Saturday 1 June 2013

Thinking in tongues

One of the popular questions addressed to multilinguals is “In which language do you think?”

Image © Clipart from

Like other favoured questions, this one also assumes a singular answer, and therefore that it makes sense to ask such questions of multilinguals but not of monolinguals. Monolinguals are in turn assumed to think in one language because they have a single language – something whose rationale some of us might wish to question.

The other assumption is that we all think in some language. This is intriguing, in that a cursory look at the literature shows all but clarity in thinking (or talking) about thinking. We think individually, of course, but if we do think in tongues, then maybe our findings about thinking will vary depending on the language we’re using to think about these things. If we don’t think in tongues, what do we think in, and how do we convert our thoughts into some language that may make our findings known to fellow thinkers? And if we can’t convey our thinking in any language, is there a problem with the thinking or with the languages? And so on.

You can check out some of the players in this controversy by searching for “linguistic relativity”, or “Sapir-Whorf”, the surnames of the two linguists who most recently became associated with it. Their names usually come up in this order, though Whorf got there first and foremost, and in the context Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, meaning that any claims must be proved or disproved through empirical evidence, which is what hypotheses are there for. Facts are, however, that we’re still wondering what to think about all this: like multilingualism and other topics where we’re faced with too few data and too many theories, Whorfianism has also had its fashionable woes and joys. It went from a must-have approach to thinking about (and in) languages in the early 20th century, through academic tabooing, to desirable revival from the year 2000. Alison Gopnik was one forerunner of Whorfian rehabilitation: the title of her book chapter ‘Theories, language, and culture: Whorf without wincing’ says it all.

Against this rather disconcerting background, I would like to offer a few thoughts (no pun intended) on a firm correlation that we nevertheless feel free to establish between thought and languages. I’ll deal with other assumed correlations in my next post. Please bear in mind that my thoughts might strike you (and me) differently, were we to use a different common language from the one I’m typing this in.

Parenting guides insist on the need for caregivers to develop one “good” language in their multilingual children. This is the language which usually turns out to be the one (also singular, yes) which the family’s community acknowledges as mainstream, or school language, or as having an enviable tradition in print, or all of the above. The reasoning here seems to follow two convictions. One, that there are languages which are (more) suited to thinking in, and which should therefore be chosen, top-down, for multilinguals. And the other, that we don’t so much think in languages because we have those languages, but that we need to develop a language in order to be able to think in it – or, perhaps, in order to be able to think at all. I have quite a few things to say about this presumed “language of higher thought” in my book Multilinguals are ...?. For instance, that if you are doomed to thinking higher things in only one of your languages, then you must also be doomed to having only lower thoughts in your other languages.

We can of course think about anything regardless of language, as thinking users of the 6,000 to 7,000 languages that (we think) we’ve identified worldwide make clear. We can do with any of our languages whatever we need (or want) to do with them, provided we do it, bottom-up. I can explain what I mean: one question which never fails to draw peals of laughter from my Singaporean students is whether we can discuss nuclear physics in Hokkien. In Singapore, Hokkien is a dialect (and “dialect” is a derogatory term), fit for the army and rough goings-on. The next question I ask of my students is why can’t we do with Singapore Hokkien (or with Singlish, for that matter) what’s being done with, say, Kreyòl in Haiti. Why can’t children, like all speakers of the languages that people do speak, “build solid foundations in their own language”? This Linguist site has more information on this Haitian project.

To me, attempting to assign one language to (higher) thought makes as much sense as attempting to extract other “privileged” single languages from within a multilingual, their “first, main, best” or their “dominant” one. It is clear that multilinguals have different languages for different purposes, but I don’t see how this must mean that multilinguals are stuck with the purposes for which they use their languages. Languages are as flexible as we make them, because languages have no claims to superiority over other languages: people have such claims over other people. If we do think in languages, the issue isn’t “in which language do we think”, but in which languages can we think.

Next time, I’ll talk some more about thinking, namely, about another correlation between language and thought that we seem to take for granted: if we speak funny, does that mean we think funny, too?
Gopnik, A. (2001). Theories, language, and culture: Whorf without wincing. In M. Bowerman & S. C. Levinson (Eds.), Language acquisition and conceptual development (pp. 45-69). Cambridge, UK/ New York: Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511620669.004

© MCF 2013

Next post: You speak so, therefore you think so. Saturday 15th June 2013.


