Bilingualism: Can You Think In Two Languages? (Revealed)


Those who only speak one language might wonder how speaking multiple languages can affect the way you think. A common question related to bilinguals, is “What language they think with?”, since being able two speak different languages leaves implications for the language you might think in. So, can bilinguals think in two languages?

Bilinguals can think in two different languages. To speak fluently in any particular language one must think in that language. Unfortunately, translation from one to the other is not possible on the fly. They can think in two different languages, yet not at the same time.

Obviously there is a lot more to this subject. For starters, the change of the language they think in is almost subconscious in nature. This is due to the external situations that they are in, the most common being in a conversation with another speaker. So, what more is there to know regarding bilinguals and languages they think in?

Can You Think In A Second Language?

From the point of view of any monolingual (those who speak only one language), the concept of thinking in another language is certainly foreign. Though it would be interesting if one could do such a thing, since the implications of thinking in another language would almost change the way we think. So, can you think in a second language?

Bilinguals, and any who speaks a second language, can think in their second language. It is paramount to think the language one converses in. Trying to think with another language proves too difficult. Thus to effectively communicate, one must think in their second language when speaking it.

However this does not necessary apply when reading a second language. Due to the slower pace, it is possible to think in your native language and still read your second language. In that instance, you would have time to translate. Whereas in conversations there is no time to do so, regardless if it is difficult or not.

Does this only apply to second languages? Or is there no real limit to how many different ones you can think in?

Can You Think In Multiple Other Languages?

To look into our own minds so-to speak, we all have a language we talk to ourselves with. The idea that we can think with our second languages refers to the that concept.

Yet, our question now relates to whether any other language can fit that position (meaning besides our second or native languages).

You can think in multiple languages, but there is no definitive limit to the number. Though the more languages one acquires, the harder it becomes to think in those language. This limit is different for everyone and applies to no one the same way.

The only real limitation here might be that you can’t really think in two or more languages at the same time (we’ll go more into this later).

A important aspect of language learning is how we don’t actually think of the words that were going to say in our heads. Only when we’re trying to remember a specific phrase or word do we consider the words we use to speak.

Thus when we are considering whether or not you can think in your second (third, fourth, etc.) language, we are also talking about the way we speak. It can be weird to think of it this way, but thinking in a language is more like letting the words and meanings flow over your mind without trying to control them.

When someone talks to themselves in their head, whether in their native or other language, they are using the words to represent the meaning, not defining the meaning by the words. The trick to thinking in a language is establishing the link between words and meaning beforehand.

As a language learner it becomes quickly apparent that you are not able to translate or recall grammar rules in your head as you speak. One of the first real indicators that you are becoming more proficient in the language is when you stop “thinking” in that language and just start speaking.

With multilinguals, they can learn only so many languages, and in turn only think so many, since it becomes harder with every language one adds to their “belt”.

A person has a limited amount of time in the present and in their lifetime to learn languages and a limited amount of strain they can endure to learn them. Concerning the languages you do end up learning, you can essentially think in all of those.

Are There Benefits To Thinking In Other Languages?

People learn languages every day, for all sorts of reasons. By learning these languages they then start to think in these languages, with no definitive limit to how many they can use. Some do wonder then if there is benefits to language learning, since so many practice it.

We talked about how thinking in the language that we speak (and the almost paradoxical nature of not thinking in the language) is needed to effectively communicate. So, are there benefits to thinking in other languages?

There can be benefits to thinking in other languages, and by extension speaking other languages. It can be beneficial to physical and phycological heath to learn languages. Everything from brain deficiencies to emotional health can be positively affected.

As was discussed in this article, from Cambridge University Press, the benefits talked about from being a bilingual is not as cut and dry as some would have you believe. Since to improve your conative function, in other words to try and help your thought processes, it takes a series of complex tasks with no one answer.

Though bilingualism is not a miracle, definitive answer, the research does point to it being beneficial. What the research says is that it depends more on the person themselves, whether or not it will be helpful.

For instance, if you barely learn a second language and are not really fluent, then that second language won’t really “help”. Likewise, if learning a second language much later in your life, then it does not have exactly the same benefits as it would earlier in life.

Despite all of these varying degrees of usefulness, the bottom line is that it can be useful in the right circumstances. Since the cases related to health are not the only the determining factors. Apart from focusing on brain function, the more cultural related reasons of language learning are beneficial as well.

If interested in more subjects relating to language learning, then I have all sorts of other articles for you to check out!

Do Bilinguals Think In Their Native Language?

