Camden Krupala

Manager of Design and Development ,

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When you converse with yourself in your head, what language do you speak?

I asked some friends (those who speak a foreign language more then English) what language they speak when they are mentally talking to themselves. I found it interesting that most of them said English. Is there something about the English language that makes it the language of choice when having mental discussions in your head? What language do you speak in your head?

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    Nov 2 2011: Do they live in the United States, or in the country of their native language?

    This is a curious topic to me. I've spoken two languages all my life, and this varies for me. I'll be interested to see how people respond. Good question!
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      Nov 2 2011: Some live in the country of their native language and others live in households where they speak their native language though they live in the United States. I appreciate the reply, thanks!
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    Nov 4 2011: While thinking and trying to find out how do I converse to myself I'm "talking" to me using Italian (my native language) but I usually talk to myself by images. :)
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    Nov 3 2011: Camden,
    I don't think there is anything "special" about the English language that makes it specially suited for "mental conversation". In fact, it is not a very intuitive language that lends itself easily for that.
    Personally, even though I had learned it in my childhood, it took me a while to think in English. Like somebody else said here, I became really fluent when I stopped translating my thoughts into English. Speech was faster too.
    And like Matthieu said, context is also key. Our brain is all about adjusting to circumstances, surviving. It has an amazing capacity to switch, and that includes other languages, like music and art.

    I also believe that our deepest thoughts do not have a given language, in essence they are concepts, ideas in their purest state. We envision in our mind whole concepts and sentences in a split of a second.

    I have a question for you: in an emergency, or when shocked or afraid, what language does one scream or ask for help in?
    Would the answer be the same?
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    Nov 2 2011: Funny how my mind switches its language mode every time I speak to myself in my head.
    It's never consistent, really - I switch from my native tongue to English and vice versa.

    What I realized recently, though, is that when I'm counting numbers, I ALWAYS count in my native language (Korean).
    Just feels easier to count in Korean, even though I think I can better express myself in English.

    Strange, strange. :P Does this happen to any of you?
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    Nov 2 2011: I like the term "proto-language" that Andres uses.
    Thoughts that haven't reached the threshold of language.
    As I speak that thought internal it is in Dutch.
    Yet sometimes as I didn't see anyone for a while it happens that when I do, I get English and German words mixed up as I speak.
    Mostly I watch German television and as I write it is often in English so languages interchange naturally.

    It is not as bad as the Congolese woman I once had as a neighbor. She spoke a perfect soup of Congolese, French and Dutch. Her children had no problem with it.
  • Nov 2 2011: Hi,
    while talking or speaking to myself in my head, I mostly speak in English, but I am not a native speaker. When I started learning english my teacher (great teacher)) advised me to talk to myself in english because that could make my learning easier. Moreover, I thought, how can I think in english, gradually she explained me that if for instance think and talk in english then, it'd be obvious that my replying would be automatic, that's the reason for doing like that. anyway, I have already get used to that and want to continue it.
  • Nov 2 2011: ohh.. u made me to think,. i havnt noticed how do i really converse with myself.. my native language isnt English.
    let me chk myself.......
    done, i figured,.
    1.wen i speak to myself - am speaking in my mother tongue (Tamil).
    2.But wen i am thinking and speak to myself (where the thoughts have ppl who speak english), then am speaking to myself in english.
    3.Thirdly wen there is deep thought(abt me / with anyone), am not at all using any language(no tamil / english) the understanding n conversation with my mind happens by itself (its jus thoughts without words which can be felt/ understood).. its crazy but coolest of all =)
    Thank u very much for making me to know, how do i converse with me.. lol.. :D
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    Nov 2 2011: I agree with Sergey's comment that we tend to converse inside our minds in a proto-language (just like the one Steven Pinker highlights in his book "The Language Instinct") much more than we do in a single langauage. I speak spanish and english and even though i have lived in the US for over a decade I still do most of my consciously spelled thinking in spanish. Sometimes, too, i catch myself repeating phrases in english in my head. I bet that would not happen if i had not lived in an english speaking country.

    In today's world, english has a prominence, which i think is in big part due to media and the internet, but we got to remember that english is not the language with the most native speakers, trailing mandarin chinese and spanish

    I can theorize that depending on the kind of thought, the mind adopts the language: if i am rehearsing a work presentation that will have an english speaking audience, I will probably think words in english, if i am remembering a conversation that i had with my kids i will probably think in spanish
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    Nov 2 2011: Context is everything. Depending on which country I am in or which language I was talking in before or whether I was reading a book in a certain language...it can either be English or French. Right now I'm thinking in English. I get annoyed when people say that surely I think in French before I say something in English and that therefore I should be able to translate things almost instantaneously. What language do they think in before speaking English? English! I learned English the same time they did.
  • Nov 2 2011: Generally in Russian. Less in English. By the way, I think, that we converse inside ourself in "mind language" that is not like any ordinary languages. It's much more faster to exchange information in mind, than to sound it.
  • Nov 2 2011: We had the pleasure of hosting a foreign speaking exchange student this year. His observation, and apparently that of many of his peers, is that you aren't fluent in a new language until you start dreaming in that language.
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      Nov 2 2011: That is very insightful. Once I had an interesting dream where I spoke in Mandarin Chinese, though I do not speak Mandarin Chinese, I do have friends that speak it when I am around them. Perhaps the brain subconsciously picks up verbal cues and recognizes verbal syntax to build consciously inaccessible language relationships. It does make sense that only when you are fluent in the language do you have dreams entirely in that language as it requires a wide vocabulary and a learned understanding of that language.
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        Nov 2 2011: This is so cool Camden !! Maybe it means there is a deep wish in your heart to speak Mandarin Chinese. I love that you can remember your dream so well when you wake up. lol.
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      Nov 3 2011: Douglas,

      Agree, 100%.

      You may add that also one dreams in the language most used. But it is not exclusive. I have had dreams in several languages, it switched depending on the people turning up :-)

      Like Juliette says, cool to be able to remember them. I don't always. Doesn't it have to do with the amount of sleep we get?