The Scrabble Method to achieving super fluency
In order to speak a foreign language well, you’re supposed to think in that language. We all know this. The idea is so widely accepted among learners that it’s almost a cliché. So why don’t we do it? Why don’t we think in the language that we're trying to speak?
People often contrast thinking in your target language with translating. Supposedly people who don’t speak fluently are thinking things up in their native language and then trying to translate it to the target language.
I don’t think that’s what’s really happening. While there may be some very misguided learners who literally do think out a sentence and then try to translate it, most of us don’t do this. In fact, I don’t think I put my sentences together in English before I start speaking. And I’m a pretty self-controlled, watch-what-you-say kind of guy. So to suggest that I’m pre-preparing English sentences before translating them to Japanese is silly.
So what am I doing? Why am I not thinking in my target language? I think that speakers start by formulating abstract concepts that they want to express. These concepts are pre-linguistic. So for example, an idea might start off as a vague concept of coldness and a feeling of surprise. When I put those together in English, I get the sentence “Wow, it’s cold in here!”. When I try to put the same concepts together in another language, I end up assembling whatever words and phrases I know into something that may or may not get that idea across.
Imagine playing a game of Scrabble. You have 7 letters on your little wooden Scrabble bench that you can make words of. Essentially you have two strategies: 1) Look at the letters that you have plus what’s on the board and try to think of the best word you can make. 2) Think of a really awesome word that you’d like to spell that would get you a lot of points, and then try to make it with the letters you have.
When the game is Scrabble, it’s obvious which is the better strategy. But when we’re playing “Speak a Foreign Language” it’s astonishing how often we do the equivalent of Strategy 2: think something up that would be awesome to say, and then go searching through our mental Scrabble bench to find the words and grammatical structures that might be used to express that thought.
I’m convinced that the most fluent foreign language speakers tend not to use language this way. Instead of constructing sentences around concepts they want to express, the flow goes the other way. They choose the concepts based on the language they have handy.
To take the Scrabble metaphor one step further than it should probably be taken, imagine that for a given situation, you have seven utterances queued up ready to use. So for cold rooms, you have “Wow, it’s cold in here,” “Are you cold?” “Can we turn the heat up a bit?” etc. Your job is just to select which one fits best and push the mental play button. And because you’re not a robot, you can improvise a bit - swap out a noun here, add an adjective there. This seems a lot more useful, and also a lot closer to what goes on in most L1 communication.
Yes, there are times when you'll need to express something that's out of your comfort zone and will have to roll up your sleeves and put a sentence together the old fashioned way. But for the other 90% of the time, use what you already have.
What’s hard about doing this is adopting the correct mindset. You have to limit yourself only to the things you know how to express. I admit that I have a really hard time with this. When someone asks me, for example, what I think of my job, I want to give my truest, most nuanced opinions of my coworkers, the industry I work in, and my daily lunch routine. But wouldn’t it be better for everyone concerned if I just gave the somewhat conventional response they’re probably looking for anyway? And then maybe I can look for a way to express myself in more detail the next time it comes up.
What do you think? Am I on the right track? Way off base? Let me know in the comments.Print this Article