“It’s complicated” – The relationship between language and thought

“What language do you think in?”

As a linguist hailing from a country where linguists are something of a rare species, this is a question I have been asked quite often over the course of my life. In many ways, it seems a logical question to ask; I live in a country where English is not the native language, and much of my life is conducted in a foreign tongue. It is not unusual for me these days to slip words of German into English conversation – either consciously or unconsciously – because for whatever reason, the German term for an object or idea has popped into my head first.

But what language I actually think in? When I was living and studying in Sweden several years ago, for the first week or so I made a conscious effort to think to myself in Swedish, in order to become more mentally attuned to using the language. If I came home from college and wanted some fruit, I would think to myself “Jag vill ha ett äpple”. If reminding myself that I was meeting a friend later on, I would organise the idea into the sentence “Jag träffas med Jane klockan fyra.”

This practice didn’t last long – partly because I soon became confident enough in my Swedish skills to render the action of pottering around my flat muttering my shopping list redundant, but primarily because the whole thing quickly started to feel very unnatural. I was running a constant commentary on my life, putting every thought I had into words. Normal people don’t do that kind of thing. Life is simply too short for it. If you’re standing under the shower and it suddenly becomes very hot, you don’t think “This hurts; I had better move out of the way or turn up the cold tap.” Obviously, on some level that idea will come to you and you will react accordingly, but that whole sentence doesn’t run through your head before you do so. That would make your response too slow, too deliberate. And probably a little painful.

However, just after jumping out of the way, many people probably would blurt out some kind of verbal reaction to their suddenly lethal household appliance – albeit a far more concise and less printable one. The thought comes first, the words second. We don’t need the words to have the thought; we merely use them to express that thought afterwards, be it to ourselves or to others.

In this sense, the question of what language one thinks in seems largely redundant. Do we actually “think” in any language at all? Life is littered with examples similar to the shower situation. Soldiers in the heat of battle clearly don’t contemplate every single move they make before they make it – they wouldn’t last very long if they did. The same thing can be said of a footballer scoring a spectacular goal, and commentators often speak of great “instincts” or “football intelligence”.

These terms are interesting, as they imply a perceived difference between the type of thought or intelligence required for such immediate, physical reactions and another level of thinking – one that is more contemplative and complex in structure.

When faced with an immediate, urgent problem, we often react instinctively, without “thinking things through”. This process doesn’t seem to require language at all. But when faced with a more nuanced problem – say, a social issue such as whether to end a relationship or change jobs – we often require time to “think it over.” Quite often, this leads to “talking things over,” be it with your partner, a friend or even just in your own head. A multi-faceted problem requires a multi-faceted solution, and language is the tool we use to structure our thoughts; the flashlight that helps us pick our way through the confusion to the best response.

Think about it: how often are we taught to deal with a difficult problem by sitting down and making a list of the pros and cons? In my school, at least, this was a common reasoning method. Language may not be required to generate thoughts, but we do use it to process what is going on in our heads, to reason with ourselves and others. We debate, we sing songs, we write books and essays. The more complex the thought or feeling, the more it requires externalisation in order to be fully understood – it’s no coincidence that there are so many songs about relationships and break-ups.

Of course, there are also other tools we could use for this. In actual face-to-face conversation, we often use hand gestures to accentuate our message, as they are more immediate and illustrative. Likewise, cave paintings, and hieroglyphs also conveyed thoughts without the use of words. Music and art each have a “language” of their own. But the joy of words is the greater scope and detail of expression they allow us – actual language, be it written or spoken, enables us to go much deeper under the skin of an issue and discuss it with much more clarity than, say, waving your hands around like a maniac.

In answer to the original question, then: I don’t actually think in any language. It’s far more complicated than that. My thoughts are a constantly evolving tangle of half-ideas and emotions, much of which I barely understand myself. Language is simply the lens through which they are focused before being broadcast to the world. Having more than one language in my head doesn’t change that – it simply increases the number of people with whom I can share what’s going on up there.

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2 Responses to “It’s complicated” – The relationship between language and thought

  1. Thank you for the interesting blog, definetly struck a chord w/me. As for me, most of my thoughts seem to be English … yep, even more so in a non-anglophone environment, I have no freaking idea if that is just redundant commentary for practice or because English is the language I can speak without having to think beforehand? 😉

    PS. did you read my blog about “What language do you dream in?” 😉

    • kolyma42 says:

      And thanks for the lovely reply! I believe I did read that blog a little while ago; maybe it was a subconscious influence 😉 There’s so much to ponder on this subject, I really had to stop myself from just waffling on for hours! It all gets very abstract if you’re not careful. Still maybe a couple of things I can explorer in more depth in the future…

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