The language of internal monologues when you’re bilingual

I was just three-years-old when I first grasped the English language. Although I was born and raised in London, I grew up in a Turkish/Kurdish community and was immersed in the culture, including its language. 

Frequent questions I’ve been asked by non-bilingual friends often consist of “what language do you dream in?” or “what language do you think in?” leading me to reflect and re-evaluate my internal monologues.

It wasn’t a simple answer. I went on to examine this notion and, while doing so, observed the thought processes of other bilingual friends; I thought there’d be a common theme but I did not find this to be the case. 

For me, it was partly emotion-based, partly environment based, and partly reliant on the people I’m hanging out with. Sometimes, when travelling to work at 8 am on the tube (pre-COVID-19) I’d swear and curse in Turkish when an impatient passenger would yell “can you move down please?!” to an overly packed carriage I’m in. 

While at university, away from the Turkish-speaking community, I realised that my dreams were vividly English, yet back home in London, I dreamt in both English and Turkish, likely because I live with my parents but commuted to an English-speaking job. 

But then I thought back to my summer getaways in Turkey and remembered thinking in English. So at this point, I concluded that there was no conclusion or definite answer, and, quite frankly, I was perplexed. 

After speaking to a couple of bilingual people, I deduced multiple answers, from “when I’m back home, I mostly think in my native language, but in the UK, definitely English,” to “English! Almost always English, unless I’ve been back in my motherland for a longer period of time.”

However, if you rely upon research, it seems as though there is an answer – we don’t have a linguistic dream or thought process, visuals are the main identifier in our minds and we simply assume that we think in a specific language when this is not the case. 

According to Psychology Today: “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.”

Although we believe we may be thinking in a particular language, this is not entirely true. We’re often thinking about objects, and imagery is centre stage in our minds, and language enters at a later stage, depending on the situation. 

“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,” notes François Grosjean from Psychology Today.

So it seems that the language of internal monologues when you’re bilingual is visual-heavy, and are based on non-linguistic thoughts. And if you’re wondering what language I’ve been thinking in while trying to conclude this piece – take a wild guess? *Winks in English*. 

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