What Language Do Multi-Lingual People THINK in?

I’m a proud, vain, stupid American and speak only one language: AMERICAN (yee-haw!).

So, with that out in the open, my friend (also a yee-haw boy) and myself started to ponder the other day at work – while some of our Indian Programming buddies were chatting in their native tongue – what language do people who can speak multiple languages think in>

I remember from my forced Spanish class that I don’t SAY, “I am from the Jones Family,” I say “I am from the family of Jones.”

So, when a native Spanish speaking person (Who also speaks English fluently), starts a thinkin’, how do they think?

Is this a crazy question? Maybe, maybe not, but I’ve asked some doozies here over the years that I thought were throwaway that sparked a lot of interest. Maybe this is another one.


BAck in the 60’s I had a landlady from Frankfurt who had a quaint German accent. When questioned, she said that she thought in German and then translated it into English. Her son, born here and first language English, said that when she spoke German, the words were German all right but the word order had become English!
I have also heard that whatever one’s first language is as a child, no other language can ever be spoken as well as a native speaker can speak it.

I have an ex-GF who was from China and who was a professional translator (spoke several languages, 3 fluently). I asked her this question one time and she said it depended on who she was around.

When she was with me and our American friends she said she was usually thinking in English. When she was with her friends or other people from China she was thinking in Chinese. Apparently whichever language was being spoken around her was the one she was thinking in.

She said she even dreamed in different languages, depending on who was in the dream.

A lot of research in cognitive psychology has been devoted to this question. An interesting factoid I learned in my cog psych freshman class: If a person learns basic math in, say, Spanish, and learns higher math in, say, English, then he/she will often think the “arithmetic” part of a complex problem in Spanish, but will think the calculus in English.

Sorry I’m not of more help. I can assure you that the information is out there, though.

Mein Hut, er hat drei Ecken. Drei Ecken hat mein Hut…
Damn, did that slip out?

bilingual Swede checking in.
I have never lived in an English speaking region, but picked some up along the way. I now live with an English woman, whom I intend to marry, and we communicate mainly in English.
I’m also exposed to a lot of French, although my French is nowhere near as good as my English.

I must say that I think in whatever language I’m expected to reply, or that I’ve recently been exposed to.
One important thing to realise is that there is a lot of non-verbal thoughts. When I’m feeling happy or tired I’m not necessarily forming complete sentences within my head to express those feelings.

That would depend on what you mean with ‘well’. Quite a few native speakers speak an appalling English. (And I’m not speaking about dialects.) While I speak with a discernible accent, I believe that I could beat quite a few average blokes in English grammar. (It’s just a pity that it doesn’t show in my posts:))

you think in the language of the mind, neither english, nor chinese, spanish, irish, baboon, or dog. it’s just ‘thought’. that’s the best answer i can give

Yep, I do that, except in my case, it’s simple math in English, complex math in Hebrew.

FTR, I moved to Israel from New York when I was six. I generally think in English.

KNowing Swedish, do you know if there are any speakers of that language who mush-mouth everything together like some speakers of English? As in “Jeet yet?” which means, Did you eat yet?" As in Chicago. And do you know any speakers of Swedish who speak a Swedish equivalent of Ebonics or Black English, complete with neologisms, slurring things together, and all the rest?
To SlickUSA when you think, you are talking to yourself and using therefore, words. (It has been found that when peaople are thinking they are subvocalizing, ie., their vocal chords are moving as in speech). Besides words what goes on in the mind are vague awarenesses of feelings and also images. Then there is the pre-conscious, etc., which like the subconscious has their own languages…

What about people who grew up speaking more than one language? I’d expect they would have a different situation from those who have learned to speak another language fluently but aren’t native speakers.

I have a few bilingual friends who are excellent in at least 2 languages and in some cases have a few more up their sleeves. Their two main languages, however, are truly second nature to them. I have asked them the question in the OP and as others have mentioned they have all replied ‘both’ usually depending on the circumstances. However, while they grew-up with a primary language other than english they both have said they tend to default to thinking in english more often than not even if they are alone (probably since they now live in the US and tend to do much more in english than their other language).

That said it can be kind of funny sometimes. My one friend has children and I’ve heard her on the phone yelling at them in both english and spanish. When she gets worked-up she can slip in and out of both languages seamlessly to the point of switching languages mid-sentence (several times in one sentence on occasion). I pointed this out to her and she was actually a little shocked as she said she had no idea she was doing that.

Similar to GreenBean’s post: It depends on the context and subject matter. Whichever language is more useful to what I’m thinking about, that the one I end up thinking in.

Nope. If you’re fluent enough to speak the language, you’re fluent enough to think in it, regardless of whether you learned when you were 3 years old, 8, 13, or 30.

I base this on myself (english at home, french at school), and my friends (who got both at home).

English is my first language, spanish is my second. I think in both, although not at the same time. If I am thinking in english, it is easy to change to spanish, but if I am thinking in spanish, speaking or understanding english requires a lot of effort.

