The always interesting eudæmonist has a post about working to pass a language proficiency interview in Armenian that includes the following reflection:

Another thing: so at the end of the interview, when the examiner was reviewing my errors, she said to me, ‘I understand that you’re thinking in English and then translating…’ and that got me thinking, because I didn’t think it was quite accurate. I wasn’t thinking in English so much as I had a mess of meaning (apart from language) that I wanted to communicate; the thought itself (or the meaning) was not in any particular language, and when Armenian failed, my brain supplied German,3 and when German failed, only then did my brain revert to English. It felt like I was dipping into my pool of language knowledge to find the means of communication, and due to the limits of what I have been able to learn, was coming back dry, in Armenian at least. Thus if I were asked, ‘what do want to say,’ I would have an English response, not because the original thought was in English but because English was the means by which I was able to express it.4

Footnote 3 says “The situation requiring a ‘foreign’ language, that is the one my brain rather stintingly supplies. Greek and Latin remain in the passive understanding, sadly,” and footnote 4 “I feel as though I have unwittingly fallen on one side of a theoretical debate I know nothing about and which frankly doesn’t interest me at present.” Whichever side it is, I think I’m on the same one.


  1. I’ve noticed that, while studying Latin, the treacherous brain often fills in the blanks with shreds of French I still have with me, rather than with any of the languages I REALLY know.

  2. I went back and looked at my notebooks from when I was learning Russian, and was amused to see that for the first two weeks, all my vocabulary words were defined in German.

  3. I have a theory that there is a Foreign Language Center in the brain for languages learned later in life (or maybe just in school and not in the real world, and never really fluently). They seem to be stacked chronologically, and were there are holes, your brain will fall through to earlier layers.
    For me, this was not a problem when I studied French, because I had studied Spanish earlier. When a Spanish word slipped out, if it was a cognate, it just sounded like my accent went wonky for a moment.
    For my wife, though, she studied German, then Italian. She said she got some strange looks when a German word slipped out without her noticing. I’ve always imagined that German would severely disrupt the flow and prosody of Italian.. sort of, “la, la la, la la, ACH! ACH! ACH! la la, la.”
    As for what you think in.. After a couple of years of French, I wrote a few short poems in French that were okay. I brought them (with translations) to an English poetry class for review. Several folks in the class read French, so it was helpful. One who didn’t, though, asked me, “Don’t you just think in English and translate it into French?” Without thinking, I replied, “No, I think in pictures and translate it into words.” One of my best comeback lines ever. Also probably true. I know that whenever I read one of my old poems, my head is instantly filled with the images I was trying to capture when I wrote the poem. They aren’t good enough to evoke those images in others, but that’s why I still like them.
    As a computer programmer, I know I think in pictures and translate those into computer code without ever having to go through the intermediary of a natural human language.
    Final thought: when learning a language, you know your brain is really trying to think in that language when you start dreaming in the new language.. though I was always more fluent in my dreams than in real life. I wonder if babies have dreams like that when learning their native tongue.. full of nonsense words (with the right tone and rhythm) that nonetheless have the correct communicative outcomes. That would be cool, and would encourage them to keep trying to talk!

  4. The same thing happens to me. I sometimes feel as though my brain reaches from one language to the next in order to help me express an idea in the language I’m speaking. Sometimes this works out well and other times not so much. It usually happens when I am nervous.

  5. “Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing.” –the Red Queen
    For myself, I have no pictures in my head (visualizing a triangle is about the limit of my powers), so I do think in words (and sometimes in musical notes, I suppose). Now obviously a lot of cognition goes on in my head that isn’t in words, but when I first become aware of it, it’s as words.

  6. I don’t know how many others share my experience: I’ve been bilingual (Spanish & English) my entire life, yet I don’t have a sense of “thinking” in any language at all. In fact, I don’t usually remember which language I heard something in. I have to be very careful when I’m interpreting that I remember who said what, because the language is not the determining factor for me. I feel most comfortable speaking with people who are also bilingual, because I can use all my words without trying to think about which words I cannot use. My poor mono-lingual husband, however, has had to learn a few, random Spanish words (pepino, enchufe…) that always seem to supercede their English counterparts.

