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Those who have learned a second language are guaranteed to consciously think of words and their corresponding meaning in your native language or vice versa.

This is common with more "complex" sentences, like "My favorite color is green.", rather than "Hi" or "Hello, how are you?" (The latter being a common phrase, so it needs no thinking in most languages.).

  • Is it possible to stop the conscious act of translating your native language to your second language or vice versa?
  • Is it possible to fully "think" in your second language?

Clarification: When you speak your native language you rarely think about the grammar and structure and it comes right out, I'm asking if that's possible with people who learned multiple languages.. can you think as if that language was native to you?

Wow, I love the answers! For clarification: You know how a beginner of a foreign language usually cannot speak rapid-fire and has to think through every word and it's syntax, instead of making a flow of words automatically, you have to 'think' and fill in each word accordingly.

Ex: When a person who natively speaks English talks, they can talk without having to think of word meanings as it is already implicitly processed by your sub-conscious.. but this flow usually stops when you..

Exx: Person A doesn't use the word "condescending" a lot, and has to return to the definition in her memory. She usually doesn't meet condescending people. She has met a person who has this attribute. In an argument she says "You're so --pause--, umm, hmm..", and in her mind she goes through a list of words (Mean, (I had to pause here to find a word for the example..) Defiant, Rude, etc.) until she reaches condescending.

That is the feeling of "thinking" I'm describing. A new learner of a second language has to "think" through everything, and my question is: Can you "think" in a second language without having to find and link words in your native language? Excluding young people exposed to both, but people who took classes and moved to a country to learn.

The interesting replies I've seen are the description of people who sometimes forget their native language, maybe because of thinking in it!

I love all the answers, I am just picky with it! I will +1 all of the relevant answers.

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Anecdotal: I speak two languages fluently, Korean and English, and I can think in either language. They give me very different style of thinking abilities. I prefer thinking in English, because I become more logical (it is my second-ish language). –  Memming Jun 28 '13 at 20:28
I see, interesting. Usually people who learn a language later in life have to link words to their native language. Did you learn both near the same span of time? –  CoonKitteh Jun 28 '13 at 20:29
I learned both of them before the age of 5. Korean first, then started English after 2 years. –  Memming Jun 28 '13 at 21:01
Ah, this might be what allows you to speak fluently and think in those languages, but I may be wrong. :P –  CoonKitteh Jun 28 '13 at 22:43
As a side note, it seems that people who think in different languages actually change their thought patterns and implicit biases. Source: sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103110001575 –  guest43434 Jul 1 '13 at 1:27

6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

It is possible for some people to think in a second language. And given that you are asking about possibility, to some extent anecdotes are evidence.

  • Many children who change linguistic communities at a young age lose the ability to talk in their first language. This is particularly the case where the first language is different to the language in which parents speak to their children.
  • In less extreme cases I have friends who came to an English speaking country at a young age, but still retained the ability to speak in their native language. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the time, they speak English. I assume that at a certain point, they switched from primarily thinking in their native language to primarily thinking in English. One friend mentioned the experience of when at around age 14, his dreams began to switch from being in Polish to being in English.

I guess the interesting question is whether there are limits to this, such as when the second language is not learnt until teenage years or adulthood.

In terms of a few hypotheses, I would think that ability to think in a second language would be linked to (a) greater fluency with the second language which in turn would be linked to experience and training and (b) specific primary training in the content of the thoughts in the second language (e.g., if you study a subject at university in the second language and thus you may know the terms better in the second language). Also from my limited experience of learning French, it felt like there was a degree of choice whereby I could actively try to think in French. That said, the cognitive associations between underlying concept, English word, and French word were pretty strong. Thus, the subjective experience of thinking in French and translating from English to French was often subtle.

Note also that I'd still be interested in any research that has specifically studied this phenomena.

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This is one of the answers I am looking for. –  CoonKitteh Jul 21 '13 at 21:29
I dont know if i should ask a new question with this but here it is: Is it possible for someone, who uses two or more languages daily, to switch between 'thought languages'? If so, would it help broadening his conceptual skills and adaptability? –  icosamuel Jan 23 '14 at 22:08
@icosamuel I'd ask a separate question and provide a link to this one. In particular, the bit about whether it helps adaptability is clearly a distinct question. –  Jeromy Anglim Jan 24 '14 at 0:25

Is it possible to stop the conscious act of translating your native language to your second language or vice versa?

