“What language do you think in?”

I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela were the native language is Spanish, and I was lucky enough to attend a bilingual school where I learned English. Ever since I moved to the United States, about eight years ago, when people find out that I speak two languages, they ask which one is my native language, and although I learned both almost at the same time, I had always considered myself more fluent in Spanish; time has changed that. Living in the States has made me as native in English as I am in Spanish. The question that follows is: what language do you think in? To be completely honest, the answer to this question is almost as hard as Dr. Rettinger’s favorite question: Does the tree make a sound if it falls in the middle of the forest? The truth is, I do not know. For the most part I consider myself to think in English when I am in an English-speaking environment and vice versa, but there is always the exception to the rule like when I count in English, once I get to 20 I start counting in Spanish

So while we learned about language in our cognitive class, I thought this would be a great time to see if there had been any research done about bilingualism and which language people think in when they speak more than one language. I found an interesting article that talks about the function of the brain when people switch form one language to the next. While the different languages activated the same exact area of the brain, there was an increase in intensity for when the participants switched languages, and no difference when they switched tasks in the same language. Although the article isn’t exactly about how to detect which language I think in, it most definitely suggests that something does occur when switching language and that given that they activate the same area of the brain, it could be highly impossible to think in two languages at a time.

Interestingly enough, I also found an article that suggests that the way people think changes with the language they are thinking in, or the environment they are in. What I mean by this is that language can activate specific cultural frames and therefore change your personality to some extent. This was shown to be true with Hispanic people and Arabs. Maybe then, it makes sense that I think and congruently act a certain way when I’m in an English speaking environment, as well as a Spanish speaking one.

Overall, bilingualism has been proven to be more beneficial than detrimental, here is a fun video that summarizes a few of them:

Although I did not find much of an answer to my impossible question, I did find a lot of interesting studies about language, more specifically speaking more than one, and how it can affect us without it us even realizing it.

PSA: Even if you are not good at learning languages, explore the world, you will learn so much from it!

8 thoughts on ““What language do you think in?”

  1. mluning

    I’m a native English speaker but I’ve taken 3 years of Spanish and 2 years of Chinese (definitely not enough to be fluent, but enough to know some things). I’ve noticed that there are certain phrases that stick with me in my two non-native languages, and I usually have to think harder to not say them aloud in Spanish or Chinese if it’s something I plan on saying at all. The clearest example of this is asking what time it is. In my mind it’s always “que hora es,” not “what time is it?” It’s also interesting that you bring up counting specifically because my mind defaults to Chinese now when I’m counting, and before that it was Spanish when I spoke it more. Once I even had a dream that was in Chinese, although I’m not sure how much of it was accurate. It makes sense that the environment you’re in would have a big impact on what language you think in the most. This is a really cool area to study about I would imagine.

  2. Carrie Leaman

    This is so cool! I’ve always wondered if bilingual people think in different languages at different times. It makes sense that around more Spanish speakers you would think in Spanish and vice versa. I remember asking my high school French teacher if she dreamed in French. She said she did, but only very rarely because in most of her environments around her (disregarding the French class), people spoke English. Because dreaming is an unconscious process, I feel like an individual would have to be fluent in a foreign language before dreaming in that language. I would think that “skill” would have to be deeply rooted in order to apply correct grammar rules and syntax while dreaming in a non-native language.

    Is there a reason you start counting in Spanish at 20? Is it just more natural or does it maybe take less syllables to pronounce the numbers?

    1. Ana Martinez

      hahaha yes! my AP psych teacher was actually the first one to ask me this question, and then he asked what language I dream in.

      And to answer your question about numbers, I have no idea. It just comes naturally to me.

  3. cbudd33

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post, especially because it includes your own personal account! I found this funny because I took Spanish for the past 4 semesters, and after each class (particularly in my last semester [202]), I would find myself talking and thinking in Spanish for the remainder of the day. I would go up to my friends and instead of saying “Hello”, I would say, “Hola, como estas…”, and when I did something wrong at practice, I would cuss at myself in Spanish, or tell one of my teammates “Lo siento” instead of “I’m sorry”.
    Because of my own personal account, I can definitely see how the switch between thinking in English and Spanish when you’re extremely fluent in both is very constant!
    I also find it interesting that what language you think in depends on characteristics such as cultural frames and/or the environment you’re in. For example, if your native language is Spanish and you’re thinking about your family and a special memory you have with them at Christmas, you would probably think in Spanish. However, if you were thinking about a current class you were taking here at UMW, you’d probably think in Spanish!
    Super interesting..thanks for post!

  4. jennmoreland

    I really enjoyed this post! I think it is really cool how you are able to think in different languages in different situations. Comparing what we learned in class to your own personal life was pretty need as well. I have a few bilingual friends who claim to start thinking and talking in one language but switch to their other language in the middle of the same thought or sentence. Does this happen a lot for bilingual people?

  5. bflood7174

    so the next question is….what language do you speak in your dreams??? The reason this came across my mind is because I’ve taken French classes since I was five, and just recently in college have I had a couple of dreams where I was both thinking and speaking in French! It blew my mind because this semester is the first semester I haven’t had a French class, and I thought I might lose some of the language. However, in the few dreams I had where I thought in French, I was able to think of the structure of the phrase, process it, and speak it without too much of a problem. This dips into the whole weird realm of dreams and what’s possible/not possible, but your article really made me think about it!
    I also feel like I have a better sense of understanding when I read books that will have Hispanic characters who speak English, but will replace a couple words in their sentence with Spanish words. I used to think it was more of a reminder to the reader that they were Hispanic, but I now realize that it can just be second nature to the character to split their sentences in two languages. I don’t do it nearly as much, but it has happened that I’ve used a little Frenglish without being in a French class setting that would encourage me to think in French. Just one more of the infinite ways the mind amazes me!

  6. valvarez

    Personally I wouldn’t consider myself as bilingual but I do come from a Spanish speaking family so I know enough to get by. For the most part I don’t think in Spanish even if I’m speaking which I think is odd given the fact that if I’m going to speak a different language I should be able to process my thoughts the same way. My dad told me at one point when he was learning English that he didn’t really believe he knew the language until he started to dream in English. When he told me that and being a psychology major I would think that him learning English and dreaming in that language would demonstrate an unconscious level of processing the language. What I also found interesting as due to my own personal experience, I had spent two weeks in Costa Rica and by the end of my trip I started to dream in Spanish. Throughout my trip I had grown more confident in my Spanish speaking abilities but I believe that my confidence came out of maintenance rehearsal and intention to learn it. Since I was surround by the language for fourteen days, it would have been more difficult in trying not to practice. I was places in constant situations where I had try in order to just get around. So you may think in English but with enough rehearsal you could think in Spanish.

  7. kharner

    I notice that right when I come out of Spanish class I am thinking in Spanish for a few minutes until I readjust to English. When I encounter someone, sometimes I accidentally say “hola” or “gracias” instead of “hey” or “thanks for holding the door”. I am not bilingual but Ive been taking spanish since middle school. Our book described many benefits of knowing two languages like it makes people better at concentrating and then switching between tasks. I find that very interesting because i think foreign language gives your entire brain a work out.

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