  7. Great post, great discussion. I am very interested in the thinking in pictures/words/music debate since reading Temple Grandin on the subject (she’s probably the most famous picture-thinker, being autistic and possessed of a brain that worked its way around language much later than in neurotypicals).
    My partner says he can only do mathematics as far as he can visualize it, which leaves him able to perform calculus, but not a great deal beyond. (I’m still struggling with fractions and have to draw things sometimes in my head before I can describe them to people; I think I cut a comical figure when giving directions, for example.)

  8. michael farris says

    I’ve come to conclusion (regretfully but inevitably) that “thinking in language X” is a fundamentally misguided goal.
    I understand other languages without translating in my head (and speak that way to the extent I can speak them) but I’ve never found myself spontaneously thinking in another language (and AFAICT I think in words – sentence fragments to be precise).
    I also agree about other foreign (rather than first) languages taking over when gaps appear. I was taking a referesher Spanish course in Poland some years ago I found Polish words filling up any temporary gaps (si, esta muy daleko … lejos, mam preguntę … tengo una pregunta). It wasn’t something I was consciously doing* usually the Polish words came out before I realized what I was saying.
    *though I tend to consciously try to cannibalize Spanish when I’m missing a word in Esperanto … it almost never works.

  9. I once attended a Polish language course together with a Chinese guy. He had been a permanent resident of Germany for a while at that time, and his German was fine, but he had a heavy Chinese accent. When he spoke Polish, however, the Chinese accent was all gone – in its place was a typical German accent…

  10. That’s an amazing story, Thomas. But then, people are amazing. I wonder if we’ll ever figure us out.

  11. @Trey
    “They seem to be stacked chronologically, and were there are holes, your brain will fall through to earlier layers.”
    Thank you for this wonderful description. I think it fits perfectly, in my limited experience. Despite not having use German in 20 years, if I’m struggling for a word in Hindi, Italian or Spanish, almost invariably a German one will pop up, after my brain has dropped through the other, more recent layers. The layers do seem to be capable of being shuffled, since being to forced to speak Spanish recently had me filling in the gaps with the Hindi and Punjabi that I’m using most at present.

  12. Pica: Before I turned to linguistics and computers, I was a mathematician by training and inclination. If I can’t draw a picture for something mathematical, I know I don’t really understand it. All my math thinking is just moving pictures around in my head.
    Thomas: That’s *very* cool. Best I’ve heard is a German speaker with a thick German accent over a posh RP accent, and a Chinese speaker with a medium Chinese accent over a very light Canadian accent. In both cases, it was hard to figure out the underlying English accent they had learned because of the thicker accent in their native language.

  13. I think in thoughts, and am happily able to rephrase them in words in various languages quite well, most of the time. Someone in sci.lang mentioned in the last couple of years that he used to think like this, but that it went away with time, and I suspect this will happen to me, outside of a few limited exceptions like the mechanics of daily life and reasoning about computer programs. I’m 27, hopefully about to start a college course involving retaining large amounts of information easily expressed in jargon-heavy English.
    Most of my interference when learning German was initially and for a long time from French, not a native language for me, and I think my German is better for it. Though getting used to using the passive in formal speech and writing instead of »man /verb/« did probably take longer.

  14. Ah, languages and the funny things they do in our heads. I learned Spanish and French (poorly) in high school, German in college, and then married a Hungarian woman. For fifteen years I learned Hungarian from my children, so my brain was good and well-used to Hungarian being the “target language”, whereupon we moved to Puerto Rico.
    It took me – no joke – more than a year to stop saying “Igen” instead of “Sí” when ordering food at Burger King. I still tend to generate Hungarian instead of Spanish when talking to people; my subconscious appears to reason, well, they don’t speak English, and they don’t speak German, therefore they must speak Hungarian.
    Irritating as hell. Worse when I don’t sleep enough.

  15. The first time I spent any length of time in Japan, whenever I needed to say something that I didn’t have the vocabulary or grammar for, my brain supplied the answer in high school French, rather than my native English. Rather annoying, as my hosts probably had a harder time with that (the few times the French actually forced itself out of my mouth), than they would have with English.

