What Language do you think in?

This is something that I was asked very casually by someone a few days ago and it has really got me thinking…! Whether I’m thinking about it in English or Sinhalese or in some sort of gibberish that only makes sense to me is what I’m still trying to figure out.

Whether I think in a particular language has never been something that has occurred to me. After all, we speak in different languages to suit the occasion, but whether we actually think in the same language as we’re speaking in, is a whole new ballgame.

I guess as I sit here writing this, I’m thinking in English. At least, I’m assuming that is the language that’s running through my mind since I’m looking for words and phrases that would make sense to an English speaking person.

But what if that’s not so? Could it be that I think in some sort of mixed, bastardized version of every language that I’ve ever heard and then translate it into whatever language medium that makes sense at the given time? Sort of like a computer that thinks in binary code, but then outputs a result that makes sense to human beings, a whole different species of intelligence.

As of now, this one simple, casual question has sort of become an irritating point in the back of my mind. It constantly seems to pop up at the most unexpected of times and makes me break down my entire train of thought into separate words and phrases and trying to figure out if I was thinking in English or Sinhalese or just plain gibberish…!

So….. if there’s anyone out there who has figured out EXACTLY what language they think in…. feed back would be much appreciated.

For the moment, this is me…… thinking!


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26 Responses to “What Language do you think in?”

  1. Donald Gaminitillake Says:

    Nobody thinks in any language. BUT the thought is put into a audible sound or series if audible string by using the vocabulary which is the most comfortable at that moment. For accuracy counting one uses the mother tongue. If you are a multilingual person (more than two languages) you will understand this sequence very easily.(not tamil/English or Sinhaha /Tamil or Sinhala/English or with any Indian language) It has to be any two with a completely different 3rd language. Eg, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Finnish, etc

    Donald Gaminitillake
    I set the standard

  2. N Says:

    the voices in my head always speak in English, whether that has anything to do with thinking is debatable.

  3. Jerry Says:

    Reading, wondering, same thing. I don’t sense any difference between them.

  4. DeeCee Says:


  5. Ms. Spice Says:

    I’ve shared your thoughts too. I used to think in Sinhala when I was small, but with the last few years of nonstop education in the English medium has made my thought process convert to English.
    Something I heard from my exboss on how to recognise what language you think in: If you wake a sleeping person in an ungodly hour, the language the irritated sleepy person is most likely to respond in, would be his/her thinking language. I haven’t tested it though. *grin*

  6. lady divine Says:

    I’ve blogged about this topic some time back.. couldn’t exactly find the post though..:(
    I think in English… maybe coz I use it more…. and it’s the language I’m most comfortable with and know well..:) and studied in..:)

  7. DD Says:

    Nice one Pauly! You got me thinking… Machan I find that I seamlessly think in both English and Sinhala, with Sinhala dominating.
    Now I have a headache as I concentrated on it so much!

  8. Me Says:

    Whenever I think or rationalize in Sinhala, I feel limited and banal.

    So I rationationalize in English, even though most of the time I speak in Sinhala. Which leaves me lost with words, and leaves my subjets lost in translation, without them even knowing it.

    Perhaps the main reason for Sinhala not bieng versatile is the “speaking sinhala” so much different with the “academic sinhala”

  9. S Says:

    I think in English because it is the only language I know 😛 However I often think in pictures or have a “feeling” (such as when I have a fleeting thought), and pictures and feelings are certainly how I dream.

    Hmmm… although I did learn Spanish at school and I have on occasion thought in Spanish – although as I can’t actually remember any Spanish I suspect it was me using Spanish sounding gibberish to articulate what I meant in my head…

  10. RD Says:

    I always think in English, hardly surprising as it’s the only language I speak. I sis fail my ‘O’ level German though, so I guess I could try to think in German but would have to confine it to the simplest of thoughts.

  11. Theena Says:

    Hilarity will ensue if I were to think or rationalize in Tamil. English for me.

