Social Question

jordym84's avatar

In what language are your thoughts formulated?

Asked by jordym84 (4742points) August 3rd, 2012

Over the years I’ve had a lot of people ask me this question and I have never been able to give them an answer, the main reason being that, whenever the question comes up, whatever thoughts were in my mind at the time seem to suddenly vanish and when I try to figure out what language they were in, I come up blank. I’ve tried to figure it out on my own several times but, again, I always lose all my previous thoughts and am finding it almost impossible to answer this question. It’s quite frustrating…

So, if you’re multilingual, do you know what language you normally use in your thoughts? If so, how did you figure it out? And did you have as much trouble as I’m having figuring it out or do you just know?

Thank you :)

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22 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

Except when I am in France, I think in English.

zensky's avatar


JLeslie's avatar


My husband’s first language is Spanish, but now he thinks in English first, unless he is spending a lot of time submerged in Spanish, then he kind of reverts back.

Many people I know who are biligual think in the language they are currently mostly using, but when it comes to numbers and math they almost always go back to their mother tongue.

Sunny2's avatar

I’ve always wished I knew another language well enough to think and dream in that language. That would be very satisfying. I had to be satisfied with being to say and understand very simple sentences in French or German.
I think in English only.

jerv's avatar

N/A; I don’t think in words.

Needless to say, that causes issues when I must communicate with others. When I translate things from pictures/concepts/sensations to words, it’s a relatively slow, inexact process, moreso than for most people, and the output is in the only spoken/written language I know fluently: English.

jordym84's avatar

@JLeslie Wow you’re definitely right…I’ve noticed that whenever I have to think about numbers, the alphabet, or months of the year (although not the days of the week, strangely enough), I revert to my native language, which must mean that normally my thoughts are in English. Interesting. You might’ve just helped me crack that code lol

JLeslie's avatar

@Sunny2 Funny, I sometimes dream in Spanish. In my dreams I am very fluent. My Spanish is good, but much much better in my dreams.

JLeslie's avatar

@jordym84 Cracked the code? That’s exciting. LOL. Maybe it is because most people don’t use math all day long even when immersed in a language, so whatever parts of the brain are being used for math are still linked to the first language. I don’t really know how the brain works on these things, it’s just a guess. It would be interesting to scan the brain and see what parts are used during math equations on bilingual people.

I think people who use math a lot in their jobs probably begin to even think in that language for math. My impression is my husband actually does think in English for math, since he uses equations a lot, but I have a feeling he moves between both languages actually depending on what he is doing exactly. Certain things he may not know in Spanish. Not know the vocabulary, because he went to university in English, and went to English speaking high school, so some of the higher math classes he would likely not know the Spanish terminology.

jordym84's avatar

@JLeslie I didn’t start learning/speaking English until I was 15, so saying the alphabet and the months in order (in English) has to be a conscious effort for me I can’t even sing the ABC song without stopping to think about it lol whereas in my other languages I can say them really fast without much thought. Same goes for doing math in my head (I have to say the signs (+ – x /) and numbers in my mother tongue).

JLeslie's avatar

@jordym84 Yeah, I think it has a lot to do with the actual vocabulary and how often the words are used. I have heard that people actually store different languages in different parts of their brain, but I think also their most be a main language center of sorts, and when we can’t easily access a word in one language we fill it in with the other. But, again, I don’t know how proven these things are in science. If you never bothered to remember the months well in English, then for that specific thing I guess you revert back to your first language amd then have to translate, while most other topics you know the English and whatever other language you speak equally. (What is your first languags?)

For me, the months I know equally in both languages without pause, the alphabets also. But, both languages have similar alphabets, even though each letter is said differently. Math not so much. Anything past add and subtract I don’t know the vocabulary. Even adding, I can’t add big numbers together in my head in Spanish, not easily. I can’t be carrying numbers and remembering what I am computing all at once in my second language.

JLeslie's avatar

@jerv Do you know about the man who is a a math genius and he sees numbers as colors and shapes? His brain works very differently than most of us. I can’t remember if he is autistic? I am trying to remember his name.

Why exactly did you think that article is relevant?

jordym84's avatar

@JLeslie I know the vocabulary in both languages and I can use the words well in everyday conversations, it’s just when I have to say them in order that I run into a bit of trouble and have to slow down lol And yes, I can see how/why one would need to store each language in a different part of the brain, keeps things more organized I suppose.

I grew up speaking Portuguese, Capeverdean Creole (mix of Portuguese and African languages), and French. I also picked up Spanish at the same time I was learning English by watching soap operas on Univision – to my dad’s chagrin lol – which also adds to the confusion sometimes.

Edit: Also, when I read a word for the first time (mostly happens with names), in my head I pronounce it the way I would in Portuguese, but I usually catch myself and say it the “English way” when I say it out loud…

JLeslie's avatar

Well, adults don’t usually say the alphabet in order, so if you don’t learn it very young I guess maybe that is why it is a little difficult. As I think about it, if I had to file something alphabetically, I definitely would use English. I guess really that is not equal in my brain. But, the months are. That is easy for me to ramble off in order.

jerv's avatar

@JLeslie Yes, I have, and yes, he is.
As for the relevance, isn’t the question about the language of thought while both my answer and the link are about how some think without language?

jordym84's avatar

@jerv Interesting article!!

JLeslie's avatar

@jerv I guess I didn’t understand since I think most people are very similar about langiages, including bilingual and multilingual people. Which is why I think my generalizations applied to the OP. Your article seems to point to a unique group of peope and how they think differently than the average person. Interesting though about the different types of thinkers. I am typically only visual about numbers, but the look like numbers to me, they aren’t in a different form. I see them in patterns and can flip them around easily. Numbers kind of move easily for me. Hard to explain. History is like a blank page, really very difficult for me.

I found an article about the man I was talking about. It’s all fascinating to me.

jerv's avatar

@JLeslie I often forget that peopel don’t see machinery the same intuitive/instinctive way I do.

prasad's avatar

When it comes to professional things, I think in English. I have been practising this for long, and it does save translation time and add to fluency. It helps me in speaking English.

However, when I think religion and prayers, etc., I think in my mother tongue. As @JLeslie has rightly pointed out, I turn to mother tongue while doing mathematical calculations.

Mariah's avatar

When I was taking French classes I’d find French sneaking into my head quite a lot. If I had a song stuck in my head I would always subconsciously try and translate the lyrics. Got pretty obnoxious, actually, given that my French skills were fairly cursory and I usually didn’t have a wide enough vocabulary to succeed.

It’s been a few years since I’ve studied French, and my skills have slipped a lot. My headspace is comfortably 100% English these days. That is, when I think in words, which I often don’t.

tups's avatar

I often find myself takling to myself in my head in English, even tough it’s not my mother tongue. I read a lot of books in English and listen to songs in English and that’s probably why. Or maybe it’s because I think English sounds cooler than my native language, I don’t know. I’m not sure if I like it though, because I don’t think English should be cooler than my native language.

MilkyWay's avatar

English. It’s my first language but not my mother tongue… I don’t think I ever think in my mother tongue to be honest. I can just about understand/speak it.

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