Thinking in a foreign language

By | March 10, 2014

For me, one of the attractions of studying and becoming fluent in a foreign language is the concept of thinking in a language other than my native tongue. I’m not talking about just speaking in a foreign language without first forming the thoughts in one’s native language, but also the ability to follow a chain of thoughts internally. Since much of our higher-level thought is shaped and influenced by our native language, it’s only natural that learning another language to the point where we can think in it will allow us to expand our mental possibilities.  There is some evidence that bilingual people may change their personalities to a degree depending on the language they are speaking in (see this), and I think the a similar effect might be present even when just thinking.

I’ve seen articles around the net about how to think in a foreign language, but that one thing that is clear to me is that one has to be sufficiently advanced in that language. Otherwise, the types of thoughts are very limited and you’ll just revert to thinking in your native language.

For me personally, even though I have studied Japanese for quite a while, I wouldn’t say I can really think in that language to the degree I would like. This may be due to my relatively weak conversation skills (at least compared to reading), and the fact I haven’t lived in Japan. Sometimes on occasion a Japanese word or phrase will pop up in my head when I’m thinking to myself, or even when I’m speaking in English to someone. Many times, these are words that are not easily expressible in English, like the word “mashi” in Japanese, which has the connotation of picking the better or two bad options. When this happens it’s a neat feeling and surely these types of things will happen more as I continue to study and practice.

Lately I’ve also realized that I there are many times when I am not thinking in English, but rather some short form that operates at a more fundamental level, where concepts and memories are the base currency. Especially when I do something that I’ve had many years of experience in, like programming or music, I don’t think things like “Now I am going to play a middle C slowly” are running through my mind in such a verbose format.

In all reality, I think there are many cases where I’ll never adopt Japanese as a true first-class mental citizen, just because it’s too inefficient. Even if I moved to Japan now and only spoke it for the next 10 years, I’m not sure if my snapses would be able to process it any better than English, which was the language of my most formative years. Come to think of it, I learned both music and programming at a young age which may partially explain why my thought-model during those activities is different.

More recently, I’ve tried to actively “pre-cache” Japanese phrases which I plan on saying to someone later, which is a way for me to reduce the time it takes for me to churn these out at the moment. Or after I say something that I know was grammatically wrong or awkward, I’ll percolate different phrases in my head to try and find the best one. Though its not an automatic process to me yet, I still consider this a form of thinking in Japanese.

Have you learned to think in a foreign language yet? If so, let me know which and how long it took.


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12 thoughts on “Thinking in a foreign language

  1. ringomori

    Love this post!

    I agree with all that you have written and I am the same as you too. I ‘practise’ Japanese sentences which I know I will use later in the day. And, I also notice my personality change when using or thinking in different languages.

    Anyway, I’ve been hearing ‘mashi’ a lot recently, but I don’t fully understand how you can use it yet. Would you be so kind to show me some sample sentences with mashi? I would like to learn how to use it correctly! ^^ Thanks so much! <3

    1. locksleyu Post author

      ringomori, Thanks very much for the comment. Glad you liked my post!

      I’d be glad to give you more info on, ‘mashi’. In fact, I’ll probably write a brief post on it soon when I get a few minutes.

  2. adamf2011

    I’ve been learning Thai for close to 3 years; occasionally words or short phrases/sentences will pop into my head; once in awhile I’ll deliberately think in Thai. But what I can do in Thai is very limited compared to what I can do in English (my native language) — at this point my Thai vocabulary is still relatively small, and I suspect I lack the “syntactical” abilities to form more complex statements.

    The question of to what extent you can really enter into a foreign way of thinking is an interesting one; I do not yet have an answer, but I would at this point hazard a guess that I might be able to go quite a ways, but never be able to fully enter the mental world of the “average” (whatever that is) Thai, because my mental world, my ways of viewing things, the underlying concepts that I hold, have all been formed over a very long period within the English-speaking world of America. I have sometimes noticed that even when the words are Thai, there is still a little bit of English language conceptual apparatus at work — this despite the fact that I am learning Thai without translation to or from English.

    I guess another, somewhat related question, would be: to what extent are my underlying ways of viewing the world those of an American English speaker, and to what extent do they spring from other sources, or perhaps in some ways even deviate from those of the “average” (again, whatever that means) English-speaking American.

    I kind of address some of these issues in some of the posts on my blog (for instance, at, but I think these issues are kind of hard to talk about because they can be so subtle, so difficult to assess.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for reading my post and for the long comment, I can see is is something you’ve been thinking about in your experiences with Thai. I also checked out your blog briefly, it has some interesting topics that apply to all of linguistics, and I hope to check out more of it later.

      I’m less concerned about learning new words, because I already have a good base in Japanese and oftentimes it’s easy to just look up the counterpart in a dictionary. Of course there are times where there is no close match, though.

