If You’re Multilingual, What Language Do You Think In?


Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: If a person is fluent in multiple languages, what is the language of their thoughts? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.

Research in cognitive science and linguistics has suggested to us that the answer to this question really involves disentangling thought from  internal monologue. Many linguists and cognitive scientists have argued that they are not the same thing and that thought is not subject to simple introspection.

Consider, for example, these similar questions:

  • What is the language of your vision?
  • What is the language of smell?

Or these questions:

  • What is the language of thought of pre-lingual babies?
  • What is the language of thought of that word or person’s name you know but can’t remember how to say?

What the above senses lack is executive control of their processes in such a way that their inner workings are apparent to our attention and consciousness. Indeed, in many ways, this internal monologue feels like it actually isour consciousness (cc Frank Heile). It could very well be.

Regardless, at least one thing we know for sure is that thought goes much deeper than this; most of our thought process occurs below the lens of consciousness. It’s what Daniel Kahneman is talking about in Thinking, Fast And Slow, it’s what Noam Chomsky (linguist, author) is talking about when he refers to i-Language, it’s what Steven Pinker is talking about when he refers to mentalese, the language of thought, and it’s what Buddhists and Hindus seized on millennia ago in their quest to be present and conscious of at least some of what is going on in there (cc Kate Simmons, Diane Meriwether).

Let us presuppose for a moment that the internal monologue we hear is that and that alone and not the entirety of our thought process.

What happens, then, when we see a pink elephant, but don’t say to ourselves,That’s a pink elephant? What is the language of that prepositional thought? The existence of a pink elephant here?

You could argue that it is some sort of visual representation of the thought. That could very well be the end of the story, but some linguists and philosophers, notably Donald Davidson, Noam Chomsky (linguist, author)and many pioneers of artificial intelligence, have argued that we need some common universal representation (ideally involving predicate logic) of these thoughts.

At the inception of consciousness, i.e., the linguistic realization of these thoughts, perhaps as internal monologue, this representation is translated into one’s native language.

This is the idea of mentalese, a universal representation of human thought, regardless of the language or languages we speak.

So, from this point of view, the answer to the question is that the language of thought is independent of the language we’re speaking and is instead a universal human language of thought.

Some have argued that no such thing exists independent of the language we speak — that our innermost subconscious representations and thoughts and categories for the world are all mutable by language. That’s the idea of linguistic relativity.

What linguistic relativity doesn’t answer is what is going on in multilinguals. Is thought defined precisely by its manifestation in our conscious thought as internal monologue? What is going on with tip-of-the-tongue phenomena? What’s going on with pre-lingual babies? Or people that, for tragic reasons, have no language or language ability?

Reconciling the answer to these questions (and describing the thoughts that they must be having) with the language we hear in our head is as yet the big unanswered question.

This answer originally appeared at Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and get insider knowledge.