  12. Sam Says:

    We think in pictures (experience) – or rather firing what they call “brain circuits” assigned to each picture or experience, and then at a later stage we add words in to that when we wanted to communicate. If we don’t need to communicate, if it is just pure thinking, then we don’t think in any language. That is why some times we find there are not enough words in the language to express what we were thinking. That is why time to time we switch to words in languages when we speak and it does not bother most of us who are not language scollars. That is why thinking start first and language start after.

    When we listen, each word can trigger those “brain circuits” give us the meaning. That is why metaphors work better than direct word. That is why poetry works. That is why curse words works. That is why “this comment is nonsense” do not work as much as good as if I say “this comment is piece of green wet bullshit”.

  13. thekillromeoproject Says:

    @ everyone…. Thanks for the feedback. I think Sam’s answer makes the most sense.

  14. sandy Says:

    Yes.. i feel that Sams answer is a loot more meaningful.. I have had long time headahes figuring out wat i think…but the moment i start watching the language i think in i become conscious and lose hang of wat im thinking… i guess we dont think in any language…thought is a process that happens as a series of events.. happened already or expected to happen…it is only when we need to express thoughts we think of a medium of expression – and language is required, depending upon what the audience will understand. Hence language is only a tool of expression, thoughts don’t need a tool since all of them dont need to be expressed!!

  15. @y!3n.. Says:

    Language as both biology & culture.It seems clear that language is a part of the human biological endowment. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for this can be found in the area of children’s acquisition of language.
    All normal human childre, acquire the language of their social setting at about the same pace and in the same way. They do so without formal training, and they do so in social and cultural contexts which differ in terms of what kinds of linguistic interactions are supposed to be appropriate between parents and infants. These differences do not seem to affect the rate or quality of children’s acquisition of language. However, children who are isolated, for some reason, from all forms of linguistic interaction do not acquire language, and if they reach puberty without exposure to language they may never be able to acquire more than a very rudimentary linguistic ability.

  16. Katerina Says:

    I think in multiple languages. My native language is Russian,but I also know English at the same level. Because I was born in Latvia I knew Latvian at the native level too,but now because I haven’t spoken in Latvian in 8 years I’m starting to get rusty,but I still sometimes think in that language.
    Now I’m learning German and once I got just past the begginer stage I started catching myself thinking in German. It might be just a sentese or only one word,but still unintentional German in my head. I’m not at all fluent in German,but even at that level it still manages to get into my tought proces.
    One time I was typing something in Russian and my mother distracted me for just a second,but when I started to type again I realised that I was typing the same information,but in English.
    In my head I would repeat one word in all languages I know,or start a tought in one language and complete it in another just like that time with typing.
    So yeah !! There is a big mess in my head,but I don’t care as long as it isn’t causing me any pain, makes me go mad or makes me speak in all those languages at the same time.

  17. random Says:

    I’v also had this thought, but i took it somewhere else.

    Could it be possible that thinking in a certain language is more efficient at some things than thinking in another language.

    As a baseless example that has no research behind it; Could it be possible that thinking in German makes science and maths easier? This would explain the large amount of scientific and mathematical discovery coming from that part of the world in the mid 20th century.

    It makes sense as different languages have different vocabularies and different way to structure sentences. Now if you’re “talking yourself through” a problem, and the language your “talking yourself through” it in lends itself more readily to the problem… would the problem not be easier?

    And perhaps if your were autistic or something, and you thought not in “words” of a language, but purely in abstract mental images, is that not it’s own “language”, which it turns out is incredibly efficient at mathematical thought but poor at other things, such as exposition.

  18. Stats Monkeys at work « TheKillRomeoProject Says:

    […] What Language do you think in? November 200817 comments 4 […]

  19. Ajit Dongre Says:

    I want to mention a related issue only to identify as a separate issue:
    Does language influence thought? There have been pro and con believers, but these days I think a majority believe in the affirmative: our language at least weakly influences our thinking processes.

