Thinking in two languages

What language do you think in?


Folk views regarding the relationship between language and thought show interesting contrasts. Some feel they are practically synonymous, two sides of the same coin, or that language is a tool for thinking.

I see this quote attributed to Chomsky, but haven’t been able to track it down so far:

Language etches the grooves through which your thoughts must flow.

Einstein, on the other hand, felt that his thoughts preceded language:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.

(Read more here.)

Psycholinguistic research tends to side with Einstein in separating thought and language using models of speech processing the most widely accepted of which comes from Levelt.

According to Levelt’s speech processing model (1993, 1995, 1999), language is generated in a series of stages from conceptualisation, through formulation, to articulation, as shown below:

Screen Shot 2016-09-26 at 14.18.14.png

Levelt (1995)

Levelt (1999) identifies these stages thus, ending with a monitoring process used both for our own speech and that of others:

Conceptual preparation
Alone, or interactively with the interlocutor, the speaker
generates a message, whose expression may affect the interlocutor as intended.
Grammatical encoding
The lexical concepts in the message will activate the corres-
ponding syntactic words (‘lemmas’) in the mental lexicon.
Morpho-phonological encoding
As soon as a lemma is selected, its form code
becomes activated. The speaker gets access to the item’s morphological and phono-
logical composition.
Phonetic encoding
Each of the syllables in the phonological score must trigger an
articulatory gesture.
The execution of the articulatory score by the laryngeal and supra-
laryngeal apparatus ultimately produces the end product: overt speech.
When we speak we monitor our own output, both our overt speech
and our internal speech.

Levelt, 1999: 87-8

There is empirical support for these models, as Levelt and colleagues have demonstrated.

What of bilingual speech processing? The explosion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the whole notion of linguistic relativity gave this area of research something of a bad name, but recently interest has revived and interesting work is being conducted on how events are encoded in different languages (Pavlenko, 2011; Schmiedtová and colleagues). I leave you with this short reference list and an intention to return to this topic.


Bock, K., & Levelt, W. (2002). Language production. Psycholinguistics: Critical concepts in psychology, 5, 405. PDF

Cook, V. (?). Thinking in a mind with two languages.

Dipper, L. T., Black, M., & Bryan, K. L. (2005). Thinking for speaking and thinking for listening: The interaction of thought and language in typical and non-fluent comprehension and production. Language and Cognitive Processes, 20(3), 417-441.

Levelt, W. J. (1999). Producing spoken language: A blueprint of the speaker. In The neurocognition of language (pp. 83-122). Oxford University Press. PDF.

Levelt, W. J. (1995). The ability to speak: From intentions to spoken words. European Review, 3(01), 13-23. PDF.

Levelt, W. J. (1993). Speaking: From intention to articulation. MIT press.

Pavlenko, A. (2011). Thinking and Speaking in Two Languages. Multilingual Matters. Google books.

Popova, A. (2016). What is creativity? Brainpickings

Schmiedtová, B. (2011). Do L2 speakers think in the L1 when speaking in the L2. Vigo international journal of applied linguistics, 8(2), 138-179. PDF

Schmiedtová, B., von Stutterheim, C., & Carroll, M. (2011). Language-specific patterns in event construal of advanced second language speakers. Thinking and speaking in two languages, 66-107.


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