Do you remember the day you started thinking in your current spoken language?
August 4, 2009 12:10 AM   Subscribe

Those who have learned to speak and think in another language, do you remember the age (and day) you started thinking in your current spoken language?

I thought about this while reading At what age do your memories begin?

I think this is an important question (especially for immigrants who spoke a different language) because for example, let's say a Japanese man started learning French at the age of 35, he might be able to master the French language; but I would highly doubt that he would be able to think in French because he has been conditioned so long under the Japanese language. So one might say that kids under a certain age would have an advantage in learning a second language.

And it would be interesting to know if anybody out there actually remembers the day when their brain switched to another language.

Are there studies/research done based on this?
posted by querty to Science & Nature (30 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Dunno. I started studying Japanese at age 22 and got semi-fluent in it by around age 30.

I've now been in the states for the past 9 years but still think some exclamations in Japanese, like "daijobu-kanaa" (I think it will be OK), "yabai!" (yikes!) , "joubu!" (strong/tough!)," dou shiyou!" (what to do!), since these utterances really lack exact English equivalents and they work so well for what I am thinking.

I'm not up on neurolingual theory but IME multiple language centers appear to exist in there.
posted by @troy at 12:21 AM on August 4, 2009

I'm not sure how many formal studies have been done on the subject, simply because the whole concept of thinking an another language is often difficult for people to accurately describe, and cannot be measured so precisely. Also, many people don't think in language at all, but rather in a variety of other ways.

As for me, I've always lived in the same country, and I've spoken the same language every day of my life. Nonetheless, I'm an avid language learner and self-proclaimed linguistics nut and I spend a great deal of time utilising other languages I've acquired. I actively think in a couple of them often, but only those which I've attained a level of basic fluency in. I dream in those languages, too. Usually when the dreams start, which is usually when I can effortlessly speak and understand in most situations, my brain all of the sudden becomes perceptive to conducting my internal dialogue entirely in another language.

In the case of immigrants, I suppose it really depends on the situation and the person. If I were to take an educated guess, I'd suppose most immigrants who learned their second language under the age of 13 or so, would mostly think in their second language. This is due to a phenomenon called "fossilization", where after puberty it becomes increasingly difficult for people to achieve native-level accents and is mostly characterized by people adapting their first language to their second (creating an interlanguage. People who master the second language later on would probably be more likely to adapt their knowledge of their native tongue to their L2, and still think primarily in their native language.

I'm no linguist... at most an educated layman, but I hope my insight helps.
posted by csjc at 12:29 AM on August 4, 2009

It's four years since I got my linguistics degree and I admit I haven't thought about it one wink since then, but: your brain has, like, a blocking mechanism for languages that aren't your first. When you think up a concept, the first word delivered for it is the one that is most salient in your mind- your first language- and then after that you get the other words you know- less common synonyms and then foreign languages. Interestingly, alcohol interferes with that mechanism- which is why you speak your second language so much better sloshed.

I grew up speaking English and Farsi, and when I think it's mixed about 80/20, mostly English. If I'm thinking about Iran, family, persian food, or any topic that I mostly deal with in my Iranian frame of reference, I think in Farsi. But some other stuff, too, random words here and there, are in Farsi as well.

I started studying Spanish in the 7th grade, and acquired it nearly fluently after a study abroad in Spain after 11th grade. I remember that I dreamed in Spanish before I could think in Spanish, and I could only really think in Spanish DURING a conversation in Spanish. Now, almost ten years after that, my Spanish has gotten rusty and I neither think nor dream in Spanish.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 12:32 AM on August 4, 2009

I started learning French when I was 11 years old. I absolutely adored it (having a teacher who was in love with the language and culture helped!) and can remember starting to think in it when I was 14. I've also studied Spanish, Russian, Italian, Finnish, and Japanese, but the only one of those that I began to think in was Finnish, probably because I lived in Finland for two years. With Finnish it started at about the one-year mark.

I actually had dreams in French right off the bat, which has continued since. Only two other languages did that for me: Finnish and Japanese. Not sure why Russian never came into my dreams; I studied it for three years all told.