  16. I have noticed a tendency for bilinguals to use features of *a* language (not always their dominant one!) as a “default” source when dealing with a new language: in fact such a default can even come from languages individuals were exposed to in childhood, but have never mastered: I taught French once to a native English speaker whose parents were Ukrainian speakers. She didn’t speak Ukrainian…but whenever she spoke French, she had a most un-English-like (but very Ukrainian-like!) phonology, sounding very much like a francophone version of Natasha from ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE.

  17. michael farris says

    IIRC brain studies tended to show that natively acquired language(s) is/are handled in one way by the brain and languages acquired non-natively are handled (together) in a different way. (Can’t remember any more details than that).
    This would explain why gaps in one foreign language are usually filled by another foreign language when available (and not the speaker’s native language).

  18. I suspect that nearly everyone who is fluent in more than one language speaks without translating, even if they think they are translating. The point is that thoughts are probably not in any language at at all: it’s pretty clear that animals like dogs, cats, dolphins or octopuses can think, in the sense of doing some rational analysis before acting, even though they do not have language.
    At a time when my Spanish was a lot more rudimentary than it is now I had to give a lecture in Spanish, and although five minutes before the start I was thinking: “I can’t do this; I don’t know enough words or grammar”, once I started I found I could do it. I couldn’t have translated English sentences into Spanish at even a tenth of the speed I was actually speaking. Of course, from time to time, probably quite often, I had to insert an English word into a Spanish sentence, but was always conscious of doing it.
    Nonetheless, there are certainly differences between different people. I am always aware of which language I am speaking, but my wife (whose English is a lot better than my Spanish) is often completely unaware of which she is speaking. Most of the time she chooses an appropriate language, but after 20 years of living in France she often starts talking to me in French, and she also does that addressing strangers in Chile, because French is what one speaks to people one doesn’t know. In Chile, but never in France or England, she usually starts speaking to me in Spanish. Despite the fact that most Portuguese people can understand Spanish she nearly always approaches people in Portugal in French.
    Our daughter, who speaks all three as a native, never gets confused, and never chooses an inappropriate language. Even at the age of three she was clearly aware that English was English and Spanish was Spanish.

  19. I speak good Japanese and fairly good Chinese. And yet, I can’t escape the feeling that my ability in those two languages is actually firmly grounded in English. When I’m asked to translate something I’ve said or written in Chinese back into English, it’s absurdly easy. I think the reason is that the English expression was lurking there all the time. That’s because, in learning Chinese, I think I was unconsciously taking English expressions and finding good Chinese equivalents for them. This is possibly a good way to learn a foreign language and can produce a good level of proficiency, but I do think that my language skills are “bounded” or “circumscribed” in a way that is not the case for a native speaker of Japanese or Chinese.
    With regard to the idea of “language layers”, I tend to agree with other posters. Since I came to Mongolia in April last year I’ve made an ultimately abortive attempt to learn the local language. There are a number of reasons for this – laziness, the Internet, a feeling that I’m only here temporarily, the effect of chaotic private Chinese corporate practices on an orderly life – but one thing that appears to have interfered is my constant use of Chinese at work and an inability to move out of that linguistic world.
    Earlier this year I had private evening lessons from a young Mongolian teacher (unfortunately since deceased). At the end of a working day using English (written) and Chinese (spoken), it was almost impossible for me to switch modes and make an effort to think in Mongolian. In fact, it would have been much better to use Japanese as a starting point, but Chinese would rise up unbidden and I would find myself struggling to translate Chinese sentences into Mongolian! As a result, I would sit and think and think and ultimately produce nothing. These lessons turned out to be extremely frustrating. It wasn’t made any better when the teacher insisted on moving the starting time from 8 p.m. to 7 p.m. which didn’t give me a breathing space to clear my head of Chinese.
    As I go back to China permanently next week, I can only lament my abject failure to learn this fascinating language.

