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Thinking and Dreaming in Two (or More) Languages

The language(s) of thoughts and dreams

Post written by François Grosjean.

A question bilinguals are often asked is what language they think in. If they choose just one of their languages in their reply (but see below), then the reaction is often, "Ah, then it must be your stronger language" or even, "It must be the language of your inner being". The same kind of remark is made about the language(s) bilinguals dream in.

How true is this? The first thing to consider is that, in fact, thinking can be independent of language. When bilinguals are riding a bus, walking down the street, or exercising, their thoughts may not be in a particular language. Philosophers and psychologists have long acknowledged that thought can be visual-spatial or involve nonlinguistic concepts. Cognitive scientists Steven Pinker and Jerry Fodor, for example, propose that thinking occurs at first in "mentalese"; it is prelinguistic and occurs before the representations we are thinking about are turned into English, Spanish, or Chinese, for example.

But then why do we believe we think in a specific language? This is because language intervenes at a later stage while planning to speak, just as it does in our inner speech. Temple University linguist, Aneta Pavlenko, defines the latter as subvocal or silent self-talk, that is mental activity that takes place in an identifiable linguistic code and which is directed primarily at the self.

In a small survey I conducted with bilinguals and trilinguals in which I asked them which language(s) they thought in, a full 70 percent replied "both languages" or "all languages" (for trilinguals). They were either basing themselves on the planning stage leading to overt speech (the stage Berkeley psycholinguist Dan Slobin calls "thinking for speaking") or on their inner speech. Their answer is not surprising, then, since bilinguals use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. (This phenomenon, which is termed the complementarity principle, is the topic of an earlier post).

Thus, were I to think about something I wanted to say to an American friend, after the prelinguistic stage, it would be in English. Were I to think about a shopping list, it would be in French, as I live in a French-speaking region. Were I to think about what a colleague told me the other day, it would be in the language that the colleague used when we spoke.

University of London linguist, Jean-Marc Dewaele, has examined the factors governing language choice in inner speech. Among them we find the language that is dominant, when and where the languages were acquired, the bilingual's proficiency in these languages, the frequency of language use, and the size of the speaker's social network.

Are things any different when dreaming? Not really. In the small survey I undertook, almost as many bilinguals and trilinguals (64 percent in all) said that they dreamed in one or the other language, depending on the dream (when a language was involved, of course). Once again, the complementarity principle is at work here: depending on the situation and the person we are dreaming about, we will use the one language, the other, or both.

One interesting aspect of dreams in bilinguals is that some people have reported speaking a language fluently in a dream when they are not actually fluent in that language. Linguist Veroboj Vildomec reported that a multilingual who spoke some Russian dreamed that he was speaking fluent Russian. But when he woke up, he realized that it had been in fact a mixture of Czech and Slovak, with a bit of Russian ..... and not fluent Russian after all. Dreams are just that ... and can do wonders to one's competence in a language!


Pavlenko, Aneta (2011). Thinking and Speaking in Two Languages. Bristol / Buffalo / Toronto: Multilingual Matters.

Grosjean, François. Personality, thinking and dreaming, and emotions in bilinguals. Chapter 11 of Grosjean, François (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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