As for thinking in French becoming a majority occurrence, that started about two or three years after living in France. After ten years in France now, when I'm in "French mode", usually after a long day of work (we only speak French in our offices), my spoken English is actually Frenglish... the other day I caught myself saying "we'll be five" instead of "there will be five of us", for instance. But on days when there's a balance, it can go the other way, and I'll rattle off sentences in French that have English grammar, only realizing it once I've finished. French friends get a kick out of that: "oh so that's how it would go in English! I understand better now!" heh.
posted by fraula at 12:33 AM on August 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm an English-speaking Canadian who took conversational French classes in school for my entire childhood starting around age 7. Then I worked at a French Immersion summer camp for a month when I was in my late teens. I wasn't elegant in French, but I was pretty fluent- I could express any idea in French, even though my grammar sucked and I often had to kind of obliquely explain what I meant because my vocabulary wasn't broad enough to find the word I really wanted. At the camp, I was working with 8 year old kids, so the level of complexity at which we were speaking was pretty simple, but some of the other staff members were exclusively Francophone, so we only used French pretty much all the time. I started thinking and dreaming in French about 2 weeks into that immersive environment. Not perfect French, mind you, but I remember realizing one day, with total wonder, that all the narration in my head and all my talking to myself was happening in French. It was cool. It went away after a couple days out of the immersion (like by the end of a weekend off) but would be back after a couple days back in French land.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:43 AM on August 4, 2009

When I was studying Chinese I would occasionally have thoughts in Chinese. But the thing is, thinking in another language isn't really different then thinking in your ordinary language, it's just the same thing with different words.

I'm sure you've had the experience of thinking using words you haven't always known. For example, you might think "I'm so angry" or you might think "I'm livid" The thought is the same. Knowing another language is just like having another huge library of words to draw on to verbalize what you're thinking.
posted by delmoi at 12:43 AM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

delmoi: Expressing simple thoughts in other languages like that is great, but to think in any kind of depth requires much more knowledge than vocabulary- just keep that in mind.
posted by csjc at 12:54 AM on August 4, 2009

I don't think brains "switch". They are so much more complex than that.

I'm 36 and not fluent in Japanese but I lived there for 2 years a few years ago. I don't exactly 'think' in Japanese, but like @troy there are certain things in my brain that are in Japanese. While most of them are words without a direct translation (natsukashii, taihen, etc) there are a few things that make no sense to me. For example every single time I use the elevator I think the floor number in Japanese. I'm also much more likely to think "Itai!" when I hurt myself rather than "ouch!" even though there are perfectly good English words for them. It makes no sense, but there it is.

It's a second hand story, but I know someone who is a native Mandarin speaker. She "thinks" in English and can can do simultaneous translation between the two--that is she can speak the translation while she's hearing it. She is fully comfortable in English, speaks without an accent and I've never seen her stumped by any English idioms. However when she talks in her sleep it's always Mandarin.
posted by Ookseer at 1:10 AM on August 4, 2009

I arrived in Germany with five years of high school German in just before my 17th birthday and in about a month I was dreaming in German and articulating thoughts to myself in German. No doubt broken, ungrammatical German, but definitely not English, pretty much exactly as pseudostrabismus describes. I was very proud of my new facility, but I found this unsettling to my identity and self-concept; in hindsight, I see that sense of dislocation in my head as a contributing factor to the depression and anomie that followed the next year.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:16 AM on August 4, 2009

I've spoken French my whole life - grew up bilingual, in the US - and I can't ever recall thinking in French.
posted by ORthey at 1:19 AM on August 4, 2009

If I remember correctly, we don't think "in" any language. All humans think in, um... thought-language, or whatever you wish to call it, and then our brain translates that into English, or Japanese, or whatever, even if that's just for our own brain to hear.

That is, even if you speak only one language, it's still a two-step process getting from raw thought to a thought with words. (And by that time, your thumb is throbbing in pain already.)

When that internal translation (or, um, lation) happens quickly and easily and flows in a way that feels natural and effortless, that's fluency.

Whether all humans think with the same 'vocabulary' toolset of pre-language thoughts, or whether we each have our own individual brain languages... that's a question as much for the philosophers as the neuroscientists.

