in English, we will think differently, make different kinds of joke, be more or less formal, depending on what kind of person we are (vaguely) thinking of speaking to when we verbalize to ourselves.

Mentioning the Kawaii Japanese Forums sounds a little like self-advertisement, but it isn’t as if we make any money out of them, and no one else seems to be doing anything similar. They absolutely aren’t the only way of doing this, and it is good if you have various people that you regularly speak to/correspond with in Japanese only. In my experience that only is important because it determines Japanese as the pure default language in that relationship. When I think about A-san I think in Japanese.

Set up as many such situations as possible. Then when you find your inner monologue is in the wrong language, instead of thinking “I must think in Japanese”, just think of speaking to A-san about whatever you are thinking, or posting it on the Forum (even if it is something you might not actually post). If you have Japanese-only Twitter, think about tweeting it. Or do. (I don’t tweet a lot myself, but if you tweet at me in Japanese, I’ll tweet back). But you don’t have to do it. You just need to gear your mind into that communication-sphere, which is Japanese.

But for that, of course you must establish Japanese communication-spheres. And keep them regularly active. If you don’t know where to start with that, I really do recommend popping along to the Kawaii Japanese Forums. And join in! Really, we welcome newcomers of every level, and we are all learning, so don’t feel shy. えんりょしないで!

Language is communication. Communication is people. Inner monologue is outer dialogue internalized. Thus (certainly in my case and very possibly in yours) the key to inner monologue is outer dialogue.


8 thoughts on “How to think in Japanese: changing your inner monologue

  1. Thank you for this very good tip, I am learning Spanish not Japanese, but that doesn´t matter of course. I am glad to hear to not be the only one pretending to be talking to someone all the time in my head. You are right it is usually no monologue, but preparation for a dialogue. Very well written post. Have a nice time.

  2. Dolly-san, thank you for this post, I found it very interesting. As a point in contrast I consider myself fairly far towards the introvert end of the spectrum, and I have historically tended to think of my thoughts as monologues. However, this post made me realize the extent to which that isn’t exactly true and the extent to which there is an implied conversation — even if the person at the other end of it is myself! Of course for most of my life, even well into my Japanese study, this process has been entirely in English. However, interestingly, once I started participating on the forums and having conversations in Japanese over twitter the Japanese didn’t stay confined to those activities. Most notably, it was almost magical the way complete Japanese sentences started appearing in my private journal once I began to use the language actively!

    (By the way, various circumstances have left me without time for the forum over the past few weeks, but that’s changing and I hope to rejoin shortly!)

    1. Oh thank you for commenting. I am particularly interested to hear the experience of someone on the more introvert end of the scale (I am actually very shy, but extravert. Mostly I am shy because I don’t understand humans too well, being a doll).

      But I thought it might be similar for introverted people, because language is a means of communication before it is anything else for all of us, after all.

      It is really quite magic the way it happens isn’t it? I find that one can do all the good-intention forcing of oneself to think in Japanese in the world and it only works a bit, but communicating in Japanese just throws a switch inside, doesn’t it?

      I tend to think in Japanese “by accident” (i.e. without particularly intending to) far more than I do deliberately, and how often that happens is entirely dependent on how much of my outer communication is Japanese.

      I am so glad you will be able to re-join the forums soon. We have missed you!

  3. I find this so interesting mainly due to English not being my native language.

    I’ll explain a little bit, in case someone’s interested.

    So, I’m Mexican and my first language (and the one I use with pretty much everyone I talk to during the day) is Spanish. Still, I have memories of being fives years old and struggling to understand the random (often mispronounced, though at the moment I didn’t have a clue) English phrases my father threw at me.

    Fast-forwarding to seventh grade, I began English lessons in the “classical” fashion. You know, going to school and sitting in front of a teacher that’s telling you about grammar, conjugations, and things like that. I loved English, so I paid attention.

    I’m not sure at what time, but a day I suddenly realized “hey, I’m thinking in English!” and you know what… I haven’t stopped.

    I speak Spanish every single time I need to talk to a person, but sometimes one stubborn English word will slip simply because I’m so used of having my mind work with it that even when it is working with another language some English prevails.