      Your comment about how your underlying ways of viewing the English world effect a second language is also though-provoking. One case could be when you try to translate something to a foreign language, and even though you find an equivalent expression, you are told ‘but, we don’t usually say that’, maybe because its rude or just uncommon.

      One thing that took me a while to get used to is how a phrase that modifies a word in Japanese is before the phrase, whereas in English it’s after.

      Japanese => 僕が投げたボール (nageta booru)
      English => The ball that I threw.

      This means that I can’t use the English-style word order and I have to do some more processing before I can start speaking the sentence.

  3. adamf2011

    ^^^Well here’s an example: Once I heard a Thai woman say that she didn’t speak “farang language(s)”. Farang as applied to people basically means what we would call white, caucasian, of European origin; culturally (or linguistically) it would mean European or Western.
    So When I heard that I thought: she’s saying she doesn’t speak (the) western language – isn’t that sheer ignorance, believing that all westerners speak the same language! (Sidenote: it is the case that if you’re in Thailand and look white/European, Thais will assume that you speak English – which of course may or may not be true).

    But on reconsideration, I realized she could have been saying that she doesn’t speak western languages — a statement that is more reasonable in that it does not imply that all white people speak the same language.

    Thai does not automatically/habitually distinguish between singular and plural; English does. In English it’s cat or cats, mouse or mice, child or children. (There are of course a few exceptions like sheep and moose – but even then, you’re often going to end up talking about a sheep or some sheep, etc). In Thai the nouns are indeterminate with respect to number, unless you go out of your way to spell things out.

    So what happened? I’m not really sure, but it’s possible that I heard the woman use the Thai word for language and unconsciously made an English speaker’s assumption that an unmarked noun (ie cat, not cats) is singular, and that therefore she was talking about the farang language. Well, she may have been; but her statement could just has well have been understood as being about farang languages.

    This incident happened quite a while ago – I’d guess something like one to two years ago – and I don’t think I’d fall into the same misinterpretation today. In fact, that’s the only time I can remember my making that particular misinterpretation.

    I don’t think this kind of thing happens a lot, but I do once in awhile notice that my assumptions about the way reality works, the way concepts are organized – the things that the Thai words point to – is influenced by or shaped to a certain extent, by an English speaker’s world view, by the English language’s set of concepts.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      That’s an interesting example. Actually Japanese is much the same in that it usually doesn’t distinguish plural vs singular, with some exceptions.Because of this, I’ve had misunderstandings myself from the expression “sugoi kuruma!” which I thought meant “amazing car”, but it actually meant “wow, thats alot of cars!”.

      While I agree that there are ingrained cultural/world view differences that color our interpretations, in this case I think it’s just a simple grammatical difference that can be learned (with some effort and time). Though I guess in your example, your feelings that she was ignorant spoke to a cultural difference/bias of a sort.

  4. adamf2011

    I think you’re right. I may have been primed to have a sort of skewed reaction to what the woman said by a story one of my Thai teachers once told about how, in the past, she had been under the impression that there really was just one single “farang language” spoken by all caucasians. And I think you’re right that I’ve outgrown that particular (mis)interpretation.

    I don’t think that one is necessarily stuck with the concepts and worldview from one’s native language & home culture; but I do think stuff like that can sometimes unconsciously exert an influence on the ways you use and perceive the language you’re learning.

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  6. adamf2011

    A further thought on the “farang language(s)” story that I related above: I’m now thinking my reaction had little to do with the influence of English grammar. I realize that I still think of the Thai word for “language” as being singular – I instinctively understand it as language, not languages – despite the fact that it is actually ambiguous with respect to number (ie, it could mean language or languages).

    Most of the times that I’ve heard this word, the context has made it clear that the singular was meant; ie, statements such as “I speak the English language,” or “I don’t speak the Thai language,” where an interpretation in the plural (“languages”) would seem unlikely.
    (In Thai, you would always explicitly use the word for language in the above statements. You can’t simply say “I speak English” — it has to be “I speak English language”).

    So I think I just got conditioned to attributing the singular meaning to this word: language, not languages.
    Of course, it’s a mistake that wouldn’t have happened in English.

    Unless of course we were talking about sheep or moose…. 😀

  7. hopefullanguagelearner

    By far the most common non-English words that pop in my head are French, which must have to do with the 7 grades of French education I got here in Canada. The funny thing is I can’t speak French at all, but sometimes I’ll see a stop sign or say thank you, or maybe stare at a window and the french will just pop into my head.

    The only other time I’ve experienced this is when I was talking to two people and they started speaking their native language to each other. The word from Esperanto dropped into my head “krokodili” which is a verb that describes the exact scenario, the person speaking their native tongue when not everyone there understands it. It also means to speak a language other then Esperanto.

    Pretty interesting stuff!

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