(Pro philosophers and neuroscientists are encouraged to correct me. That's from some half-remembered classes.)
posted by rokusan at 1:24 AM on August 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Single datapoint: My German grandparents, who moved to Australia in their late 20's, said that they remember when they truly felt that they had "switched" to English when realised they had started to dream in English.
posted by jannw at 1:35 AM on August 4, 2009

After studying Japanese for five years and then being surrounded by nothing but Japanese people, including at home, since I was living with my Japanese boyfriend, I distinctly remember when I first began to dream in Japanese. As for thinking I am sure that preceded dreaming. The dream bit was much more of a surprise to me.

Before I hit that threshold, comprehending written and spoken words required effort, but less as time passed. The nature of that threshold-- was it a moment? an amount of practice? a matter of divine intervention?-- I can't describe with precision. There certainly wasn't an a-ha! moment. I suspect that it probably dawned on me one day while preparing dinner with the news on in the background that I wasn't focusing on the tv but understood it anyway.

Not very helpful, I suppose, but maybe you could add dreaming into your question, because at least for me that was the big one.
posted by vincele at 1:42 AM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I grew up bilingual German/Italian. I don't think much in words; in my experience, thoughts don't work like spoken language at all, and there's some sort of thought-to-speech module quite late in the process. I suspect that people who think they think in a language only think they think in that language.
posted by dhoe at 2:04 AM on August 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

As a Norwegian (a small country with a ton of imported English-speaking culture and entertainment, where even homegrown adverts in many cases are using English idioms, phrases and frames of reference), I didn't start thinking "in English" until I had spent 9 months studying in London at the age of 17, and even then, I don't regard it as being fluent at the time.

Though I agree with the poster who posited that we all think in a language that isn't bound to a spoken one or written one, what I regard as fluency is the ability to quickly shift gears. What I mean by that is the ability to switch between speaking your mother tongue and your second (or for that matter, third or fourth) language. Adding to that, I would also add a declining tendency to adopt your accent or pronunciation to mimic the person with whom you are speaking. A strong sense of "self" in the foreign language emerging, if I can put it like that, with an accompanying sense of the music of the language.

When I first arrived in London, I felt, despite a considerable vocabulary, that speaking with any degree of fluency required a period of "warming up" to the language, both with regard to listening comprehension and the fluency with which sentences were composed.

Two years after London, I spent a year in Australia, where I noticed both these things improving: the speed of the switch between Norwegian and English, as well as the sense of lingual "self."

For the last two years I worked with an Australian in Norway. By being forced to switch over at the drop of a hat, I've made the switching period almost instantaneous, which I now consider as being fluent. This includes being able to pick up very subtle, very Anglo-Saxon nuances of humour, as well as being able to appreciate them fully.

Presently, I am in Beijing, China studying Chinese at Peking University. After a year of study back home in Oslo, Chinese is still very much a strange beast, and though I can mostly manage to convey what I want to say (either by using other words, pantomime or my iPhone dictionary), it is noticeably uncomfortable and requires great effort to make anything even approaching a switch.

Being at this level (lower-lower intermediate is what I would rate myself as) I can vaguely trace parallels back to when I was learning English; at the very least I can see how long the road will be towards attaining complete fluency (unlikely!). Unfortunately, Chinese television shows, music or culture has never been a strong influence in Norway, something that made learning English in a more nuanced way possible.

I do vividly remember, at the tender age of 11, being fed up with the inability of teachers to separate British and American English, a source of great frustration and confusion in our elementary school English class.

Hope this helped!
Disclaimer: personal experience, anecdotal at best.
posted by flippant at 2:16 AM on August 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

German native speaker here. I took nine years of English in highschool starting at age 10. I never thought in English while taking it at school, but started thinking in English during a five-week-long stay with a family in the U.S. during which I attended highschool. I'd learnt English for almost seven years at that point, but this was the first time I was actually using it outside of school. To answer your question, I can't remember the exact day, but it was sometime during those five weeks.

My English has steadily improved during the past fifteen years (after finishing highschool), and now I find myself often thinking in English, especially when I've read books or watched films in English. Sometimes I even can't think of a word in German, only the English one comes to mind. I also think and dream in English while in an English-speaking country on vacation, for example.

