Monday 26 July 2010

In what language do you think?

In India this is what instructors advice to young people who want to master English: "Think in English." The demure students just nod away as if they understood the very difficult process of being able to think in a language not their own. And I must tell you that like me there are many others who have been exposed to English earlier on in life and thus even the thinking process is in English. I am not a native-speaker of the language but studying in schools whose medium was predominantly English, I never learnt my mother's tongue. I can speak Tamil and also manage to read it but thinking, it is only English. Now whether it is good or bad, I don't negotiate.

Now thinking is a process which is very personal and intricate and out of the blues when an instructor advices to change the language of thinking, it gets a bit stifling. But eager minds who could do anything to learn a language, try that as well. Now if someone asks me to think in Mandarin or Dutch, I might have to undergo a complete transformation of the mind to do so. Now I don't disagree that where there is a will, there is a way. If someone asks me to do that in gun-point, I might try.

Even when students approach me and ask me for advice to speak good English, I always (without any forethought) say: "Think in English." It is better said than done. I guess the language of thinking is something which happens in a very early age and is conditioned in a certain way. Somewhere after thinking for about sixteen years in the mother tongue, and then switching to a new thinking language is a bit difficult, not impossible, I reckon.

Researches say that one can swear only in the language of their thinking. And the word for 'mother' is another example. Despite the fact that I think only in English, I always prefer calling my mother amma, the Tamil word for mother. Strange are the ways of language and the human mind!!

This is the case with all the languages, not only English, I guess. If I may ask, what is the language in which you think. Are you happy with that.

Image courtesy: Internet


  1. given that all what is mentioned here is question: how do we know in which language do we think :P

  2. Nupur:

    When you speak within your mind, what language is it. We do think with words and sentences, right?

  3. I conditioned my mind to think in my mother tongue. I hired a translator and asked him to occupy a corner of my mind, forever, in return I would provide food for thoughts and recognition.
    Now his corner is called as conscious mind.

    And my sun-conscious mind is occupied by my mother tongue. lol

    I have a question: When you are sleeping and you are dreaming, which language the projections communicate in?


  4. Till recently I too believed that we think about something in a medium of language and even our tutors train us to do so but actually when I thought deeply about it I found that we don’t actually think in any language. I don’t have any proof to prove my point but you can ask any person who is dumb and deaf by birth who does not know any language. But still he is capable of thinking. Now don’t say he has a sign language to think.:)
    While speaking naturally our brain is programmed in such a way that it utters the words in our mother tongue and if we happen to be learning a new language naturally our brain creates the words in our mother tongue first and then those words get translated into the other(which by the way is not recommended).
    I totally agree with Nu here.
    Wonderful post once again. I wonder how you come up with such deep and varied topics to present here. I’m Jealous of you. :P

  5. i tend to think in the language of my heart...though it is english, its got a pretty heavy emotional spin on it...smiles.

  6. That's what I usually to say my students... their English cannot naturally flow if you think in Spanish... that way you'd be translating and so making serious mistakes.
    As for me, I can think in English as I am doing now. When I write my poems I think in English, When I speak in English I have to!
    Now I dream mostly in Spanish and swear in both languages.
    But my ex husband remembers hearing me talking in English in my sleep! LOL

    It depends on the context... It's great to be able to think in two languages, I feel fortunate for that.
    But I always count in Spanish.

    Great post dear friend!

  7. Fascinating post, Susan. Language and it's nature has always fascinated me, that words actually have meanings and lots of them, is, indeed, an intriguing matter on its own. And the subject of human thought with language is such a profound and philosophical area. Personally, I think in English as I am English and have been exposed solely to this language all my life. However, I have sometimes found myself thinking small things or even counting in French, my second language. It is odd when this happens, but you are so right - it is a brilliant to really get a feel for a particular language!

  8. I think in English.. even though I am not a expert at spellings.. make some minor and major flaws here and there.

    It is very funny how everybody in my family speak in English when they are angry... all our major decision making happens in discussions in English. :|

    My next best language is Hindi!

  9. I think in "music"...well, I AM trying to be funny here. But you know, music IS a language, which musicians know, and others do not. I have learned (not easy, to read my chart the way it is written.

    When the leader says, OK another key now...I must switch completely my thinking to read one language and play (speak) in another.

    Your post reminded me of that, BTW
    lots of musicians cannot DO that. It takes practice, as does everything, as Dulce says to her students...THINK in the new language or there will be many mistakes.

    PEACE, Susan D and THANK YOU for today's "thinking" post--grin!!

