I want to address how I think in Portuguese, which is to say, how I translate words I see and interpret words I hear. The initial misconception on how this works is that I see maçã (apple), for example, and then my brain searches for the word, then the translation, and then the word ‘apple’ appears in my mind. Well, that’s actually not how it works. Let me explain.
For me, and maybe this goes for everyone or most people or maybe no one else, but for me, English pretty much goes out the door when I’m thinking in Portuguese. It’s as if my left brain is Portuguese-speaking and my right brain is English-speaking and one side gets turned off while I process things in the language of the opposite side. Make sense?
I’m trying right now to think back on my learning process and if there was a point when I did translate word for word where the phrase ‘eu comi a maçã’ would become something like ‘eu/I…comi/ate…a/the…maçã/apple’. Perhaps in the very beginning, I’m not sure anymore.
When I have to interpret for someone or when subtitles on a movie are in the other language, it’s like my mind doesn’t naturally want to do that work, which tells me that either profession is about training your mind to automatically do the extra level of processing on top of the foreign language side of the brain processing. If you’ve ever spoken with either interpreters or translators, you’d know that they do not appreciate non-professionals even though practically-speaking, knowing another language means you can do either job (notice I didn’t say well). Technically-speaking, though, what they strongly dislike about someone not-highly trained doing such work is that they are taking away work from a professional while doing a worse job at it.
Going back to the main subject, I’d say that once you hit about 85% fluency, you can start to automatically think in that language but if you are finding it hard, try to force yourself to do it. All the things you say to yourself during the day, just think of those very things in Portuguese. Whether you ‘say’ it right is one thing, but there’s also the other side of the coin which is that you are still training your brain to think in that foreign language.