My problem is that my mind autmatically switches to English when I am in an environment where a foreign language is spoken. I also took three years of French and six years of Latin at school, yet I start thinking in English when in France or Italy... which doesn't exactly help. ;-)
posted by amf at 2:50 AM on August 4, 2009

Fascinating datapoint here that most of us associate this moment as being related to the first time we dreamt in that other language. I can vividly recall the first time I dreamt in Spanish after a lot of study but more importantly three total immersion weeks (no-one in the tiny rural village spoke English), down to the people in the dream and the bizarre subject matter of the conversation. Similarly dreaming in German, both those incidents marked the first times I was aware that I wasn't translating in my head.

However, I agree that I don't feel I think in any language, but the type of translation that seemed to be going on in my head, disappeared around the time I first dreamt in the other language, if that makes sense.
posted by Wilder at 3:07 AM on August 4, 2009

What amf said.

I'm native German and I think in English when I'm abroad or watching English movies. From time to time I accidentally mix in English words when speaking German but usually these are exclamations, like wtf, so that is not too surprising. One funny thing is that sometimes I use the German obwohl instead of although. It happens when I explain something really complex in English, I seem to be concentrating so hard that my brain doesn't pay attention to what I say. Obwohl, who knows?
posted by cronholio at 3:31 AM on August 4, 2009

I certainly do. Took French in high school and college, then while studying abroad in Paris, all of a sudden, things just clicked. I went from one day having to constantly be translating everything in my head to just being able to speak. I recall one day reading a billboard to myself in French and understanding its meaning without having to translate anything, which took me a minute to even realize I had just done. Was thinking in French since then.

Interestingly I never had that experience in Spanish; I certainly can think in Spanish but it happened gradually, not all at once.
posted by gramcracker at 4:56 AM on August 4, 2009

I lived in Italy for a few years, and was conversational in the language on a very basic level. I still spoke a lot of English while there, because of roommates and a boyfriend who wanted to improve his English. I remember still the day I realized I was thinking in Italian. It happened about a year after I moved there, and it wasn't constant Italian, more the phrases that occurred frequently in day to day life. It continued like this even after I moved back to the states, and took a few years to go away. I grew up hearing Italian being spoken around me(Sicilian, anyway), so that may have made it come more naturally.
posted by newpotato at 5:19 AM on August 4, 2009

The following is not the perfect analogy, but its a good enough fit to answer your question I think...

As many posters have said above, you don't 'think' in language. You think as a function and representation of different combinations of billions of neurons firing. The language is a GUI for communicating all that mess for output and/or for doing language-related tasks. Internally, you may access the GUI to mentally rehearse something you're going to say, think about language, draft an email in your head, or rehearse and analyze a narrative.

The acquisition of a second GUI, an L2 (Language 2), is a long process involving reinterpreting all those different neuron firings for a different type of output. What you're essentially asking is "Can somebody tell me the first memory you have of rehearsing a narrative in your L2 GUI?" This requires acquisition to the point of ability to let your new program 'execute' on its own (minimal L1 GUI reliance) for internal language-related tasks (processing a personal narrative), as well as meta-awareness of doing this task using L2 GUI, and encoding of the awareness of doing this task (forming a memory of this), and then accessing it (for reporting on AskMetaFilter). You can imagine how difficult this would be to measure in consistent ways. However, there have been many studies done in neurolinguistics that attempt to demonstrate these various steps, especially in stages of L2 acquisition. I don't know any to recommend off the top of my head (ha!) but they're out there. Maybe some neurolinguists can jump in with some recommendations, as well as corrections to my misshapen GUI analogy (it's a little bit wonky, but sufficiently apt to answer your question).
posted by iamkimiam at 5:39 AM on August 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

I moved to N. America at the age of 5. I think it took me two-three months to become fairly fluent in English, and my parents realized I was thinking/dreaming in English when I would sleeptalk in English. This happened well before my sixth birthday.
posted by alon at 6:15 AM on August 4, 2009

There are a bunch of different stages you could define as "being able to think in a second language." I'm a native English speaker, and the only other language I'm almost truly fluent in is German, which I initially studied as a kid. I started dreaming in German first - undoubtably awful grammar, of course, because this started long before I was fluent. I talk to myself and have a pretty active inner monologue going at most times, and I consciously tried to do that auf deutsch. It didn't start happening unconsciously until I moved to Germany, however. Similarly, once I moved to Germany, I started occasionally running into things that I could only recall the German word for.

