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Mental mapping and efficiency of "thinking" in Chinese

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Hi Everyone. I'm an ABC re-learning Mandarin. My mom is Taiwanese so I'm predominately focused on re-learning traditional characters - however I do learn simplified alongside it. An issue I've run into has to do with the mental mapping of how my brain processes thinking/speaking in real time. When I was younger, I was taught to use 拼音 (pinyin) for the phonetics of learning. I briefly attended an ABC focused Chinese language school on Saturdays. I never attended that school for long, and I unfortunately grew up in a predominantly English speaking environment, thus my Mandarin never really progressed.

Nowadays, whenever I "think" in Chinese, my brain actively tries to print the mental image of the Chinese character, but when I'm "talking to myself" in Chinese, my brain invariably has to jump to the pinyin pronunciation along with it. Essentially, my brain is processing two language systems at the same time, and I find myself not "firing" or "thinking" as efficiently as I want to. It's like a code-switching process, but within the brain itself.

Maybe this doesn't sound clear, but what I mean by this process is something like this. Let's say I'm "thinking" in my head: 我今天很累。Invariably, my brain has to produce: Wǒ jīntiān hěn lèi. The Chinese characters will manifest somewhat closely in time after the pinyin, but there is always a slight delay. I'm talking micro-seconds in my brain, but from a neurological pathway sense, this shows me that I'm still "thinking" in English as opposed to Chinese. Simultaneously, my brain is also producing the "mental image" of the concept, object, etc of the word in question of course.

I'm concerned that I won't be able to get over this hurdle. If I had instead began my journey with 注音 (zhuyin, bopomofo) maybe I wouldn't have as much of a mental hurdle...

Anyway, I'm curious to hear the thoughts of those who are bilingual? Specifically, I'd be interested to hear the experiences of ABC's who learned English and Chinese simultaneously (or close in sequence) while growing up in a dual language environment.

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I am not sure your question has much to do with growing up bilingual. There's a process everyone goes through of first needing to translate everything from their primary language to the newly acquired one. However, with enough practice, it simply happens that the newer language comes out correctly without that inner translation first. It's not like a switch was thrown but more of a process where the more familiar an exchange is, the more easily the newer language simply gets spoken, while with harder situations the inner translation continues to go on.

Whatever your language, when you are deep in a conversation, you are not normally thinking the words first before you say them. You just say them.

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Yes, I agree with @Moshen. If you are not fluent in a language, what you are experiencing as well as other things are bound to happen. Once you reach a fluent level on a language, then you'll use that language automatically as you do with English. In some circumstances, however, you'll become self-conscious of what you are doing - like in those instances when you are driving a car and you suddenly realise that, sweet dancing Jehovah, you are actually driving a car! At that moment you'll probably start seeing again those "visual queues" inside your inner monologue and you'll feel that your grasp of the language is not as a good as moments earlier, but that's just part of the survival mechanism of your brain trying to help you out as much as possible.


Personally, I neither see characters or Pinyin in my inner monologue when I think in Mandarin - never have IIRC.

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As I understand you already speak Mandarin. Already a big advantage or if you can’t speak, then at least you have some degree of listening skills (even if latent). Then it’s a case of learning to read. 

Just expose yourself to more reading and speaking or listening at the same time. 

When you come to an unknown word in daily life, ask someone to read it out loud for you. They won’t be using pinyin to help remember it.

Writing out the most 300-400 common chinese characters without the pinyin will help a lot as you will gradually get more familiar with commonly occurring words and the radicals for unknown words. 


if you like following the lyrics to songs, then watching and listening to people at karaoke is also pretty useful. The subtitles shouldn’t have pinyin to slow you down. 


pinyin zhuyin no difference for your situation  IMHO. 

ABC vs other overseas Chinese who briefly attended Chinese school are also no different IMHO. It’s no harder or easier. 

I myself am switching between Cantonese Mandarin and use pinyin as an aid. Also switching between simplified and traditional. How do I use pinyin? Only when I see and hear a word first. Then I check the pinyin and tone. I never write the pinyin down. If I forget, I have to look it up again. Its a deliberate strategy to force myself on not to overly rely on pinyin 

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