In discussions of language learning, multilingualism, and related topics, I hear references to "thinking in a language." Two questions on this stack exchange list have referenced this, namely "What language, if any, do deaf people think in?" and "What language do children think in?" One can find lots of references to "thinking in a language" on the internet. The following link is only one of many examples: http://drenguin.hubpages.com/hub/How-does-thinking-in-a-certain-language-affect-us

Since I experience internal monologue like everyone else, and that monologue is in my native English, I have an intuitive sense of what the phrase "thinking in a language" means.

But is internal monologue, aka thinking in a language, something that can be investigated scientifically? Is there an operational definition of thinking in a language? Does the phrase have empirical meaning?

  • 1
    I don't have any academic references to back it up, but I always interpreted "thinking in a language" as not composing your speech in your native tongue and then translating into the one you wish to speak but composing it directly in that language. My understanding is that it is generally accepted that the brain has its own language for dealing with complex logical and spacial relationships, etc.
    – acattle
    May 14, 2013 at 3:31
  • It's a sense of ease with a language that usually comes from some mix of at least two things: (1) talking fast and fluently enough that you can't perceive yourself translating, and (2) feeling comfortable using phrases and categories that are foreign to your native language. This kind of "talking" can be mental rehearsing of the sort any serious language learner practices all the time.
    – jlawler
    May 14, 2013 at 4:50
  • Sapir-Whorf, anyone? May 14, 2013 at 13:43
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    One small aspect of language use where this seems particularly evident is memorizing and handling numbers: All multilingual people I know are much more comfortable in one of their languages for tasks like memorizing a phone number or calculating a 15% tip than in other languages that, in most other aspects, they speak with equal fluency. May 14, 2013 at 21:05
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    Due to the constraints of the field, virtually all psychological studies done in the US are limited to a subject pool of socially privileged university students between 18 and 22 years of age who are enrolled in psychology classes. This is unfortunately not very representative.
    – jlawler
    May 15, 2013 at 13:11

2 Answers 2


If you are interested in the philosophical side of this question, there are relevant texts by Leibniz, who mastered several languages. He had a take on the way one thinks with or without symbols:

It is only too true that even in their minds men put words in place of ideas, especially when the ideas are complex and indeterminate. But it is true also, as you have observed, that in such a case the mind contents itself with merely taking note of the truth without yet understanding it, being convinced that it can understand it whenever it wants to.

G. W. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, Book IV, Chap. 5, § 4 (text available here for instance: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfbits/ne41.pdf)

The following publication (in German) provides a good overview of the subject: S. Krämer, Symbolische Erkenntnis bei Leibniz, 1992. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20483450


There has apparently never been great need to investigate this phenomenon with such rigid precision. No significant interest. No equivalent of "phases of sleep", or anything similar has thus surfaced.

Some people proficient in more than one language experience something for which "thinking in a language" seems an apt description, and have no reason to believe others' experience is different.

My first language is Polish, but most of my work and entertainment is in English - and so are about 80% of my private thoughts - the concepts, phrases, etc that I picked up feeling more easily accessible, more familiar that way. I often must slow down to translate when speaking to someone in Polish.
When learning German, I attempted to void my thoughts of other languages, and go from vague intention to speech using only things I had picked up in contact with German. I believe that qualifies, too.

If you wish to address it from the angle you describe, I'd treat "thinking in a language" as an instance / manifestation of a more general psychological phenomenon, like preparing a dish the way you were taught, or being used to a specific model of car - you can drive others, but for a while it does not come as easily.

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