    As to whether we think in a language, I would’ve thought by now the “experts” would’ve conclusively answered this. But they haven’t. So let me, a non-expert, weigh in with my prejudice: We don’t think in a language. Processes of thinking, of going from a thought set to the next, lies outside of the human language we use to articulate our thinking (if the need arises for such articulation). Similarly, when we hear others speak in a language we understand, a transfer occurs between those words and our comprehension of them in our brain. And even in our thinking process there may be clusters of words in a language we know that are retained to encapsulate a semantic idea. But except for such linguistic reproductions of bits of thought, our thinking process (our thoughts) are not in a language.

    • Bjørnar Munkerud Says:

      I think you have a point, Ajit Dongre.

      Let’s say that one language differentioates between humans, apes and monkeys and another doesn’t. A peron using the first language will probably see the three as three completely different things while a user of the second language will probably only think of them as differences within a united/common set of creatures.

      Similarly if one language only had the word “axe” and another had completely different words with the meanings “one handed axe with one blade”, “one handed and with two blades”, “two handed axe with one blade” and “two handed axe with two blades”, but no word for “axe”, a user of the first would say “oh, that’s an axe” and a person with the other as his/her first language “hm, let’s see… that’s a… one handed axe with two blades, that is.”, or something like that.

      A different example would be a language having a word sounding like one or two other words while that word in another language doesn’t resemble any other word in that same language at all. Made-up example: “Smalltalk” in English has the words “small” and “talk” in them, possibly making English-speakers think that smalltalk is literally small talk, while the word “smalltalk” in another language could be “kjehatabor” while that is not compound word, or maybe it is a compound word comprising the language’s words for, for example, “mouth” and “rambling”, which would make the person think of something very/slightly different.

      Also, I just came to think of it, remember to differentiate between mother tongue / native language and first language. As I see it the (two) first mean the language you “grew up with” while the second means the language you “think in” which is the language you feel most comfortable with or know teh most of.

  20. Bjørnar Munkerud Says:

    I use the following test to check thinking language:

    1. If you would be talking to yourself, and you were all alone, in what language would you talk?

    2. If you were to write something down, like a shopping list or a note to remember to walk the dog, mow the lawn or eat dinner, be it on a post-it note, on a piece of paper, on your phone or on your computer, in what language would you write it if no one else but you were ever going to see/read it?

    3. If you would write a book, and there was no economic or practical reason to do it in one language or the other, in what language would you write it?

    4. If you had a child, and the two of you were the only living human beings on Earth, what language would you speak to him/her in?

    5. If you were all alone, and really felt the need to curse out loud, in what language would you do it?

    Personally I think in English (I would answer English to all of the five questions above) even though I have lived in Norway my entire life and absolutely all of my friends and family members speak and write Norwegian (well, I have some Danish and Swedish relatives and friends, but I/we speak Norwegian to them and Norwegian is much closer to Danish and Swedish than English is). I have had Norwegian, English, Spanish and French in school. Most Norwegian, then English, then Spanish and then French. One day a year or two ago I decided to start thinking in English, partly because I wondered if I could do it and partly because I wanted to, and one day not too long after that I started thinking in English, and not Norwegian anymore.

    If I’m reading or writing, etc., texts in Norwegian I might think in Norwegian, but even then if I were to talk to myself about it I would say things like “This is bad!”, “That’s not right, is it?” and “Oh my God! I’ve got a lot of work to do here.” in English.

    If I’m “better” in English or Norwegian is hard to say, but I think it depends on what it is I’m doing. I might know more words and pronounce them more correctly in Norwegian, but I certainly feel more comfortable with and think faster in English (I can force myself to think in Norwegian if I want to, it’s a weird thing to do, and it is not fully conscious all the time. Some times I may switch thinking language for a relatively brief time period (not more than a couple of days at a time, at the absolute max. Usually no more than a couple of hours). This mostly happens when I’m writing very long texts in Norwegian).

    Nowadays I watch, listen to, read and write in English a lot. It is both because of the fact that I think in English and it is the reason for me thinking in English. If I had almost never heard or read any English it would have been really, really weird for me to think in it. I wouldn’t have had the knowledge about the language needed, nor would I have wanted to think in English.