  10. I am bilingual. Arabic is my first language. Here in Egypt, owing to the fact that English is taught in schools, most of the Egyptians have a fair knowledge of English, but still, it doesn't allow them to speak it fluently. So, I took the basics from school and taught myself most of the things I know about it now. Here, only very rich kids use English while speaking, in movies, for instance, when they wanna portray the character of the spoiled proud rich kid, they make him utter some words in English every now and then. as for me, i find it of extreme difficulty not to use some English expressions while talking; which at times drive people to think I'm that kinda person I described. I never taught myself how to think in english, i cannot even tell when i started thinking in it, I believe it's been a while but i noticed it not so long ago. I talk while sleeping in English, swear and think in English, and talk with my closest best friend too in English, except for that, I do it all in Arabic

  11. haha yes we do think with words and sentences as of yet ;)

    It's mostly English and a tint of my mother tongue..

    oh and there is one correction please ? it's NU...I would love to keep it like that :)

  12. I have the same experience of 'thinking in English' during my higher secondary school days. My English lecturer taught so.. Anyway the process of 'thinking in English' made me fell in love with that language...nice write up, Susan
    P.S. I have added the link for OSLE in the Post you mentioned...

  13. Karan:

    Good point here about the conscious conditioning. I have tried to do that but don't succeed. My dreams also in English and sometimes bilingual.


    Now this is very debatable. We do think with a language, I reckon. I was also thinking about deaf and dumb people. It's an interesting observation you have made. I should ask someone about this. Thanks for kindling the curiosity, Asif.

    As for being jealous, I can but understand. But I take it in a good spirit.

  14. Brian:

    What a lovely answer. I wish all humans did that especially our political leaders. Smiles.


    I was waiting for your comment as I know that you a Linguist. You have given interesting instances here. Well, that's not surprising as you are an interesting person dear Dulce. I did want to ask you about the language of thoughts for people who are deaf and dumb.

  15. Sam:

    Language is a very interesting subject and any theories have and are evolving about it. Some scientists believe that even animals and birds have language. Well, I also think so. I think most of us are bilingual in speaking, thinking and writing.


    Oh yes! That happens in our place as well. I can shout and yell only in English. When I think about it later, I feel so funny.

  16. Steve:

    Thinking in music is amazing. You go la la la. But how do you get angry in music. In the Sanskrit tradition, there are the nine rasas or emotions. I sthere something in music like that? Grin!


    Strange are the ways of language as you have rightly pointed out. Even in India, English is associated with people of certain class but many are learning the language with ardour as it is considered a means of survival for many. I am thinking of the 'except for that.' What does it leave out. Conversing with people at home and shops, etc, I reckon.

  17. NU:

    Thanks for the email and the correction. is hall do that hereafter.


    Where does Malayalam stand for you then? Do tell me. Thanks for your kind words, Justin. This reminds me of the 'work' you gave me. I still have to complete that. Grinnn.

  18. Susan D:
    Music is THE most emotional language I know--Of course, there is anger emoted with the Italian expression "CON FUOCO", means played WITH FIRE! There is certainly melancholy, love, tenderness, happy, and MOST surely SAD...every emotion you can name (maybe?) can be and IS expressed in music.

    Visualize a movie without music. Attend a performance of La Boheme
    Carmen, or Wagner "Tristan Und Isolde" Oh! Pure heavenly expressive music.

    Even Beethoven's 5th Symphony, first four notes, and all through, is an angry response to a perceived TYRANNY in the country

    Sorry I got on the soapbox. My violin can sound VERY angry, VERY loving, Romantic, Hurt, SAD, Joyful, etc., etc. I can SPEAK through using only my violin...REALLY!

    PEACE...thank you for asking the question--if there WAS a question -grin!

  19. I think the boos we read, movies we watch and the people we interact with has a gr8 influence on the language of mind!!

    I have recently turned a fan of mallu i think mostly in malayalam

  20. I spent the crucial years of my childhood in Gwalior, the heartland of Hindi. Hence, I've developed a tendency to think in Hindi. If I need to count quickly, I resort to Hindi, but a slow, cautious counting is always in Marathi.

    Only if I have to write or speak English, do I think in English. Else, all technical thinking is in Hindi/Marathi

  21. Steve:

    Thanks for coming again and clarifying. "If music be the food of love, play on" said our great dramatist Shakespeare. I get what you mean. Joy and peace.


    I guess this conditioning takes place earlier on in life. That is something unconscious but later on in life we consciously train the language of the thoughts. I wonder whether dreams also follow the language of our thoughts. Many times my dreams are blank ones with just actions and no dialogues. Smiles :)

  22. Vinay:

    When I was in Bombay, I used Hindi a lot but I don't remember the language of my thoughts then. English has become THE language of thinking but regular talking at home is bilingual and outside on the streets is Tamil.

  23. Iteresting post Susan!!
    I tend to think in English
    but when it comes to talking it varies with the situation...amazing as we humans are!! :D

  24. Ruchi:

    So conditioned are we by our system that English has become the norm :(

  25. On being Jealous : P , Yes, I wish I could write like you. Want to take it in bad spirit?? Hehehe Go ahead :P

    Yeah Susan, I was pretty sure that you would enquire about it. I had this thing in my mind sometime back and tried to observe quite a few people who can’t speak any language. Do let me know if you find something interesting about it.

    And I was delighted to see the comment of “STEVERONI.” I too believe in the language of music (esp music of violin). Not only the emotions and feelings, we can even talk with that language but sadly I don’t know how to play.

    This shows not only your posts are interesting but also the special comments you are getting. :)
    Keep up the good work.

