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What Does it Mean to Think in a Second Language?

Adjusting our thinking to speak another language

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

One of the favorite questions about bilingualism in the media and bilingual forums is whether learning a second language (L2) makes you think differently. This question is linked to the ever-controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, commonly understood as the idea that “the languages we speak affect the way we think.” Heated debates about such effects have pitted scholars and laypeople against each other for more than a century, with answers ranging from “we do not think in language” to “we think differently depending on the language”. But what if, instead of trying to answer the question, we reflected on the question itself: Can a language make us do anything? And what do we mean by ‘thinking in the L2’?

Even a brief look at discussions of bilingualism and thinking shows that researchers and forum participants define thinking in different ways and, as a result, speak past each other. Researchers are interested in subtle effects in non-verbal tasks involving attention or perception that would be imperceptible to everyday language users. In contrast, bilinguals are commonly concerned with speaking and changes in the language of inner speech that researchers see as irrelevant to the study of language and thought. This miscommunication reminds us that thinking is not a unitary phenomenon—we think in many ways, some of which involve languages and others do not (for a first post on the topic, see here). This was already apparent to Sapir and Whorf whose actual argument—distorted by later interpreters—was that that the languages we speak offers us cognitive tools that help us think. In other words, language is not the only way in which we think but it is good to think with and invaluable for encoding new relationships, categories, and phenomena, so that we could easily communicate about them. But can a language make us do anything we don’t want to do?

The norms of our first language or languages (L1) do become habits of speech—speaking English, we make automatic judgments about relationships between events (tense and aspect) and the status of particular entities (articles), while speaking Russian we can disregard this status (Russian has no articles) but have to attend to numerous aspects of motion (Russian has a complex system of motion verbs that makes distinctions that are absent in English). On the other hand, an L2 learned later in life can hardly make us do anything—I, for one, wish English would be more assertive in making me use articles in a native-like way but, alas, it isn’t and I don’t. The difference in automaticity of use of the L1 and L2 forces us to reconsider the way we discuss ‘thinking in L2’: it is not the L2 that makes us think differently, it is we, L2 learners, who need to make conscious efforts to change the way we think in order to be understood in the L2.

What exactly do we mean by ‘think’ and where do we make adjustments to our thinking? The first areas of thinking that require adjustments are perception and categorization—to communicate with the speakers of our L2, we have to perceive the same distinctions and categorize entities and phenomena in the same way they do (see an interview I gave on this blog). Take, for instance, the English term can, which groups together containers of different sizes, ranging from metal cans for food and beverages to trash and garbage cans. Its Russian counterpart, banka [can], on the other hand, refers only to mid-size metal and glass containers used for food and beverages, and to small round glass objects (banki, pl.) used for medical purposes. To speak Russian in a target-like way, an L1 English speaker has to restructure the existing lexical category, moving trash and garbage cans to the categories of vedro [bucket] and korzina [basket]. They also have to learn to attend to size distinctions encoded in the terms banka [can] and banochka [little can].

Another area of adjustment involves attention—to speak a new language in a target-like way we need to start paying attention to relationships and phenomena that were previously unimportant. A striking example of such adjustment comes from an Australian linguist Nicholas Evans who recalls that in order to use an Aboriginal language Kayardild he had to pay constant attention to the points of the compass—the failure to notice and encode such directions would be as embarrassing as forgetting his wife’s name or not knowing whether the interlocutor was male or female. We cannot say, however, that Kayardild made him do it. While Kayardild norms do require such attention, the cognitive economy principle works against them and in favor of the norms established in the L1 English, so that target-like performance in the L2 would require significant effort.

In contrast, 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.

So, to return to the question with which we started: Does learning a second language make you think differently? No, but you have to think differently to learn a second language. Fortunately, as perpetual learners, we do have a remarkable ability to go beyond the boundaries of our L1, adjusting to the requirements and norms of other languages, and an even more remarkable ability to go beyond the boundaries of language in general in our never-ending quest for the unknown.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo of What do you think from Shutterstock.


Evans, N. (2010). Dying words: Endangered languages and what they have to tell us. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Pavlenko, A. (2014). The bilingual mind and what it tells us about language and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Aneta Pavlenko's website.