As a bilingual teacher, I often get asked by my students the following question: “What language do you think in?”, depending on the answer I give them, which is mostly that I jump from one language to the other depending on the situation, they tend to speculate that one language must be stronger than the other one. That got me thinking and made me want to have a better understanding on how this whole concept works.
I was born in a Spanish speaking country but have been surrounded by English since my early years, my cognitive system was accustomed to have these two languages coexisting. Then I moved into Barcelona, where Catalan is spoken. Over these three years living here I’ve made some advances in learning this language to the point where I can maintain a conversation with not too complicated syntax structure and having to make the best of my limited vocabulary. My girlfriend is a native Catalan speaker, most of my friends are as well, so I am now surrounded by a third language. But, how does that shape the jargon of my thoughts?
The first thing to consider is that thinking can be independent from language. When I’m riding the bus or walking down the street, my thoughts may not be in any particular language. Studies by philosophers and psychologists have long acknowledged that thought can be visual-spatial or involve nonlinguistic concepts. Cognitive scientists, for example, propose that thinking occurs at first in "mentalese" (a hypothetical mental system, resembling language, in which concepts can be pictured and combined without the use of words); it is prelinguistic and occurs before the representations we are thinking about are turned into English, Spanish, or Catalan, for example.
So, why do we believe that we do think in a particular language? That is due to the later intervention of language while we’re planning to speak, just as it does in our inner speech. I like to call this latter “internal dialogue”, it’s an activity that occurs in an identifiable linguistic code and which is primarily directed to oneself.
According to the categories of William Sheldon, which explain the relation between out physiology and psychology, I am an ectomorph or “cerebrotonic”, introverted, thoughtful and inhibited people; I spend the majority of my day thinking and having “internal dialogue”, this lets me be a front-row observer on the behaviorism of thoughts and I am a strong believer that bilinguals or trilinguals change their “thinking for speaking” stage argot depending on the situation, using each one of them for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Thus, were I to think something I wanted to say to my friend from Leeds, after the prelinguistic stage, would be in English. Were I to think about a shopping list, it would be in Catalan. And were I to think in my family or friends back home, would be in Spanish.
Are things different when dreaming?