  26. I speak many languages and none of them well. On daily bases, I speak English more than another language. I think in language at times and even dream in it. But then again, I also dream in my native language as well. At times I mix all the languages together and at times I am so annoyed that I speak so many but none well.;)
    I always call my mom in my native tongue though.;))
    I hope you will have a lovely week dear Susan.;)

  27. Susan,

    Sadly I only speak one language (English).
    I envy those who can speak more than one and even more so the ability to think in another language. An interesting concept. You always have the most thought provoking posts :)

    Many thanks for your kind words on my recent post. Much appreciated!!

    Jeanne :)

  28. Asif:

    Commenting on the comment of the comment! Enjoying the exercise tremendously. Steve is a sweetheart, no wonder. You should read his blogs which are equally delightful. Thanks for the lovely words. They are much appreciated and welcome.


    You are a polyglot! Wow!I am fascinated by people who speak many languages. I am glad that you speak many languages so not speaking any well is not the issue. I often wonder about dreams in a different language. Must be nice. You too have a lovely week Zuzana :)

  29. Jeanne:

    Thanks for taking the time. Been a while. Hope your trip is lovely and making you happy and joyous. Why should you worry about 'only one' language. I am sure all your thoughts, speech and dreams are in a language. No problems here :) Smiles.

  30. Susan, my native tongue is Arabic. But, I have never attended Arabic schools. I am fluent in Arabic, and can read and write it well, but the truth is that I think and process everything in English. I agree that this is something that happens at an early age. We go to school and speak and think and write in a certain language, and somehow it becomes habit. I can't imagine thinking in any other language, especially when I am trying to write something. A challenge for sure!


  31. Nevine:

    Despite the fact that you think and process in English, you know your native tongue fluently. That is something you should be proud of. I can just about manage in my native-tongue and I am not very happy about that.

    Have a lovely remainder of the week, dear Nevine :)

  32. Since I only know English, then Emglish it is. But I do think in moods depending on, well, what kinda mood I'm in. This will affect my writing style and what I write. So, to an extent, one's mood could be at least a dialect.

    Stephen Tremp

  33. Stephen:

    Welcome and thanks for the time taken to write down your thoughts. Now this is an interesting thought you have mentioned: mood as a dialect. I wonder what the linguists will say about this. Let me wonder and ponder on this.

    In the meanwhile, keep dropping in whenever you find time. We love company.

    Joy always :)

  34. when my youngest daughter was very young, i began her in french lessons - and she followed with french all the way through undergraduate school - often she would utter something in french notwithstanding that i didn't speak the language and she would laugh and say "oh, i 'think' in french all the time!" - and although my own education included several years of latin and spanish, i am not fluent in either - but have always loved the feel and sound of other languages -

  35. Jenean:

    Latin and Spanish are among the world's best languages. Nice to know that. English has made us so lazy now that we have grown used to it so much.

    Joy always :)

  36. When I think, I think in more than one language. The blend of two or more languages has let to the enrichment of English. Local slangs and lingoes have all come from thoughts.

    And sometimes, people construct a sentence with three languages in them! A slip of the tongue, they say. Amusing. :)

    Very thought provoking, Susan :)

  37. Mridula:

    Nice of you to pass by and put down your thoughts. Oh, yes! even while talking one uses more than one language and so it is but natural that sometimes even thinking can be in more than one language. I guess I have no confusions when it comes to thinking as it is in a singular language -- English but sometimes peppered with Tamil.

    Glad you enjoyed the topic.

    Have a lovely day ahead :)

  38. Welcome Kashif and thanks for the time here. I should check out the link sometime.

    Please do come back whenever.

    Joy always :)

  39. I only know English and only think in English. However, I'm currently reading a book called The Gift of Dyslexia and your post reminded me of how dyslexic's think in another language... one of symbols. I can relate to that type of language as I use a lot of metaphors to get a point across.

    There is so much more information held in a symbol than in a word. It appeals to the feeling nature of the conversation because people are able to identify with the meaning that it holds for them, beyond the words.

  40. Welcome Davina. Nice to see you here. You have given me a wonderful new insight into thinking and language. Now I have to read up on this and know further. Assigning symbols to words have been in practice long time ago and its only natural that many do so.

    Hoping to see more of you and your wonderful insights :)

  41. Guess i never really thought through this one before....Thanks for this interesting thought Susan...on a pinch, if you ask me, i guess i would say i think in English and then translate into the vernacular...cant help all that early training at schools which mould you....but i do switch languages (Telugu-Tamil) with ease and sometimes end up fluffing them too by too much mixing and matching.

  42. Ganesh:

    Yes, as you mentioned, it's very interesting to observe the language of our thoughts. We all have a certain language to think and that language is the language which we are more comfortable speaking. Sometimes we have the need to translate certain words and phrases in our mind.
    It's funny to observe how the education system has made most of us think in English. Though, I'm belong to a Tamil speaking background, I never learned Tamil in school and that's the reason I can only speak in Tamil and take a long time to read a line or write. It's also very shameful for me to not know my mother-tongue.
    Thanks for revisiting this old post, Ganesh. I was glad to revisit it too and read it after some time.

    Joy always :)



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