(part of this post was formulated as a response to a question on HTLAL. several people seemed to find my response useful, so I decided to elaborate here)
A question came up recently about what to do when you get stuck thinking in your native language (L1) too much while trying to learn a new language (L2). Maybe you don’t get things when you don’t translate them back to something comfortable. And then you start to worry that you’ll ever start to actually think in your target language.
I suggest that you try this: Try reading but “ignoring” the meanings of the words. Instead of reading like you have been, just try to go through a whole page where you just look at each L2 word sequentially, and try to say each word out loud or in your head. Don’t even try to “understand” anything, just look at those words and hear their sound in your head. focus on that sound.
If there are any words you don’t know, it doesn’t matter. Pretend they’re all words that you don’t know, and just look at them and think of their sound in your head. just keep moving slowly and steadily through the entire page, looking at every word, but not consciously trying to understand.
I think what you’ll actually find is that you really will understand a lot of it. What this should help with is removing any anxiety about needing to know the meaning of every single word, which is probably one of the reasons you’re trying to translate them in your head. By focusing purely on the sounds, and their feel, you can remove the temptation to do any English, and just absorb yourself in the experience of looking at and sounding out L2 words.
Perhaps part of the frustration is that you’ve been trained by school to think that you must get everything 100% right. This is a useless habit to be in when learning languages, because you’re guaranteed to get some things wrong for a long long time. You have to learn how to accept this and move on. You learn a lot by simple exposure to the language, especially exposure to content that is just a little bit challenging, a little bit out of reach.
Another part of the problem might be that your balance of Intensive and Extensive reading is out of whack. Intensive reading is where you investigate every detail of a small portion of text, whereas Extensive reading is focused on letting go and just reading lots and lots. During Extensive reading you have a much higher chance of enjoying the material, and of being absorbed into it. You want to lose track of time and fall into the book so that nothing else matters. Ignore all problems, ignore all words that you don’t know. Just read them and move on.
It’s important to cultivate this skill of Extensive reading. Don’t stick purely to the perfectionism of Intensive work. This comes in handy when watching TV in your L2, for example. When I worry about understanding every word, I’m constantly rewinding and turning on subtitles and looking up words, and I lose all enjoyment of the show. It becomes too much about “work” and I don’t want to do it anymore. On the other hand, when I just take a deep breath and let go, I start to fall into it and enjoy it. To do this, I remind myself that we’re all supposed to suck at the start. It’s just the way things are. There’s no way I can expect to know all these words they’re saying, but if I hear them enough in context then they’ll at least start to become familiar.
If I succeed in letting go of my inhibitions and I just watch the show, an interesting thing will happen. I’ll start to feel like I’m actually understanding what they’re saying. I won’t need a little English voice in my head translating, I’ll just get it. I’m not getting every single word; in fact there might be lots and lots of words that I’m missing. But by being absorbed in the show, it doesn’t matter anymore.
This “feeling” is not the same as total comprehension. If someone suddenly asks me “hey, what did he just say?” then it can be very difficult or impossible to translate that phrase into English. It’s like waking from a dream and not being able to remember the events. You know you understood it at the time, but now the feeling is gone.
You want to cultivate this feeling of immersion when you do Extensive reading too. Later on, when you go look up a couple of the problem words, you’ll still remember the scene of the book where they happened. Remembering this scene will help you remember the words much better, but you won’t remember the scene if it never got created in your head in the first place. To create the scenes of the book in your head, you have to let the words flow over you. You have to immerse yourself in it, get lost in it. This is very hard to do if you’re constantly translating back to English.
To get yourself into that L2 trance, focus on the sounds of the words like a mantra. Follow the sounds, just try to BE in the language.
One of the long-term benefits of Extensive reading is that you’ll be able to absorb information at a glance. In the past month, I’ve done very little Intensive reading. Instead, I’ve spent my time just reading for enjoyment and not trying to study any of the words specifically. After a month of this, I have trouble pointing to any specific words that I “learned”, but everything has become much easier to comprehend at a glance. When I do my German flashcards, I can go through them much much faster, because I can read the whole card in just one look, and I know exactly what it means. No translating to English.
Another benefit is that I can now read German out loud at a normal speaking pace. Before I would stutter and stop, and my eyes and mind couldn’t move fast enough to comprehend the text in order to speak it out at the right speed. I…would…read…it….like…this. Now I can look ahead and the words just pop into my mind because I’m understanding them in German, not translated into English.
So, don’t give up. This will happen. It just takes time and exposure. Keep your motivation up by doing fun things, and it’ll be more fun if you can get more absorbed in it and stop caring so much about every single word. Later if you go back to studying specific words, those individual words will also make more sense. Do something every day and enjoy it. It will all start to make sense over time.