All that said, I'm not completely fluent. At this point, I think flippant might be onto something with their suggestion that "ease of language switching" implying fluency. I have a considerable vocabulary, but - having mostly learned German through books before moving to Germany - my conversational skills are still weaker than my comprehension skills, particularly when I am surprised or nervous. When surprised, I can often feel my brain struggling to switch gears. For example, I was travelling a few weeks ago. In the Chicago airport, having seen me carrying a German-language edition of a G√ľnter Grass book, a woman asked me in German whether or not we needed to take off our jewelry to go through the TSA checkpoint. Now, I knew what she was asking immediately. But I could almost feel my brain saying "huh, why did she call her ring Schmuck? Oh, because she is speaking German. That probably means we should speak German, too. Crap! How do we speak German, again?" After which I lurched through a few sentences before regaining my linguistic feet.

So while I can and do, by many definitions, think in German, I don't think I will be able to call myself fluent until I can easily and confidently switch between languages - until it's not harder under any circumstances to think in German than it is for me to think in English.
posted by ubersturm at 7:04 AM on August 4, 2009

My mother is from South Korea and has lived in the US for over 32 years. At this point, English is her primary language and she does all of her out loud thinking and mumbling in English. Even her Korean conversations are at least 25% English. But, she counts and does math in Korean. This might not have much to do with your question.
posted by defreckled at 7:53 AM on August 4, 2009

I'm really struck by the number of people who mention dreaming "in another language" because...I really don't understand it. Do you mean you remember other people speaking another language in your dreams? For me, dreaming is a mostly alinguistic series of images and feelings--it'd be like saying I watched a silent film in another language--apart from when people are talking.

As for my experience (American raised speaking English), I don't know if I could really call myself completely fluent in Spanish or Italian (my second and third languages), but there were two watersheds as far as "thought": when I was able to make and understand jokes (usually puns at first) in one of them and when the first word that came to mind in a given situation was e.g. disponible instead of available.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:55 AM on August 4, 2009

I, too, had the moment of noticing that I was dreaming in a second language as a point where I realized that I was becoming much more comfortable with the language. (As a native English speaker learning Russian, after a couple of months studying abroad in Moscow during undergrad.)
posted by andrewraff at 7:56 AM on August 4, 2009

Cantonese native speaker here, but started learning English in kindergarten and now I basically mix the two together/code-switch when I speak. My schooling was in English, and hence for technical/academic subjects my vocab's from English, while everyday matters are more the domain of Cantonese.

I would say I usually don't notice myself *thinking* in any language per se, but if I make an effort to verbalise my thoughts I can do it equally well in both languages (provided it's not about academics etc.) as well as to a large extent in Mandarin (tied with English as my 2nd/3rd language.)

I've also studied Japanese and Spanish (though hardly fluent in either), and I agree with previous comments about certain expressions being "locked" - "itai", "nande", "hola" being sticky ones.
posted by monocot at 9:57 AM on August 4, 2009

I am English and was first introduced to French around the age of six. Your question made me laugh, because for many years after first hearing French, I thought it was a trick my neighbors were playing on me - because everyone thinks in English of course, they were surely just making noises at me to confuse me!
I didn't start thinking in French until I started speaking French on a daily basis, in my first job with French co-workers. I definitely can't remember the year or day, it just sort of crept into me and at some point I noticed that I was thinking in French when I spoke French and had probably been doing so for a while.
posted by Billegible at 11:28 AM on August 4, 2009

Agree with dhoe - I started learning Chinese aged 26. Now I'll be, say, round some mates (here in Beijing) having big arguments about history and politics where I am definitely 'thinking in Chinese' but really it's not verbalised. Nor can I really pin-point when that switch came.
posted by Abiezer at 11:39 AM on August 4, 2009

I would agree with previous comments. I speak Japanese pretty well, and I would say that thinking in another language is much more of a gradual/partial transtion. Certain words and phrases, or even long complicated thoughts on certain subjects naturally pop into my head in Japanese. But by far the majority of my conscious thought is in English.

I think thinking in another language is built one word or phrase at a time. Case in point: how many Americans have ever thought to themselves "Hasta la vista", despite not primarily thinking in Spanish? But once a phrase becomes a part of you like that it easily rises to the surface of your thoughts.
posted by Vorteks at 10:21 AM on August 10, 2009

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