Many people have already commented that they certainly experience thinking in several languages. While this sort of phenomenal insight is interesting in itself, one key idea from cognitive science research is that introspection is not generally to be trusted when it comes to understanding cognitive processes (see for example the famous studies by Nisbett and Wilson). So both your conscious experience of thinking in your first language and my (or anyone else's) feeling of thinking in another language are not necessarily telling us much on how we think.

Is it possible to fully "think" in your second language?

I don't know but it's even possible to dispute the fact that you are thinking in a spoken language at all (see for example Jerry Fodor's “language of thought” hypothesis). Another view that is currently quite popular tries to account for abstract concepts in sensorial terms (cf. symbol grounding, some interpretations of “embodied cognition”, etc.) The idea is that when you are thinking about something, you are unconsciously manipulating sensory (visual, auditory…) representations, not linguistic ones (be it in a spoken language or some universal language of thought).

An example of an empirical result supporting this view is the “concept modality switch effect”: When asked to verify a property (e.g. “Can light flicker?”), participants are a little quicker if the previous question involved the same modality (in this case vision) rather than another one (say audition). This modality switch effect also exist when directly perceiving through two different modalities leading to the interpretation that to answer the question “Can light flicker?”, you are not merely retrieving some sort of symbolic knowledge (expressed in a language-dependent or language-independent manner) but actually visualizing/hearing/experiencing the relevant concept on a sensory level.

At the same time, you can also find theories purporting an influence in the other direction, in which the language one speaks changes the way one views the world all the way to pretty elementary perception (see Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). One area where this has been discussed and researched extensively is color perception, culminating in a big research project called the “World Color Survey” collecting data on color names in many cultures.

One line of research in this field uses differences between languages to track language influence on basic perceptual processes. For example some languages like Greek and Russian apparently have no word for “blue” but two words distinguishing different types of blue. The distinction between “dark blue” and “light blue” is obligatory when using these languages, you cannot say “blue” without specifying dark or light.

One intriguing result suggests that native Russian speakers are slightly quicker to distinguish two shades of blue that do not belong to the same linguistic categories whereas the effect does not exist for English speakers (Winawer, Witthoft, Frank, Wu, Wade & Boroditsky, 2007). Note that the task does not involve naming or remembering the color, only making a decision about two colors before you so it is pretty strong evidence that one does in fact “think” in a language (this is a complex question however, if you dig into this literature you will find that there is a lot of disagreement on various assumptions and methodological points regarding what is a basic color term, etc.).

Following the same line of inquiry, there is an empirical result that seem directly relevant to your question: Athanasopoulos (2009) used a color discrimination task with bilingual Greek/English participants (specifically Greek students in the UK). I don't remember all the details but he found that the effect varied depending on the level of acculturation (e.g. how long the participants spent in an English-speaking environment, how well they spoke English and at what age they learned it) and semantic availability of the relevant color terms (this was measured by asking people to list color names and counting how far down the list the different terms appeared). This suggests that, to the extent that language plays a role in perception, it is possible for a second language to have an influence but also that this is not an all or nothing proposition (i.e. the influence of the second language grows with increased exposure).


  • Athanasopoulos, P. (2009). Cognitive representation of colour in bilinguals: The case of Greek blues. Bilingualism, 12 (1), 83-95.
  • Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M.C., Wu, L., Wade, A.R., & Boroditsky, L. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104 (19), 7780-7785.
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Excellent answer, but +1 for the color discrimination research links. Really cool... –  JRFerrell Oct 4 '14 at 17:58

The clarification suggests a somewhat different question. Since you ask if this is at all possible, I will answer based purely on my own personal subjective experience. English is not my native language, I learned it as a teenager/adult (not during my childhood), I still have a rather strong accent, a distinctively “non-native” style in writing, difficulties reading poetry, etc. but I do not have any feeling of consciously translating thoughts from my native language and only rarely explicitly wonder about grammar (certainly not more frequently than when writing my native language, which has many grammatical quirks). There are in fact a number of topics I find easier to discuss in English. This is pure speculation on my part but I would think that this is a pretty typical experience for anybody who achieved a high level of proficiency in a foreign language or lived/worked in a foreign country for some time. I would also suspect that the extent to which you tend to think about structure and grammar, whether in your first language or in another one, could depend on how you learned the language in the first place and how it is typically taught.

