The Language You Think In

Multilingual people are always asked things like “what language do you think in?” “what language do you dream in?”

Although I have met a cognitive psychologist who believes thought does consist of language operators, in college I learned the theory that we don’t really think in language. We just think, and then the ‘language organ’ will translate that into your dominant language. That was hard for me to imagine when I was a monolingual, but now that I have a few languages to work with, I will confirm that I think without language all the time.

So the other day I was thinking about successful language learning, and how much I hate flashcards (because flashcards train recall, and recall is a grossly ineffective way of moving lexemes into one’s working lexicon, and because language is more than just lexicon, yadda yadda…). There’s gotta be some non-flashcard strategy that successful L2 speakers achieve.

And I remembered this desire that intermediate students are always expressing to me; they say, I want to get to the point where I’m just talking, where I don’t have to think in English and then translate my English into L2.

It is true that translating is a very different skill than being bilingual. There are plenty of bilinguals who are not good at translating; there are plenty of translators who are not bilingual (I remember asshole monolingual students being skeptical about this). Also, I’ll state without citing much evidence that the standard American L2 classroom is actually training people to translate, not to be bilingual, so it’s no wonder that folks get stuck in “translate” mode.

And then I remembered, back in college, back when I used to care passionately about being a super bilingual, I used to switch my interior monologue. You could say that I chose to “think” in L2; I might say that I used L2 (rather than English) as the default translator of my thoughts. At first I felt like English kept “interfering” with my L2 interior monologue, but then I realized I was anthropomorphizing English, as if it were a jealous goalee in my head. If a specific language is just a habit, I knew (correctly) that I could learn to let it go eventually.

Some functional L2 speakers talk about switching languages like throwing a switch; when they hear a language, they start to ‘think’ in that language, sometimes at the detriment of the other languages. A lot of very highly functional L2 speakers, on the other hand, code switch between L1 and L2 when with peers; both for pragmatic reasons, but also for effect… and for fun; in other words, their switch is pretty loose. In any case, regardless of proficiency, it seems to me that the ability to switch the language of the interior monologue is the mark of a functional L2 speaker. I know plenty of ESL people who say “I mostly think in English now” even if they don’t have superior proficiency.

So if you’re looking for a language learning tip from me, there it is; try switching your interior monologue to the target language. It will be hard at first, but you’ll make new habits, and it will be come easier, especially if you’re immersed in L2. If you’re not immersed, it won’t hurt either. At the very least, it’s communication practice, even though you’re only communicating with yourself.

What if you don’t know enough words? Then ask someone for the words, duh. And yes, you should try to ask in the target language. L2 interior monologue might be good practice, but remember that real, target language communication feeds your language instinct, the same instinct that got you from zero to fluent in your L1 in under five years.

Or, by all means drill yourself to death with flashcards, or dork it up with your SRS practice. Whatever, the point is that switching your interior monologue to L2 was something I tried. It seemed to work for me.

5 thoughts on “The Language You Think In

  1. Great advice! I do a lot of talking to myself, in my head or even out loud…attempt “what if…conversations” while I’m working outside alone or driving somewhere.

    I also try to make the word “be” what the thought is that the word is expressing and incorporate it as part of my language and thought process. I’m a super long way from being any kind of fluent or bilingual, but I find it helps. (I’m not even that good in L1)

    I Just can’t do flashcards or exersizes…I think too mathematically and logically, and so I can easily deduce answers without really knowing or learning.


  2. JP,

    I definitely agree with what you say about how we don’t really think in a language and that language is just verbalizing our thoughts. I realized this when I could remember back to conversations I had had, and would remember the contents of the conversation, but could not remember in which language the conversation was held! It was kind of shocking to discover that our thoughts are stored in our brains independent of language.


  3. Pingback: Thinking to Oneself Productively | Sinosplice: Life

  4. I like it JP. I think your longer inner monologue is a great thing to try out (I’ll be doing it). I also sometimes talk to myself in short phrases in the L2.. things like “Dang”, “what the..”, “what happenned here”, etc., all those little things that we often blurt out a word or two. Hey, it’s two words I wouldn’t have practiced otherwise 🙂

    Thanks for sharing the concept!


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