It might seem like a silly question to ask to some, but it is no less than the others relating to bilinguals. Wondering whether bilinguals think in their native language is reasonable, since bilinguals have the option to think in their second language. Do bilinguals think in their native language?

Bilinguals are able and certainly do commonly think in their native language. Their native language is the one they grew up with, thus meaning they are well practiced in thinking in it. Bilinguals will think in their Native language, however they can switch with their second anytime.

Your native language is what you grew up with, as such it is not a stretch to say that some might prefer that language. However many people learn languages all the time. If they learn a second language, then some might end up preferring that language over their native.

Will Bilinguals Typically Think With Their Native Language?

Those who are bilinguals have the option to think in either one of their languages, whether it is their native or second language. Some might wonder however, if bilinguals will prefer one over the other, especially when considering thinking in the language. Will bilinguals typically think with their native language, or with their second?

Bilingual will often think with their native language. However, they nearly always will think in the language they are speaking in, regardless of which one it is. Thus if surrounded by those who speak their second language then they will think in that language the most.

It wouldn’t be hard to imagine most bilinguals treating their native language as a sort of the default position. If they are surrounded by people that spoke their second language, but didn’t actively converse with them, then they might still think in their native language.

Yet, it really depends on the individual themselves, since it is up to their prerogative to decide on which language they prefer to think in.

Can You Have More Than One Native Language?

When talking so much about native and second languages, a question may arise. Some might wonder if you can have more than one native language. Due to the distinction being used throughout this article, it would be good to know if there might be exceptions. So, can you have more than one native language?

For most individuals, you will only have one native language. This language is the one that you are taught at a very young age. Normally the native language is the same as a person’s parents. There are exceptions to this rule, where some were taught many languages in their early childhood.

By and large most people have only one native language, often it will be called their mother tongue.. Exceptions always exist, but as it is with most things in life, they are not the rule.

Can You Think Two Languages At The Same Time?

One common mistake many make when considering bilingualism is assuming it is possible to think with two languages at the same time. Since it really is one of the first questions that comes to mind when considering those who speak more than one language: Can you think two languages at the same time?

Bilinguals and any one for that matter, can not think in two languages at the same time. Few people can because the brain constructs completely different neural pathways for each one. This is compounded by the major differences in each language.

Since languages are hardy similar enough to be used interchangeably, this means that you would have to try and translate the two different languages at the same time.

This just is too much for anyone in conversations. However, that being said, in the context of reading a different language, this becomes more manageable. The pace of reading and the resources available even allow multiple languages to be read and considered nearly simultaneously.

Do Bilinguals Think Differently?

If you can’t think with two languages at the same time, does this mean you have to change your thinking when speaking different languages? Do bilinguals think differently?

Bilinguals do, in a sense, think differently when attempting to speak two languages. Our brains make new path ways to speak a new language. So, the part of the brain that makes speaking your native language possible will be a slightly different part of your brain for your second language.

An easy way to think of it is with the use of an analogy.

First let’s say you speak English natively and German as your second language. So, for your brain you have “roads” that English drives down so you can speak it. Well when speaking German, you don’t share the “roads” with English and instead German drives down its own roads.

The same applies for the way our brains work when speaking languages. They don’t use the same “roads” and as such you actually do think differently, though it is not the way that you might have thought.

One interesting implication of this is that this affects Alzheimer’s disease. As is discussed in this research, from the journal Cortex, a bilingual’s cognitive abilities actually deteriorate slower.

A large reason why this is the case is because Alzheimer’s is the deterioration of the brain tissue, so having different parts of the brain functioning will slow down the loss of function. The brain also learns to “reroute” around damages portions.

This is an odd and interesting implication of using different parts of the brain for languages.

Do Bilinguals Change Personalities?

Some wonder if you think somewhat differently due to speaking multiple languages means that you might have a different personality. Is there any truth to this?

Bilinguals speaking their second languages do not change their personalities, but they might start to conform to societal norms usually associated with that language and culture. Many stretch this to mean that bilinguals change their personalities. Yet, this simply is not the case.

All this is discussed in this study from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. It describes how we tend to start adopting certain customs when speaking your second language.

This does not mean you become a different person. What it does mean is that language and culture are linked. As such when speaking a particular language you will by default pick up certain habits known to that culture connected to the language.

The Final Talking Point On Bilingualism And Thinking In Two Languages…

Bilingual people can think in either their native or second language. Though, they cannot think with both at the same time. They normally switch between them depending on which one they are using.

For more information regarding language learning, check out some of my other articles!

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

Recent Posts