  1. It is very interesting and my own children have been wondering about that themselves.
    Really enjoy this paper.


  2. I think and dream in both Romanian (my native language) and English (the one I use the most on a daily basis) and sometimes in both at the same time if that makes sense. Besides, the train of thought is very different from speech, so images are added to the equation. And no one thinks in full sentences.
    As for certain languages not suitable for certain topics, well, it's only natural. If that particular language is only spoken by a remote tribe in the Amazonian forest, they wouldn't have developed vocabulary related to nuclear physics, therefore a discussion on the topic in that language would not be possible.

    1. Precisely ! I was asked 'In which language do you think' , I couldn't really come up with an appropriate answer, which got me thinking . Soon, I realized that I rarely,if ever, think in complete sentences. It;s exactly what you said, images,colours etc always form a major part of my thought process, which in my opinion has lead to loss in clarity of thought ||although, the academic viewpoint may differ||

  3. Hej!

    Först, vill jag gärna tacka för blogget för jag gör bada saker, jag lär mig något varje gång jag läser och jag läser det för jag njuter av läsning.
    As a person who mixes languages in everyday life -both in the personal and professional fields-, to read about multilingualism helps me to better perceive and understand aspects of the mentioned everyday life.
    Besides this, I find this post especially interesting seen from the perspective of academic writing, in my case in the field of Humanities. I've also been confronted with the question -in "non official" conversations but made by both members of the "academia" and people whose careers belong to other fields- and I've normally given two types of answers depending on the context they were interested in; one is "the tongue in casual moments" and other is "for special purposes, i.e., work". In my personal and totally limited experience, I've noticed that, for the second case, I try to imitate the children (probably some remains of childhood as user of two different languages depending on the parent I talked to).
    When "constructing" ideas that I later want to develop in texts, I sometimes tend to mix the languages, using the concepts that summarize the ideas I have in just one or two words but that don't have a direct translation in other languages (including that I have to write in). The resulting scheme is somehow confusing for most of the people but I find it helpful to put my first ideas into paper and, then, focus in one language.
    I have to say that, though English is not my mother tongue, I currently write in English, but in a German-speaking surround. My research however drives me to regularly use Spanish, German and Swedish as well, languages that I also use at home.
    Sorry for the length of the commentary, I just wanted to share it with you and other readers because I find that the "multilingualism" regarding concepts is, at least for me, not only a way to ease my work but part of the process of "creating" academic texts that are "monolingual" and that don't correctly reflect how they have been constructed. Do you have a similar process when you write your texts? Do you believe that it has some influence in the resulting texts?
    Once again, thank you for the blog

  4. Isabelle: children do get us thinking about what we do with our languages. My experience, too!

    Alina: you’re absolutely right, our thoughts also seem to me to involve more/other paths than just linguistic ones. And you read my mind, I’ll have something to say about dreaming in tongues soon.

    Thank you so much for your comments!

  5. Enrique: där ser man! Jag förväntade mig inte svenska från någon med ett namn som ditt. Vad tänkte jag, egentligen?? :-D

    The way you describe the construction of your thoughts resonates with me all the way. I also mix languages when I’m thinking, regardless of the language in which I know I have to express those thoughts, and I’m also a paper-and-pen (sometimes keyboard) thinker. My brainstorming sessions with myself are very multilingual indeed. It happens that I realise I was thinking in tongues only when I re-read the notes I’ve scribbled. Perhaps this is so because I learn and talk about the things which matter to me in all of my languages, like you?

    My feeling is that my final, public texts must somehow show that I’m not a monolingual user of my languages. Not necessarily in the sense that any one of my other languages might be retrieved from a monolingual text in a different language, but rather in the sense that the text must bear the marks of thinking outside its language, as it were.

    Wonderful comment, tusen tack! This is a fascinating issue you raise. And thank you also for letting me know that the blog is useful and enjoyable to you!


  6. I think in images but I also think in two languages. I dream in four languages (despite only being fluent in two...)
    Old school memories :)

  7. Kayla, you’re so right!! Images, memories, and languages we didn’t know we could do things in. Our brains are an unending source of wonder, aren’t they??
    Thanks millions for this comment!

  8. Actually, I've been asked this question quite a lot. And I've never given it much thought until I had to describe to people what language I think in. For me, it depends on what the issue is related to, if it's related to work or studies or friends, then I would think in English, and if it's related to my families then I would think in Chinese.

    And sometimes it depends on who I'm talking to. For example, this topic is written in English, therefore I would think of what comments to write in English. But if someone asks me this very same question in Chinese, then I would think of my answer in Chinese.

