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?


Jetzt muss ich mich von der sehr schönen Stadt Aachen verabschieden, um in ein anderes Land zu umziehen. Ich wird die bekannte Sehenswürdigkeiten (z.B. den Aachener Dom, die Stadtpark, die Carolus Thermen und das Dreiländereck) aber auch die weniger bekannten Stellen, die ich nach meiner Exploration der Stadt gefunden habe, vermissen.

Ich wird auch meine Freunden hier in Aachen und in die Euregio vermissen. So viele wirklich nette Leute habe ich in Deutschland, die Niederlande und Belgien kennengelernt. Die Tangotänzer, die andere Deutschlerner an der Sprachenakademie, die Wissenschaftler bei RWTH, meine Nachbarin (wirklich ein Engel!) … Obwohl ich bei meiner Ankunft in Deutschland kein Deutsch sprechen konnte, habe ich willkommen gefühlt.

Bin ich jetzt bereit, Deutschland zu verlassen? Jein. Wenn ich mehr Zeit hätte, würde ich besser Deutsch lernen und mehr Leute, wie die nette Freiwillige und Blogger bei, hier in Deutschland kennenlernen. Aber ich freue mich auch auf dieses neue Abenteuer in ein neues Land, und ich hoffe, im Zukunft nach Deutschland zu reisen. Also, tschö, Aachen! Auf Wiedersehen!

Ich bitte, dass ihr meine Deutschfehler entschuldigt! Nach zwei Jahre in Deutschland kann ich viel Deutsch sprechen und schreiben, aber ich habe noch kein gutes Gefühl für die Sprache.

How English Sounds to Non-English Speakers

This post could also be titled, “How a language sounds when you barely know it.” If you’ve never spent time in a place where your native language isn’t spoken, try watching that video and imagining that everyone around you is talking like that.

This video reminds me of how German sounded to me when I was first learning it … or even how it sometimes sounds to me now. (Sigh.) I’ve spent my entire life learning languages, and I’ve lived abroad before, but I never had so much empathy for non-native English speakers in the US as I did after moving here. It’s so hard to move to a new country and start learning a new language from scratch. Especially when you don’t particularly love that language. You study and listen and catch a familiar word here or there, but the rest just jumbles together incoherently.

It’s also interesting how languages have particular sounds that identify them. Walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant, I can sometimes trick myself into thinking that I’m hearing English around me. But then an umlaut comes out and declares itself to be German! Likewise, I can be surrounded by German speakers and then, across the sounds of the crowd around me, hear the rolling lilt of Spanish. Even when I can’t hear the words, I recognize the sound of it.

And so, with that idea in mind, you might enjoy the song “Prisencolinensinainciusol.” It’s complete gibberish that’s meant to mimic the sounds of American English — and it’s also a bit more light-hearted and entertaining: