Those who have learned a second language are guaranteed to consciously think of words and their corresponding meaning in your native language or vice versa.

This is common with more "complex" sentences, like "My favorite color is green.", rather than "Hi" or "Hello, how are you?" (The latter being a common phrase, so it needs no thinking in most languages.).

  • Is it possible to stop the conscious act of translating your native language to your second language or vice versa?
  • Is it possible to fully "think" in your second language?

Clarification: When you speak your native language you rarely think about the grammar and structure and it comes right out, I'm asking if that's possible with people who learned multiple languages.. can you think as if that language was native to you?

Further clarification: You know how a beginner of a foreign language usually cannot speak rapid-fire and has to think through every word and it's syntax, instead of making a flow of words automatically, you have to 'think' and fill in each word accordingly.

Example: When a person who natively speaks English talks, they can talk without having to think of word meanings as it is already implicitly processed by your sub-conscious.. but this flow usually stops when you..

Another example: Person A doesn't use the word "condescending" a lot, and has to return to the definition in her memory. She usually doesn't meet condescending people. She has met a person who has this attribute. In an argument she says "You're so --pause--, umm, hmm..", and in her mind she goes through a list of words (Mean, (I had to pause here to find a word for the example..) Defiant, Rude, etc.) until she reaches condescending.

That is the feeling of "thinking" I'm describing. A new learner of a second language has to "think" through everything, and my question is: Can you "think" in a second language without having to find and link words in your native language? Excluding young people exposed to both, but people who took classes and moved to a country to learn.

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    $\begingroup$ Anecdotal: I speak two languages fluently, Korean and English, and I can think in either language. They give me very different style of thinking abilities. I prefer thinking in English, because I become more logical (it is my second-ish language). $\endgroup$
    – Memming
    Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ As a side note, it seems that people who think in different languages actually change their thought patterns and implicit biases. Source: sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103110001575 $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 1:27
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    $\begingroup$ This is pure speculation on my part but I would think that this is a pretty typical experience for anybody who achieved a high level of proficiency in a foreign language or lived/worked in a foreign country for some time. I would also suspect that the extent to which you tend to think about structure and grammar, whether in your first language or in another one, could depend on how you learned the language in the first place and how it is typically taught. $\endgroup$
    – Gala
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 10:26
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    $\begingroup$ The funny thing is that I think about different things in different languages, and that I often cannot find the corresponding words for my "second-language" thoughts in my mother tongue. To me, each language has a unique quality and application. My thoughts switch to the language that best "describes" the topic at hand. (It is a layman's illusion, that all languages depict reality into the same structure and that there are synonymous words for all meanings in all languages. In fact there are a multitude of thoughts that you cannot express in all languages.) $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Commented Jul 7, 2013 at 11:36
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    $\begingroup$ This is a common phenomenon in India. On an average, evry Indian speaks 3-4 or four languages. Even children are comfortable with such situations. The concept of "a" native laguage does not exist for themsince they can switch between languages very naturally. Basically because of this backgroud, I learnt a very different language (French) when I was 23 years old, and ended up witing my doctoral thesis in French ! My personal opinion and experience is that the distinction between a "native" and a "foreign" language is only a mental blockade. $\endgroup$
    – drpartha
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 2:01

2 Answers 2


It is possible for some people to think in a second language. And given that you are asking about possibility, to some extent anecdotes are evidence.

  • Many children who change linguistic communities at a young age lose the ability to talk in their first language. This is particularly the case where the first language is different to the language in which parents speak to their children.
  • In less extreme cases I have friends who came to an English speaking country at a young age, but still retained the ability to speak in their native language. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the time, they speak English. I assume that at a certain point, they switched from primarily thinking in their native language to primarily thinking in English. One friend mentioned the experience of when at around age 14, his dreams began to switch from being in Polish to being in English.

I guess the interesting question is whether there are limits to this, such as when the second language is not learnt until teenage years or adulthood.

In terms of a few hypotheses, I would think that ability to think in a second language would be linked to (a) greater fluency with the second language which in turn would be linked to experience and training and (b) specific primary training in the content of the thoughts in the second language (e.g., if you study a subject at university in the second language and thus you may know the terms better in the second language). Also from my limited experience of learning French, it felt like there was a degree of choice whereby I could actively try to think in French. That said, the cognitive associations between underlying concept, English word, and French word were pretty strong. Thus, the subjective experience of thinking in French and translating from English to French was often subtle.

Note also that I'd still be interested in any research that has specifically studied this phenomena.