  9. Thank you, mslamlam! I like your formulation that we don’t give much “thought” to which language(s) we associate with what we’re thinking about at any given time. It works exactly in this way for me, too!

  10. You could point your students at Chapter 2 of Language Myths, which talks about that very attitude. An excellent book. It's a very interesting issue to me because I translate into Manx, which has a very limited (and sometimes strange) vocabulary by English standards, and have to create a lot of terminology.

    The thing that strikes me about language and thought is, I very frequently know exactly what I mean but can't articulate it - which surely demonstrates the thought isn't in any language!

  11. Shimmin Beg: Translation tells us a whole lot about our languages, doesn’t it?? It’s a fascinating quest into what we think we can say in them – and into our linguistic creativity and thought processes themselves, as you note. I’ll write some more about this soon, and I hope you’ll want to share your insights then, too.

    Thank you for this reference to Bauer and Trudgill’s book! It’s definitely one of my favourites. I quoted it in another post, ‘You speak with an accent. I don’t’

  12. The language of thought is reason. Humans have the capacity to translate this into many different languages in order to communicate with themselves (thinking a particular language) or with other humans.

  13. You’re not alone in equating thought with reason, Tater. Have a look at the post following this one, You speak so, therefore you think so., for some historical background on this association.
    Thank you for joining the discussion!


  14. Dear Madalena, I love your blog. I wanted to ask you something. Probably a bit off topic, but couldn't find an email address. I have been teaching Dutch in an international school in the Netherlands. I came across quite a few children who in the process of mastering a new language (English)
    seemed to stop developing the language spoken at home. This seemed particularly true for children who spent a lot of time in after school care (Dutch/English) just at home in weekends . We got the impression it made these children very insecure: like they did not have a language in place that would correspond with their psychological development, and therefore not capable of expressing them selves / understanding accordingly. Do you know if any research is done on this topic, and is it something you recognise? Thank you,

  15. Dieuwertje, your question involves a number of issues, all related to the fact that the languages of multilinguals naturally develop differently. We have different languages because we need to use them in different ways.

    One issue is linguistic exposure, see e.g. this post, ’The trick is in the input’.
    If the children, as you report, spend so much more time in one linguistic environment than another, including a multilingual one, the development of each of their languages will reflect this imbalance. My own children, for example, spent their first years developing and putting their languages on hold, in turn, depending on where we were living at the time. This other post, ‘Languages lost and languages regained’, and Chapters 5 and 9-11 in my book Three is a Crowd?, have more on this – scroll down to Book Preview and click on Contents.

    Another issue has to do with socialisation, as I describe in this brief account of child language acquisition. Children are well known to favour the language(s) of their friends over those of their elders as soon as peer socialising becomes a (very) relevant factor in their lives. So much so that we then go on doing exactly the same thing as adults and throughout life.

    Yet another relates to your formulation, “like they did not have a language in place that would correspond with their psychological development”. There’s no evidence that children/we need a single language in which to develop cognitively, or that one of our languages needs to be in place in order to develop cognitively – one good question here would be what do we mean by saying that a language is “in place”, for example. Cognitive (social, emotional, etc.) development follows naturally from using our languages for these purposes, as in the example from Haiti that I quote in the post above.

    The feeling of insecurity that you got from these children may in addition relate to the children’s own perception that (only) one of their languages is (more) welcome from them in school-bound environments? They might feel that they’re not “allowed”, as it were, to express themselves multilingually at all times, which is a very baffling realisation for little multilinguals.

    Do come back if what I say here doesn’t help much? Your question wasn’t off topic at all, thanks for it. I’m delighted that the blog is relevant to you!


  16. Again, as I am unsure as to your receival of my former comment, I simply want to type a big 'chapeau' to you and your efforts, along with the conscious or inadvertent linguistic decisions made by your parents, yourself and your partner. Further, as an originally bilingual (now plurilingual) father of one, I am trying-while-curious to instill many languages in our child in this 'bilingual' city of Barcelona, as a foreign family from two different language 'groups'. In addition, I am toying with the idea of pursuing a PhD in this somewhat convuluted linguistic domain. Any thoughts or advice are/is welcome, although you have provided a treasure trove of information as it is ! Obrigado.....(

    1. Anonymous: This is the first comment I receive from you, so I’m glad you wrote back.

      Do contact me privately, if you have questions about choices in your home language policies and/or your research. You’ll find my Contact Information under ‘About Me’ on the blog’s pages.

      Obrigada for your kind words about my work!



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