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What language do you think in?

Since I speak Faroese, Danish, and English fluently, people often ask me which language I think in. I tend to answer I don’t think in language, because I like the incredulous reaction and because I genuinely think it’s a silly question. The question is seemingly based on the assumption that thinking is inherently a constant stream of monologue; an incessant talking to oneself inside one’s own head in a specific language – and only in that language.

Now, I don’t know what everyone else’s inner life is like. Perhaps I really am special in that I vocalise internally less than everyone else. Who knows? However, I am fairly certain the single-language internal monologue model of cognition doesn’t really describe anyone’s mind. I don’t think in language and if you actually stop to take notice of what’s going on inside your mind, I think you’ll find that neither do you.

First of all, let’s get the single language assumption out of the way. If you know multiple languages, or even if you just know one but with a smattering of phrases from other languages, your inner language is a mixed bag. Hell, your spoken language is also mixed. You spout references to films, smatterings of pop-culture, little language nuggets from all over that you have heard somewhere, n’est ce pas? Aber natürlich! You admit it? Bien. Arigatou gozaimasu.

So maybe we think in language but not a single language? Maybe all our thoughts are words and sentences but we’ll switch between one language and another from sentence to sentence or even mid-sentence? Well, no. Have you never wanted to tell someone something, but then when you start to tell them, you fumble the words? You know exactly what it is you want to tell them, but somehow you can’t figure out how to express it? And it wasn’t even caused by a language barrier, was it? That person spoke and understood your native tongue, but you had to stop and think how to put into words whatever it was you wanted so badly to convey, am I right? Well, how is that even possible, if you always think in language? Why was it necessary for you to translate your thoughts into language, if they were already in language?

See? I don’t think in language and neither do you.

Still sceptical? Here I’ll prove it. Count to 3 in English. Don’t count out loud. Just count silently by thinking it. Done?

I bet you counted by vocalising “one, two three” inside your own head. Now I want you to not do that. Instead of speaking “one, two…” inside your head, visualise the number 1 written down on a piece of paper, then the number 2, and then 3.

You probably didn’t have any trouble at all, did you? You just counted to 3 without “speaking.”

Ah, but that’s cheating, isn’t it? Written numbers are still a sort of language.

Ok, then. Imagine one red ball floating in space. Now imagine two. Now imagine three. Now do it without vocalising “1, 2, 3” and without visualising the digits.

Still a bit too languagy for you?

Ok, then let’s say 1 is angry, 2 is surprised, and 3 is happy.

Now without vocalising or visualising anything, try to feel anger, then surprise, then happiness. You probably didn’t succeed, not genuinely, but you probably had no trouble making yourself feel the “ghost” of those emotions. I bet you felt at least something, like maybe a memory of what it’s like to be angry, surprised, and happy.

Whatever the case you just counted to three in emotions (or memories of emotions or whathaveyou).

Now, maybe you’d like to argue that even emotions can be considered a form of language, especially when they’re made to be representational of numbers. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you.

However, if they are indeed a kind of language, I trust we can agree that they’re not the kind of language that’s referenced in the question “what language do you think in?”

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