  • $\begingroup$ This is one of the answers I am looking for. $\endgroup$
    – CoonKitteh
    Commented Jul 21, 2013 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ I dont know if i should ask a new question with this but here it is: Is it possible for someone, who uses two or more languages daily, to switch between 'thought languages'? If so, would it help broadening his conceptual skills and adaptability? $\endgroup$
    – icosamuel
    Commented Jan 23, 2014 at 22:08
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    $\begingroup$ @icosamuel I'd ask a separate question and provide a link to this one. In particular, the bit about whether it helps adaptability is clearly a distinct question. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2014 at 0:25
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    $\begingroup$ Umm, this answer doesn't cite a source, so technically it should have a post notice $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Commented Nov 9, 2019 at 15:33

Is it possible to stop the conscious act of translating your native language to your second language or vice versa?

Many people have already commented that they certainly experience thinking in several languages. While this sort of phenomenal insight is interesting in itself, one key idea from cognitive science research is that introspection is not generally to be trusted when it comes to understanding cognitive processes (see for example the famous studies by Nisbett and Wilson). So both your conscious experience of thinking in your first language and my (or anyone else's) feeling of thinking in another language are not necessarily telling us much on how we think.

Is it possible to fully "think" in your second language?

I don't know but it's even possible to dispute the fact that you are thinking in a spoken language at all (see for example Jerry Fodor's “language of thought” hypothesis). Another view that is currently quite popular tries to account for abstract concepts in sensorial terms (cf. symbol grounding, some interpretations of “embodied cognition”, etc.) The idea is that when you are thinking about something, you are unconsciously manipulating sensory (visual, auditory…) representations, not linguistic ones (be it in a spoken language or some universal language of thought).

An example of an empirical result supporting this view is the “concept modality switch effect”: When asked to verify a property (e.g. “Can light flicker?”), participants are a little quicker if the previous question involved the same modality (in this case vision) rather than another one (say audition). This modality switch effect also exist when directly perceiving through two different modalities leading to the interpretation that to answer the question “Can light flicker?”, you are not merely retrieving some sort of symbolic knowledge (expressed in a language-dependent or language-independent manner) but actually visualizing/hearing/experiencing the relevant concept on a sensory level.

At the same time, you can also find theories purporting an influence in the other direction, in which the language one speaks changes the way one views the world all the way to pretty elementary perception (see Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). One area where this has been discussed and researched extensively is color perception, culminating in a big research project called the “World Color Survey” collecting data on color names in many cultures.

One line of research in this field uses differences between languages to track language influence on basic perceptual processes. For example some languages like Greek and Russian apparently have no word for “blue” but two words distinguishing different types of blue. The distinction between “dark blue” and “light blue” is obligatory when using these languages, you cannot say “blue” without specifying dark or light.

One intriguing result suggests that native Russian speakers are slightly quicker to distinguish two shades of blue that do not belong to the same linguistic categories whereas the effect does not exist for English speakers (Winawer, Witthoft, Frank, Wu, Wade & Boroditsky, 2007). Note that the task does not involve naming or remembering the color, only making a decision about two colors before you so it is pretty strong evidence that one does in fact “think” in a language (this is a complex question however, if you dig into this literature you will find that there is a lot of disagreement on various assumptions and methodological points regarding what is a basic color term, etc.).

Following the same line of inquiry, there is an empirical result that seem directly relevant to your question: Athanasopoulos (2009) used a color discrimination task with bilingual Greek/English participants (specifically Greek students in the UK). I don't remember all the details but he found that the effect varied depending on the level of acculturation (e.g. how long the participants spent in an English-speaking environment, how well they spoke English and at what age they learned it) and semantic availability of the relevant color terms (this was measured by asking people to list color names and counting how far down the list the different terms appeared). This suggests that, to the extent that language plays a role in perception, it is possible for a second language to have an influence but also that this is not an all or nothing proposition (i.e. the influence of the second language grows with increased exposure).


  • Athanasopoulos, P. (2009). Cognitive representation of colour in bilinguals: The case of Greek blues. Bilingualism, 12 (1), 83-95.
  • Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M.C., Wu, L., Wade, A.R., & Boroditsky, L. (2007). Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104 (19), 7780-7785.
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    $\begingroup$ I must say that light blue (голубой) is definitely distinct from just blue (синий) for this Russian/English language speaker. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Some_Guy I fail to see the relevant of all this, honestly. I took great pains to explain at length that the arguments made in the literature are not primarily about conscious experience. The whole point of the first paragraph is that you should not conflate thinking and conscious experience and the empirical results I describe are certainly not based on introspection. $\endgroup$
    – Gala
    Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Gala I posted that in completely the wrong place. I meant to post in a related (more recent) question in a different stack. I'm not sure how I managed to leave it here... Sorry for the bother, and excellent answer by the way $\endgroup$
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 22:50

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