    I don’t really know why (or how) I think in English, but I think it is mostly because the literature, TV-shows, radio shows, podcasts etc. I enjoy the most is in English. My favorite book/movie series in in English, the woman I love has English as her mother tongue (although I have never spoken to / written to /met her), and some of my future plans are to either move to an English-speaking country, teach English or write one or several books in English. I could also become a translator or simply travel a lot.

    Anyways, English comes in very handy as a world language and lingua franca. Norwegian has about 1% of the number of native speakers that English has, and the difference is even larger if we count second and third language speakers. Besides, I haven’t lost Norwegian in any way, I still speak and write it very well (better than most Norwegians, I might say. In Norwegian, as in English, very many people don’t know/follow grammar rules etc.). As for English, I have probably learnt a lot the last couple of years, very much of it is probably because I think in English.

    Knowing two langauges this well also helps me a lot with learning other languages. I’m very conscious about language(s) and I find that I’m among the very best in my Spanish class (I don’t have French at school any more), and I think that’s because I’m interested and can easily see how languages are structured and used by seeing similarities with both English and Norwegian, and other languages as well.

    Nothing’s impossible, but you have to have the skills and will there for it to work. Good luck to people who want to “change languages”. Or simply check which language they actually think in, it’s actually quite interesting to think/talk/write about, in my opinion.

    I hope I haven’t bored you all to death with this massive wall of text. It’s your choice if you want to read it. I’m an 18 year old boy/man (man by Norwegian law), by the way.

  21. Bjørnar Munkerud Says:

    If you have dreams (at night, while sleeping, nightmares and the like) it is also interesting to find out what langauge(s) you hear (or even see) in the dream. I had a classmate once who sometimes dreamt/thought in Norwegian and sometimes dreamt/thought in English (he was half-Norwegian, half-Australian or something to that extent). Peronally I haven’t had many dreams lately, at least that I can remember.

  22. Alexandra Says:

    Isn’t there some kind of psychologist or a web page we could find out what languages do we think in? I am Romania, I have been living in Spain in the last five years and now I moved to the UK. I have been speaking English since I was like 5 years old, but I was living in Romania, so even if I knew English, I thought in Romanian. Then I went to Spain and I know I was thinking in Spanish because all the dreams I had (at least the ones I remembered) were in Spanish. Now I am living in the UK with my Romanian brother. I only speak to him in Romanian (unless there is an English person around, then we speak in English so that they don’t feel weird around us), but on a daily basis I have to use my English skills at work, when I go shopping etc.. So I was just smoking out the window and I was thinking something in Spanish (I had just talked to my Spanish boyfriend – in Spanish, obviously) and then all of the sudden I started to think in English. That made me wonder, so I googled it and found this page. I think the comments are helpful, but they don’t really convince me 100 per cent. So, if there is a scientist or a doctor around here, maybe he can help us. Thank you
    For the record, as I was writing this – and I am sure I’ve made my mistakes – I feel that was thinking in English

  23. Alexandra Says:

    I just had another thought… What if someone was born blind, deaf and dumb/mute? I mean, they have never heard any language, they obviously don’t speak any and they can’t read lips, but I think we all agree that a person like that would think in some kind of way. So maybe when asking what language do we think in we should take that in consideration… They would not have the so called language tools most of us do, but I would like to know if there is any difference between how we think and how a person like that would think, maybe that would give us an answer…

    • thekillromeoproject Says:

      Nice thoughts Alexandra, I’m sure this has been the focus of research by much wiser people than me, long before I thought about it. I personally feel that we think in the language most suited to the immediate situation we find ourselves immersed in.

      • Alexandra Says:

        I think the same way, but I don’t know why do I involuntarily put my thoughts into words and why the language is different depending on nothing relevant to me. I am living in the UK now, so I shouldn’t be thinking something “in Spanish”, then something “in English”, then something “in Romanian” without any apparent cause, all in an interval of no more than 10 minutes… I am very organizes so I don’t understand how my brain can be so stupid

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