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Thinking in a Second Language

Do different languages make us think differently? In graduate school, I took a course in second language acquisition and psycholinguistics, and this was a hot topic. What do second languages do to our modes of thinking, to our brains?

Aneta Pavlenko points out that we likely have this relationship backwards. Rather than our second language (L2) making us think differently, we have to think differently to speak the L2 like a native speaker. We’re more aware of that effort when we’re speaking, but it surprises us when it pops up while we’re thinking:

… emergence of a new inner voice in the L2 often catches us by surprise. For some, the experience of hearing yourself ‘think’ in the new language is the embodiment of ‘thinking in the L2.’ The reality, however, is more complex and less dramatic. The ‘new’ voice of inner speech is not a guarantee that we attend and categorize similarly to speakers of the L2 – we may still speak the L1 in the L2. By the same token, not hearing yourself ‘think in the L2’ does not mean that you don’t.

I don’t think I ever got to a point where I noticed myself thinking in German. But I definitely internalized German ways of thinking. In a lot of situations with native German speakers, because of the social setting, I ended up speaking English with them. But I found myself picking up German sentence structure based on how they spoke. For example, German places time phrases closer to the start of the sentence. Instead of this:

We went to the store yesterday.

You’d say this:

We went yesterday to the store.

Many of my German friends and acquaintances retained this way of thinking when they spoke English, and I adopted it. In that sense, they kept speaking their L1 (using the German way of thinking) even in English, and I started thinking in my L2 despite not using German words.

Read more: What Does it Mean to Think in a Second Language?

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Happiness Engineer for Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. Linguaphile and Translator. Tester.

1 Comment so far

  1. Very interesting. I never wrote a poem until I moved to the US…. Most of my poems would not work in Dutch my native language. It also works the other way around but I hardly write Dutch poems. The second language gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself in a way.

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