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a distinctively “non-native” style in writing nothing that I noticed –  olli Jul 14 '14 at 3:26

Your question doesn't have an answer, implies an underlying statement where "a language is required to think", that statement itself is a subject of debate, and should be answered first, which I don't think is true.

Personally, I am a programmer, and a psychology student, I can say I "fully" think in Spanish or English.

Actually what one calls "fluency" in a language is attained when you can "think" in this language, It even applies to programming languages.

It's as inefficient to do translations in spoken languages as it is doing them between spoken languages and programming languages.

When you code you need to think in code, for efficiency you can't stop to think about syntax or constant or variable names.

You can think in anything.

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it really depends on the person then... If they are thinking visually, audibly, or... just pure thought as it's own medium –  olli Jul 14 '14 at 3:32
Agreed. I have found I have more difficulty trying to learn a language when I go about it by mentally translating every word. It's not at all how the human brain learns language, with young children, just learning to speak, being an excellent example of this. –  JRFerrell Oct 4 '14 at 18:01

Once an individual moves to another country, and avoids using their native language, all the things you are asking about will happen:

Those who have learned a second language are guaranteed to consciously think of words and their corresponding meaning in your native language or vice versa.

I'd say only those who are in the process of learning a new language.

Is it possible to stop the conscious act of translating your native language to your second language or vice versa?


Is it possible to fully "think" in your second language?


Can you think as if that language was native to you?


Can you "think" in a second language without having to find and link words in your native language? Excluding young people exposed to both, but people who took classes and moved to a country to learn.


And in case you are wondering: You will also start dreaming in a language other than your foreign language.

I'm generally more of a mathematical inclined person, and I'm not great with languages. While I do have an accent and my English isn't perfect all the time, I do think in English, even though my native language is German. Some native English speakers have told me that my English is better than that of some locals. There are times when I will think in English when talking German, and English will be more like my native language, and German the foreign language; and there are lots of words of which I fully know and understand the English meaning, but not so much know a German translation (granted, there are German words like that, too)

I learned English for about 9 years in high school in Germany, even before that I was always exposed to English. At the time of my graduation though, I was no where close to thinking in English. I'd always translate German sentences into English.

Here's what made all the difference: Living in the United States for one year, and avoiding contact to German speakers.

The necessity to use the language on a day to day basis, for everything, from the moment you get up, to the time you lay down at night, will get you familiar enough with the language, that you won't have to think in your native language anymore.

Another big thing influencing that is culture: Languages always come attached with their culture. You can't translate some words, you've got to experience them. There might be a word that describes something similar, or the same concept, but the specific real world implementation of that word will always have a local, cultural connotation to it. By the way: Even the way you learn a language in another country has a certain cultural influence of that country. For example learning English anywhere in Europe: They'll always teach you British English.

Don't expect to learn a language and speak it perfectly while you are still in another country.

I've learned English in a classroom for over 9 years, but 90% of my skills came through spending one year abroad.

Fast forward another additional 4 years of living in an English speaking country with a spouse who's native language is English, I'd say that 50% of my skill has developed through the relationship. There's lots of important talking to do, and finding the right words is crucial. Finally, the longer I live here, the more I am surprised to see/hear how I'm using advanced vocabulary. I'll use "big" words and know their meaning "natively", and I don't even know how I know them... I haven't studied them, haven't looked them up... I guess I learned like a child: through imitating the grown ups! :D

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Also it could depend on the language. Not sure if I could accomplish what I did in any other language. English is very forgiving. I'd probably have a terrible time learning German, if it weren't my native language... –  olli Jul 14 '14 at 3:34

Those who have learned a second language are guaranteed to consciously think of words and their corresponding meaning in your native language or vice versa.

Actually no, my native language is Dutch but I'm also fluent in English, I never translate words anymore to my native language.

To be honest if you give me an English text I will understand it completely unless it's really technical. But if you ask me to do a 1:1 translation of that text to my native language it will be actually hard to do. I can do it, but I will have to think about a lot of words what would be the best fitting word in Dutch.

And vice versa when I have a conversation in English I think in English, what you describe sounds more like when you're still learning the language and/or don't really master the language.

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