Two of my siblings are truly bi-lingual. My brother has lived in Spain for 13 years, my sister in Israel for 18 years. I’ve had this conversation with them, and they each say it depends on whom they are with at the time.

My brother speaks Spanish at home and at work; he thinks and dreams in Spanish. But when he is back in the UK, or with English speakers, he will think in English. My sister speaks English at home but primarily Hebrew at work. Again, what language she thinks in is whatever she is likely to be communicating in, but for her it is primarily English.

I remember asking my brother if he thinks in one language & translates it for speech; he says he does not. (He was in the translating biz for years.)

My third brother speaks very good German and Spanish, but is not truly fluent in either. He thinks in English and “translates” in his head for communicating in another language.

I think in the language that I’m speaking, be it English, Mandarin, Shanghaiese or Japanese. Now, in Shanghaiese or Japanese, both of which I speak poorly, whenever I run out of vocabulary, then the English word pops into my mind and then I try to fumble for a translation.

When I took Chinese at University, my roommate said I would speak Chinese in my sleep.

I also adopt different mannerisms and body movements depending on the crowd I’m with and language I’m speaking.

IMHO, it’s only when you’re learning your first foreign language that you think in the native language and translate. After you reach that critical mass where you speak and think in the foreign language, then your progress really speads up. When I took Japanese, although I had a small vocabulary, I thought in that vocabulary.

I’m not a native speaker when it comes to English. I guess I can compare myself to TC, except that I’m Dutch. I learned English in school from age 12 to 18, went on to study Economics (literature: 90% English, lectures: 70% English), and now work in a 95% English speaking environment. Add the SDMB to it, and there you go: I speak (and write) English about 75% of my day, I’d say (the rest is friends, family, and the lady at the supermarket check-out line ;)).

When I’m speaking English, I’m thinking in English as well. I dream in either Dutch or English (it seems to be dependant on who’s starring that night :)). When I speak Dutch, I obviously think in Dutch. But as of late, I have found myself thinking in English when all by myself, like whilst walking through the supermarket to get my daily groveries.


I also speak German and French, but then I think Dutch and translate appropriately.

And if you wondered what groveries are, it’s a Dutch kind of cookie. :wink:

OK, I’ll hop in here, despite not being tc.

  1. Mush-mouthing: Depends… some dialects (Gotlandish would be the most common example) sound literally like talking with a hot potato in your mouth. At least we’re not like Danes – everyone there talks like that. I mean it. I even read some study which claimed that Dane children learn tp speak/write their native tongue last of all Indoeuropean children – presumably because they often leave out all but one or two consonants in different words or phrases.

  2. Ebonics: Ebonics is nowhere near as rampant as in the US. This is mostly because there are no places like Harlem or Compton here… there’s Rinkeby in Stockholm and Rosengård in Malmö, but they just don’t compete. For one thing, they’re like ten times smaller. It also factors in that there aren’t as many non-whites here in Sweden. Slavery never was a big thing over here, you know. :wink: The people who would develop some kind of ebonics would be the many immigrants living in traditional lower-class suburbs… somehow, that hasn’t happened. Maybe because of the diversity in those areas – there are often people from 20 different countries in the same house. Anyway, what comes closest is the wannabe hip-hop slang. It’s mostly used by people (independant of color) who want to be down with it and talk about the tough childhood in their make-believe ghetto. :stuck_out_tongue:

You may not even realise it, but what you are asking about is more to do with the prestige accorded to different accents and dialects than with the extent to which those dialects “distort” the language from your idea of the standard.
Funnily, Swedish offers very good examples of what I mean. First, there are several equally prestigious dialects, fostered by the universities of Lund, Uppsala, Åbo (in Finland) and maybe Göteborg(?). Second, in any of these dialects, words are “mush-mouthed together” by speakers, because that is the correct way to speak Swedish. Of course, sometimes it gets really bad and then it’s called Danish:). So for example the string “Det är en” gets telescoped into something like “Deeen”.
BUT: I have had one particular accent snob deplore the Malmö accent with its unusual vowels (har->haur, ozon->euuzeuun). But to a foreigner it doesn’t sound any more strange than any other variety of Swedish, and the snob’s objections seemed silly.
Disclaimer: I am not a Swede.

I normally think in English because that’s what I speak every day but when I’m speaking or reading French or Italian, I think in the foreign language (but more so in French as I speak that better than Italian). I’ve found that while learning a foreign language (from English, let’s say) people tend to think in English until it gets “stuck in their brain” and then they start thinking directly in the foreign language.

If I forget how to say something in Italian, sometimes it helps to translate it in my head first from English to French and then translate to Italian. Or, like Whack-a-Mole’s friend, sometimes I would be thinking in French but it would come out of my mouth in Italian and I wouldn’t realize until I noticed the strange looks I was getting. Overworked brain cells, I guess.