For those who are bilingual or able to master three or four languages, is there a ruling langauge by which they mainly use to think and study? For instance, A person who was born and lived in the environment of English, French and German langauges can master them at the same time. But there should be a ruling langauage that control his mind when he think or remember sth while the other languages were just used in communication.

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    I find it depends very much on context. If I'm reading a book in French half the day and then put it down and go outside, I'm probably thinking in French. Same for French music. Without enough stimulus I revert to my native language, English. Mar 28 '17 at 19:11
  • "But there should be a ruling langauage that control his mind when he think or remember sth while the other languages were just used in communication." No. :-) The language of our minds is mixed -- it changes by the day, the year, the topic, and sometimes inside one sentence -- just like the English of your mind is mixed (Anglish, Norman, Norse, Celtic...) It just doesn't necessarily have an ISO code like your mix does, but at the same time, we are more conscious of which word comes from which language than you are. Mar 29 '17 at 6:54
  • I think this question was already asked in a different form (I am sorry for such a vague comment, but I don't know how to find older questions like this, but don't close the question as this is receiving much more response than before) Sep 26 '17 at 0:05

I have a single native language (Russian) and have learned English. I can say that I occasionally think either in Russian or English even though I have never lived in English-speakling environment.

The key thing here is that thinking is usually modelling a phrase in a conversation with imaginable opponent. So if I model some phrases to counter arguments of imaginary opponents or partners on English-speaking forums, like this one, or describe my vision to them, I think in English. If I think about something I discussed on a Russian-speaking forum or with a real person, like my relatives, I think in Russian.

The language you think in is not something to which you stick in a long term. I think I even thought in programming languages when I was thinking about how would I code this or that.


Me, I am bilingual with English and Norwegian, and I master/have mastered some other languages as well. I'll have some thoughts in English, some in Norwegian or something else, and sometimes in a programming language or mathematics or something. Of course, I sometimes have thoughts which are not linguistically formed, such as remembering someone's appearance or a route from one place to another. But the rest of this post discusses thoughts which are in some language or another.

A person who was born and lived in the environment of English, French and German langauges can master them at the same time. But there should be a ruling langauage that control his mind when he think or remember sth while the other languages were just used in communication.

I don't agree with that. If you master a language well, that means being able to think in that language well. The language is not ruling [my] mind, rather my mind is using the language to process a thing. If you have a dominant or native language, then using that language to think is semi-automatic (that means it happens automatically, unless you consciously decide otherwise, the same as breathing). So I can easily think in English or Norwegian, because those are languages which I know well, but I can choose a different one if I want.

I get by in German, but I don't speak it well. I can think in German if I am choosing to or if I am speaking to someone in German, but it's hard. It's hard for me to think in German, and I believe that's most of the reason I also don't speak German well. But on occasion, for example I have recently heard someone use German, or read a book or listened to some Bach or something, it'll happen that this language is going to be more active in my mind somehow. It's hard to explain.

So I think the key thing is that even though a language might be a (worse or better) medium for thought, thought may be independent of language.


Many people I know who are otherwise perfectly multilingual have strong preferences for memorizing e.g. phone numbers in one of their languages, and find it much more difficult to do so in their other language(s).

  • As a multilingual, my experience is that I generally recall a number whichever language I learnt it in. For example, while in Brazil, as a habit I'd remember any numbers (phone, CPF, bank account etc.) in Portuguese, just as a good learning habit. When I go to remember those numbers now, I remember them in Portuguese rather than English. When giving people my WhatsApp cell number (same as my home cell number), I'd automatically recite it in English first the translate. But, giving people at home my Brazilian cell, I'd first recall it it in Portuguese before saying it in English to them.
    – Some_Guy
    Apr 17 '17 at 22:19
  • I guess this shows I remember the "sound" of numbers in order to memorise long numbers. Someone with a strong visual memory might instead remember what the number looks like written down, and therefore not have this problem. Similarly, I believe (more rarely) some people who are really "into" numbers, actually memorise numbers conceptually, in terms of the numbers themselves (numerical patterns, relationships between digits etc.) They would also likely remember numbers in a language agnostic way. youtu.be/lr8sVailoLw?t=101 An example of different ways people can conceptualise numbers.
    – Some_Guy
    Apr 17 '17 at 22:26

These answers deal with the parts of our thoughts that take place in language, and yes, that is largely context dependent, as others have outlined. That is to say, if you're thinking about best way is to phrase something, or trying to understand a specific sentence you've just heard, then you'll think in the language you're thinking about.

