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.
(Featured image: taken from openclipart.org: https://openclipart.org/detail/35791/brain-01-by-anonymous)