  20. Another thing: In translating into Chinese, especially in the initial stages, I had a habit of using both English-Chinese and Japanese-Chinese dictionaries. That’s because in searching for the right Chinese expression to use, I would sometimes think of an English term, at other times a Japanese term. Which dictionary I used would depend on an instinctive judgement as to whether the English or the Japanese expression would yield the best (and narrowest) Chinese equivalent.
    For example, the concept of the brain going blank is best expressed for me by the Japanese expression 空回り karamawari, which suggests the mind spinning uselessly and failing to engage properly. So in order to express this in Chinese I would instinctively reach for a Japanese-Chinese dictionary to find a suitable equivalent for karamawari, rather than an English-Chinese dictionary for the expression “go blank”. Of course, it often took several tries to get the expression that I wanted.
    Ultimately, however, this is not a very satisfactory state of affairs. In the end you have to create with your own horde of Chinese expressions, without reaching back to English, Japanese, or any other language.

  21. I second Athel’s comments on mixing up languages.
    If only two languages are involved it’s not difficult. But insert a third language and my switching goes haywire.
    Say I’m speaking in Chinese, and I insert a Mongolian word. The moment I switch to Mongolian, my next instinct is to start speaking Japanese. I often have to make a conscious attempt to guide myself back to Chinese.
    Interpreting in situations where three languages are in use are almost impossible because I switch — or fail to switch — with gay abandon (hmmm… that’s an expression that one probably shouldn’t use nowadays).

  22. hjælmer says

    When I learning French started, my sentence structure invariably in German outcame, my first second language. (And I’m sure that’s how it sounded to the teacher.)
    A while ago I was sitting with an Austrian and a young American child. I was tired (and probably a little drunk) and had been translating. The Austrian woman said something at one point, which I failed to translate, so the boy asked me what she’d said. Without thinking, I simply repeated her German sentence to him, forgetting that that really wasn’t helpful.
    On a more sophisticated level, it’s almost like the people who, when confronted with someone who doesn’t speak their language, simply repeat their original statement, perhaps a little more slowly and a little louder. On some level it’s difficult to comprehend that–if you can understand everything that’s being said–someone else can’t.

  23. John Emerson says

    Bathrobe, I have a Mongolia question. Basically, during the Russian Revolution Jaroslav Hasek (“Good Soldier Schweik”) taught Russian to Sukhbataar and others. This is mentioned in the Official History of the Mongolian People’s Republic, where there are Mongol references.
    If you’re interested, email me at my site.

  24. I really relate to the language layers idea. For me, while Germanic layers are on top, there’s a merry mix further down. When I started learning Spanish, I would default to the Russian I’d studied years before (say) Danish, and say “no” before I could remember “pero.” This obviously resulted in some strange looks from listeners, since it sounded like a different Spanish word. On the other hand, I was actually kind of proud when someone asked me for the German word for chicken, and I initially responded in Danish, though I learned German first.

  25. Siganus Sutor says

    Michael Farris: This would explain why gaps in one foreign language are usually filled by another foreign language when available (and not the speaker’s native language).
    Yes, it could very well be the case. It reminds me of the old days when in secondary school some hopeful teachers were trying to teach us German. When we were told to translate a passage written in this strange idiom, a girl asked: “In English?” (another foreign language for us, though learned earlier). And I remember thinking to myself (in French): “How weird I wanted to ask the same question…”

  26. Anecdotes:
    Douglas Hofstadter, that jolly oligoglot, points out how he, even after many years of living in Italy, still tends to say *mucca for mosca ‘fly’, because his Italian is “grounded on” his French, and he found himself constructing rough and ready analogies, in effect crude sound laws, like vache:vacca::mouche:mucca.
    My mother, a native German whose command of English was indistinguishable from native speakers except in phonology, used to describe this process as “making up the [target] language” and to warn students in her elementary German classes against it. I remember her arguing with my father, after Guenter Grass’s From The Diary Of A Snail had come out in English translation and we had all read it, about the nickname of the hero, which is Zweifel in German and Doubt in English.
    “Why translate the name?” said my father, who had no German.
    “Because it’s a ridiculous name,” said my mother. “Nobody is named Zweifel; it’d be like being named Twivel in English!”
    (Notwithstanding this, a quick Google search shows plenty of people named Zweifel.)