However, it's important to note that cognitive science shows us that most of our thoughts don't take part in any language at all. In fact, strictly speaking, thought precedes language.

Generally the only time we think in language at all is is when we are thinking about language, thinking specifically about talking to people, or for some other reason we are deliberately putting our thoughts into words. Language is essentially a medium to express our thoughts, not the medium in which we think. So if I'm trying to decide what I'm going to say to my boss when I call up and phone in sick, I'll think about the words in whatever language I'm planning to speak to her. But, if I'm thinking about what I'm going to do with my sick day, planning what I'm going to have for dinner, thinking about how I feel about a particular person or thing, or remembering something I did the previous day; none of that takes place "in a language".

There are various studies in cognitive science that bear this out, as well as (less scientific but useful to understanding) observations about day to day life.

For example, after we hear a speech or a lecture, we remember the concepts but rarely the exact wording; these are recorded in a "raw" "language free" format. That is to say, unless a specific wording of a sentence jumps out at us for its poetic or aesthetic value, our brains don't remember a single individual sentence what we've just heard, and yet we retain the content. Now that's not to say that we can't memorise individual sentences word for word; we often choose to do this, and if a specific figure of speech jumps out at us as interesting then we might make a mental note of it word for word; but that doesn't mean we think in language any more than remembering the hook of a pop song means that we think in melody.

Similarly, people who mutually speak more that one language with each other regularly often can't even remember in what language a specific conversation took place, but can remember the content.

I can't remember the specific study, but I once read one where polyglots were given a short piece of text and then asked afterwards to say what it said. They took the same amount of time to do so regardless of whether they were summarising in the same language or a different language as the original; which showed that they weren't mentally "translating", just relaying the information they had absorbed, showing that information isn't coded in a specific language.

For more on this I suggest you look into Steven Pinker, he's got some great freely available lectures on the subject online.


Ok, so I am a bilingual and can say that, thinking in L1 or L2, at least in my case, depends on:

a) The environment I am thinking in. (home, gas-station, college etc.) b) The matter I am thinking on, which largely is L1 except when I can't have the "perfect" description in it. (e.g. German vs English) c) The people I am speaking/listening to (thinking in between obviously)

But, as I am comfortable with both L1 and L2, I can go both ways / code-switch , while thinking.

Hope that chips in!


Thought is not necessarily linguistic.

It often feels that way because communicating our thoughts is usually linguistic, and self-reflection is an attempt at making whatever is floating around in our heads communicable. The fact that you are reading this now means you're in the middle of communicating, which biases you to think that your thoughts are words.

Most of our thoughts are things like to make dinner tonight, I'll have to start boiling the potatoes early and at the last minute do I sautee the greens and garlic, oh I'll need to ask someone to bring home lemons, which reminds me of that trip to Florida last year. I'm using words to express this, but the thoughts were all a sequence of nebulous ideas. Not that thoughts involved in playing chess or rock paper scissors are generic thoughts, but you're not literally speaking in your head "If they do this then I'll do that, but then I should do this now so that...".

That all said, yes, there does seem to be a 'narrator' to the 'blooming buzzing confusion' of senses, desires, and expectations we're thinking.

What does that narrator speak? Well, frankly, you should tell us. We don't know what your dream is unless you show us. We don't know your inner monolog unless you tell us. Language is arbitrary, meaning we can lie, so there is some lack of total trust, but there are generalities.

In the shortest way to say it possible, your first language will most likely be your inner narrator your whole life (this is obvious) but if your second language comes in early enough and is what you use 99% of the time, the second one may become the narrator. It all depends on how soon and how much. And similarly for more than two languages. Many people get along fluently their whole lives in a second language while fully being conscious of a process of mentally translating (without ever taking the 'conscious' leap of thinking directly in the other language).

But a 'ruling' language that controls the others is a thin metaphor. One may have one internal 'pre-verbalized' practice language or more than one. Different people might do things differently: one may have an internal narrator that is always one language whatever is being spoken, others may have language for talking with their parents and another for business or school.

That said, the external evidence is that things like numbers and expletives tend to be from the first language (or rather they're the last to be replaced by a second language). So you'll have to wait to your own later stages of dementia to have others confirm what you may have claimed all a long whether you've entirely converted your inner monolog to a newer language.

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