some teachers say if you want to speak English , think in English.Since language and thought are different as is evident from the answers to the question* Are language and thought the same?*how can we say that we think in different languages?

I am bilingual and speak the two languages well-English and my mother-tongue.A polyglot speaks many languages.Is it possible for a polyglot to think in every language he speaks. What is the criterion to say that one thinks or not thinks in the language he speaks?

My question is:

Does a polyglot think in every language he/she speaks or does he think only in his mother-tongue?

  • People can certainly think in a specific language. Even if thought doesn't have to happen using language (which I personally agree with), it seems very apparent that people can, and many often do, think up particular sentences. We really wouldn't be able to utilize language otherwise. So, your premise is wrong. Personally, when I think using language, I think in English sometimes, and in my mother language some other times, depending on the context.
    – LjL
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 23:19
  • See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bilingual_memory#Inner_speech. Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 17:33

3 Answers 3


Being bilingual yourself, you should be able to answer this question yourself.

But here's my answer: people don't usually think in a language. At least I don't. I think in a language when I am thinking about conversations (then I think in whatever language I'd use for that conversation), or when I am trying to figure something out by remembering what a teacher or someone has said to me.

Otherwise, my thoughts are pictures, maps, videos, lambda calculus, assembly, or in some other way not linguistically formed. Whatever fits the situation.

some teachers say if you want to speak English , think in English

That's okay advice. You could train yourself in a language by narrating something in that language. You could be deliberate about using English in your brain. Feel free to do that.

  • I do normally think in language, be it my mother tongue, English or a mixture of whatever expression from whichever language seems more precise/concise (overall I tend to prefer English for work related concepts). Sometimes I do even use a language I am far from fluent in (although this is usually triggered by thinking about a conversation, as you mention).
    – Mori
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 12:11
  • @Mori Are you sure about that? What if someone asks you, "How can I get to the nearest florist from here?", how are you going to figure out what to say? Or you need to see if the sauce you are cooking needs some seasoning, I'm sure you'll sit on the flavour for a bit (this is thought), before maybe saying to yourself, "needs oregano." (this is conclusion) Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 12:31
  • I do say "normally", not "exclusively". And yes, even before I formulate "needs oregano", I do have bunch of other verbally formulated thoughts "quite good, salty enough, vinegar?, what is then missing?", or, when asked how to get somewhere, I am quite sure I use words like "straight, street, not far, turn" together with place visualization internally before answering. Not claiming it involves much grammar, though, but I can identify the language (typically mother tongue when cooking and the language I was asked in when answering, provided I am reasonably fluent).
    – Mori
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 12:51
  • @Mori that's interesting, and quite different from my experience! I would encourage you to write an answer? Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 13:01
  • 1
    This is a debate that has been had many times. It seems that there are people who tend to think in words (consciously, at least; I'd say it's perfectly possible they think, say, visually a lot of the time, but simply don't notice), and other people who tend to consciously think in imagery (like maps for instance). It seems it's hard for each type of people to accept the other can exist, as it seems surprising. But given how many time this debate has happened, I think we should accept that different people either think differently, or consciously notice their thoughts differently.
    – LjL
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 23:26

I will provide some thorough personal reflections.

To me it seems like spoken languages are a layer on top of thought, in the same way that musical notes as formal symbols C D E etc are a layer on top of the momentary musical experience. The connection between the two layers can be stronger with people who have perfect pitch or who compose.

My mother tongue is Swedish. This means that Swedish is an interface to my thoughts. But I usually don't use Swedish at all when I do my work (which is math). The reason for this is that English provides both an alternative interface to my thoughts, and an interface to the literature.

Similarly, it is common for kids internationally to use English phrases from video games. The use of domain specific words translated to their mother tongue would feel unnatural to them because it would be a detour.

Extrapolating from this, a polyglot could have different uses for different languages. If I am to be careful, I wouldn't say that he "thinks in those languages" (or in his mother tongue for that matter), because this insinuates that all thought takes place in a spoken language. I would rather say that he habitually uses an appropriate language as a medium between his innate, strong, intuitive thinking abilities and the task currently at hand.

But to avoid belittling the value of language in thinking, I should acknowledge that language can play a great role in structuring, guiding, focusing and spurring one's intuitive thoughts even when not speaking. It is then relevant to note, that different languages could in principle (and probably do) play this role differently for an individual.

The next question is whether a polyglot who "thinks in several languages", can use all those languages at once. According to the principle that we cannot keep many things in mind at the same time, it seems that the answer should be "no". It would simply cause too much interference. It may even typically be too much to use two languages at once. Running somewhat counter to this hypothesis is the fact (citation needed) that some excellent composers can imagine multiple voices of music in parallel. By analogy some exceptional people should be able to use several languages at once. But I think it is not controversial to claim that this ability would be something out of the ordinary.

Some other specific questions are whether a polyglot would use different languages to think about the same topic on different occasions, and whether he would even switch between languages repeatedly while refocusing his thoughts on a particular subject. As for the first question, I think the language he last used externally, as in speech, is more likely to be used, than if he hadn't used it recently. As for the second question, I see two relevant trails for investigation.

Firstly, multilingual people can frequently switch back and forth between languages when talking to each other. It is not clear to me that the reasons for this should carry over to internal thinking, but maybe they do. Secondly, you could think of a mathematician or a modern physicist as a technical polyglot, for the mathematician uses geometric diagrams at one moment, only to write algebraic equations one minute later, and (although my knowledge of this is limited) a physicist may think of a situation with the vocabulary of particles in one instant, while switching to waves in the next. (I won't mention the practices of computer science and biology, which are more about layers of abstraction.) These people systematically use different languages on the same problem, in order to extract (or store) as much knowledge as possible, but their languages are technical and their practice is disciplined, so this does not account for the generality of the question as one about natural, common language.


I have asked a native speaker of English the same question.She said that if you dream in the language, it means you think in the language.Infact, I speak sentences in English while I sleep.Sometimes I make speeches in English.I remember them and my wife or my children say that I spoke in English.

I think while learning a language the learner first thinks in his mother tongue and try to translate into the target language.It is very clear from the sentences such as rain is coming.and I car saw. I have asked this question many linguists but I could not get a satisfactory answer.I think it is possible to think in the language one speaks unless his thought and language becomes the same.(It is my opinion).

Once a person spoke to me in nearly ten Indian languages and asked me whether I could identify his mother-tongue but I could not.I wondered then whether he was thinking in his mothertongue or in every language he was speaking. There are many people in India who are multilinguals. I think unless the thought and the language are not the same while speaking one can not be so fluent and natural When we are not speaking there might be thoughts as in our dreams.

I hope an expert linguist answers better than me.I am expecting some more answers for my question.

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