    Did I have tons of hearing practice? No, I attended school saturdays only and at that time tools from the internet weren’t available for everyone (certainly not for me). I think it has to do with me being a big introvert. Being an introvert doesn’t mean you don’t communicate, it just means you don’t talk too often with others… Yep, I spoke (and still speak) to myself whenever possible.

    Right now I’m learning Japanese. I love the language and I love the things done with it (like anime and drama, as well as songs). I’m completely decided to “think in Japanese” too, but I don’t intend to replace English with it, I didn’t have to replace Spanish when learning English and I don’t think I’ll do so with Japanese either.

    I like my languages. They’re mine, all of them! God bless the poor souls (mostly family and classmates… introvert, remember?) trying to understand me during the new language acquisition, because that’s when I mix languages the most.

    I really do hope one day I can do with Japanese what I do with English now (I’m fluent in it by itself, no Spanish required haha). I think this site is a nice complement to other resources to achieve just that. Thank you so much for the hard work!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. And thank you for sharing your story. It really is an inspiration. It is interesting how English seems to have moved by itself into your thoughts. Do you see/read a lot of English-language media?

      I think you are right about being an introvert having a lot to do with it. Being extravert can have big disadvantages in this area I think! The best way for me to make up for that is to try to have as much communication as possible in Japanese.

  4. At the time English “moved” to my thoughts and I discovered I no longer translated Spanish to English but produced English by itself I didn’t have many opportunities to truly use English. The thing is, I’ve always thought a lot. I think about stories (I like to write), the weather or the reason for human existence haha. Back then, I caught myself using English in my mind.

    The true breakthrough, though, came when I bought the seventh Harry Potter book. It was just released and the library didn’t have translations yet… so I bought it in English. There I was, a barely intermediate student with this huge novel in my target language…

    It took me months to read the book and I didn’t get too much of it (I’m not the “kill yourself student” type of gal so I didn’t even bother with a dictionary). I read it again immediately after I finished.

    To this day, every time I read my beloved book I feel like I understand a little bit more of it and gosh it feels great!

    Now, the reason I think I started to “think in English” is: I learned words to which I had no Spanish equivalents. Every time I thought of some of those words I thought in English, because there was just no other way around!

    Now I’m not fourteen anymore and I have a big pool of English and Spanish vocabulary so that advantage is no longer with me. Still, I sort of caught myself thinking in Japanese yesterday. “Sort of” because I don’t have enough vocabulary to make true thoughts and the missing words were filled with gibberish… but hey, some were in Japanese!

    Haha I’m loving the site more and more. If you ever feel like chatting I’d be pleased to do so.

    I also have some Graded (Beginner, intermediate and advanced) reading materials in Japanese that I could share with those who want them.


  5. This is really interesting.

    I think the thing about really loving something and working through it even though it is very slow at first is parallel to my experience. I say “working” but it isn’t really “work” is it? The fundamental motivation is the love of Harry Potter, or Smile Precure, or whatever it is.

    A very important piece of advice that one can’t really give is: “find something in Japanese that you adore so much that pushing your way through it at a snail’s pace (at first) is a labor of pure love”. To some extent that was Precure for me, and to some extent just being in love with Japanese itself.

    But you can’t tell people “fall in love” as a piece of language-learning advice! Even though it is really the best advice possible!

    I have often made the point that Japanese isn’t really translatable. So even though we now have a much bigger English and/or Spanish vocabulary than we had at 14, I think more and more one finds things that can really only be said in Japanese. Of course you can “translate” anything, but there is so much that translates only very roughly.

    When I write stories in Japanese, I find that they are “Japanese stories” – that is, putting them into English really takes a lot away from them because they weren’t conceived in English and the “feeling” of them doesn’t come out the same if they are translated.

    My Spanish is far too poor, I am afraid, to know if there is a similar thing with English and Spanish (that some thoughts are “English thoughts” and don’t come over properly in Spanish, and vice versa). Of course English and Spanish are much more similar than either and Japanese.

    Thank you so much for your kind offer of the books. I have a lot of Japanese children’s novels too and have been wondering if there would be a way to share some of them at some stage.

    I did write you a small email in Japanese. I hope it didn’t fall into your spam folder!

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