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What Language Do You Think In?

Our thoughts and dreams reveal so much about us – but what influences the language we choose to think in (if indeed it is a conscious choice)?

This article looks into the science behind the language of our thoughts, considering how we might make the best strategic use of our second language skills.

The Complementarity Principle

Why do we choose to think in one language over another? It feels instinctive to assume that we might think in the language that we know best – our native language, for example – but sometimes context is key.

Imagine that your first language is English, but you have moved overseas and now work in Germany, in a German-speaking office. German is your second language, and you have developed a fair degree of fluency in business scenarios, such as meetings and when discussing targets and future opportunities. However, when your family and friends come to visit, your first language would naturally be your go-to language, because it is shared with those people (and they may not have your level of German language skills anyway).

Switching from German to English, and then back to German on Monday morning, makes absolute sense – you are choosing the most effective language for the task at hand in a given environment. Even if your German colleagues are happy to switch to English at work when needed, the overall context requires an understanding of the German language, and so your mind is likely to feel more comfortable – and responsive – if you are also thinking in German.

This is the basic concept behind what author and emeritus professor of psycholinguistics François Grosjean calls the complementarity principle. Essentially, we attach the optimal language to our activities, and some languages work best for some activities, while others work best for other activities – ranging from going to work, socialising, playing sports… you name it. It depends on where, when and who we are with as to which language is optimal in differing scenarios.

Negotiating a Deal

If the complementarity principle is true, we may find ourselves using our second or third language in overseas business negotiations and conversations. Equally, the language choice may fall in our favour if our counterparts have opted to use English (even if it is their own second or third language).

The current conversations around Brexit negotiations are an interesting example to consider. When UK negotiators (and indeed the UK’s Prime Minister) head into discussions, what language might they be using? Presumably it is English, but perhaps more than one language is in use (or interpreters might be involved for the benefit of all parties). Even if any potential language barrier is smoothed over through interpreters and translators, it is fascinating to imagine how many different languages are in motion in the minds of everyone in the room – and to wonder whether there is indeed an optimal language for such discussions.

Counting Down…

Business is all about numbers, but here at SpeakEng we are also interested in the language behind those numbers. The complementarity principle provides another interesting perspective here. We tend to count in one language, usually our native tongue (even if we are fluent in two or more languages), but one language usually takes charge of the counting process (so you could find yourself switching between languages in an overseas business scenario – say if you had to shift from negotiating a contract to thinking about the days until your deadline).

This can make it difficult if someone asks for an answer in your ‘non-counting’ language. Even if you know your numbers in your second or third language, your brain may take a moment to wrangle a correct answer from deep within your mind!

The Language of Our Thoughts and Dreams

Some elements of our thoughts may not rely on ‘language’ as we know it. Cognitive scientists, such as Steven Pinker (as shared in his book The Language Instinct), have proposed that before we think in words, we think in terms of representations of what we are thinking (or ‘mentalese’), which could be colours and images, for example.

When François Grosjean conducted his own small survey into the language of thoughts and dreams, he discovered that the complementarity principle was at work once again – bilingual and multilingual people could often identify the language they thoughts or dreamed in, but context was key to the choice of language.

Furthermore, the inner workings of the human brain are complicated, and the question of ‘What language do you think or dream in?’ is rather open to the interpretation of the respondent.

The Science Behind The Language You Think In
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The Science Behind The Language You Think In
Do you know what language you think in? What decides which language that is? Click here to find out more.
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SpeakEng Academy
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