  27. michael farris says

    “”making up the [target] language” and to warn students in her elementary German classes against it.”
    In _German_ class? I was more or less explicitly taught to actively make up compound words when I was taking German class (both because German speakers do that and even if the result is not … eloquent in German it’ll almost always be readily understood)

  28. Sounds like two different philosophies of language teaching: get it right (correct German) versus make yourself understood (good-enough German).

  29. David Marjanović says

    I don’t think in words. When I learn a language*, I first link the words and expressions of that language to their nearest German equivalents and then (a few years later perhaps) transfer that linkage directly to the concepts themselves. That starts especially when concepts come up that aren’t expressed so concisely in German.
    * Sounds as if I’d do that all the time, like some of the more frequent commenters here, never mind our esteemed host. That is not the case, though.
    In terms of interference, languages come in groups: English interferes, or used to interfere, with French (means: I need a French word, an English one comes to mind and prevents me from finding the French one, and I suddenly stop speaking because I can’t go on), Chinese interferes with Russian, Russian interferes with Polish, Polish with Slovak and Czech, and Slovak with Czech. OK, the last three are unfair examples, because I have no intention to learn Polish, Slovak or Czech — but the three accursed countries in question are almost exclusively populated by monoglots, so even if you think you’re in a sheltered English-speaking environment (and that for a short time), you just can’t escape having to speak them, no matter if you can barely put a short sentence together.
    I am, however, very good at switching between English and French. That’s because my thesis supervisor sits next to me most of the time in Paris, is a native French speaker, and wants to practice his already perfect English. He switches up to 5 times a day, and sometimes without noticing. What the interference consists of is that I often try to literally translate English constructions into French, even though French, not being in splendid isolation, in reality uses the same Standard Average European way of doing things as my native German does. I’ve also been told that my French intonation is English, even though the rest of my pronunciation cannot be placed (according to the same person); but that may just be overcompensation for the fact that German is extremely unmelodious.

  30. Quote: “Douglas Hofstadter, that jolly oligoglot, points out how he, even after many years of living in Italy, still tends to say *mucca for mosca ‘fly’, because his Italian is “grounded on” his French, and he found himself constructing rough and ready analogies, in effect crude sound laws, like vache:vacca::mouche:mucca.”
    Chinese people learning other dialects do this all the time. That’s why you get people claiming to speak other dialects, and actually able to get along OK in normal conversation, but ask a native speaker of that dialect and you’ll find their judgement of their ability is a little harsher.
    I’ve heard Hong Kong speakers trying to speak Mandarin by making certain phonetic substitutions, with understandable (although excruciating) results.

  31. unrelatedwaffle says

    I’m fascinated by studies on intuition, because in these cases what I think is happening is merely the brain working too quickly for the conscious mind to see. Something as basic and ingrained as VOT can only be analyzed by the conscious mind by zooming way in on the waveform. These are features processed in mere milliseconds! Neurological speed is greater than I think most people realize.
    As for how this relates to language, it’s difficult to separate thoughts from it once it’s been acquired. It’s impossible to answer the question of whether you’re thinking in words, pictures, emotions, or other sensory data because it all happens so quickly that I think you have to “translate” into one language or another just to slow it down enough to comprehend consciously. When I’m learning a new word in a second language, it’s much easier for me to remember it not as a translation of English, but its own concept with an emotional or visual component. As touchy-feely-gooey as it sounds, the word’s definition is inside me, not in the word itself.
    And I seventy-second the praise for the layers of learned languages hypothesis. For me, who has been learning French and Japanese (shoutout to Mauri) since about the same time, it’s frustrating to see the gaps in either language. I was able to take French in high school, but I learned Japanese on my own until college, where I continued to take French, but not as intensely. Whereas five or six years ago my French far outstripped my Japanese, now my Japanese has a definite edge on the French, especially since I’ve never been to a francophone country, but I did spend four months in Japan.

  32. German compound words are one thing, but my mother was talking about overextending a regular (or even irregular) process, the kind of thing that children do when they grasp linguistic rules for the first time and start to say singed instead of sang.
    It’s been a long time, and I don’t remember any of my mother’s specific examples, but when a hispanophone told me about how, when learning English, he learned the opposition “this dog:these dogs” and unhesitatingly extended it to “this big dog:these bigs dogs”, I recognized a prime case of making up English.

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