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Our Thoughts Have No Official Language

“I have to stop thinking in my native language”. This is one of the most commonly heard sentences by every language teacher (mainly in Brazil) and also something that needs to be adjusted so that the same language teachers don’t fall into this trap. Thought has no official language, therefore it is not very accurate to agree with the starting sentence. What is confusing, though, is the presence of a “mental language” that every person has that is used to organize, plan and perform certain activities.

Let’s see how good at Math you are. What is the result of 25+35? You probably thought of number ’60’. Analyzing this situation, the symbol “+” makes our brains work in an arithmetic manner so that we increase numbers and generate a result. However, how do we know that “+” denotes increase of amounts – or numbers (Wittgenstein in Kripke, 1982)? We should think in arithmetic to come up with such a response when exposed to that symbol for it is not part of any natural language. It is not a preposition, not a verb, definitely not a noun, it is not even a word nor sentence and yet whenever we are exposed to that we know exactly what to do regardless of your nationality. The final product caused by this symbol is also one to be analyzed. When I asked for the result of 25+35 and you thought of number ’60’, your brain did not need to think of a specific language to

  1. Recognize the function of “+”
  2. To perform the increase of both amounts
  3. To understand that adding 25 to 35 generates a specific figure (60)

In case our thoughts actually had an official language, English for instance, we would hinge on this language to perform that simple calculation. Moreover, we would be dependent on our language in order to understand the mechanics of how to perform simple arithmetic questions, for then the entire formulation of the concept of numbers would have to be linguistic, i.e. the concept of the number “1” would only be constructed if and only if English – or any other natural language – had a direct influence and not simply a vessel for communication.

“This consideration is, after all, reinforced when we think what I really do when I add 68 and 57. I do not reply automatically with the answer ‘125’ nor do I consult some non-existent past instructions that I should answer ‘125’ in this case.” (Wittgenstein in Kripke, 1982: 16)

If you understood the first lines of this article, I ask you to bear with me for it is related to language learning. We are getting there, I promise.

The Wittgensteinian Paradox predicts the creation of concepts as language plays a fundamental role to the understanding and development of conventions. “How do I know that this color is red?”, Wittgenstein (in Krupke, 1982) asks in a philosophical exercise of the conceptualization of colors, for a color blind person – for example – might differ in the nomination of colors for the language used to convey the message that a given object is of a specific color will reach this person that is, in fact, seeing a completely different color, e.g. a person says ‘red’ and the color- blind person creates the concept based on his sight that can be, in a standard convention, green. Therefore, when this color-blind person needs to retrieve this concept, the image will be accessed in tandem with the word that was used to specify the color and then the speech will refer to an object as if it was ‘red’ not complying with the actual color (specified by convention) that is ‘green’. Does that mean that this person did not think in the proper language and then there was a misconception (miscommunication)? Not really. Our mental state uses our means of communication (language) in an attempt to materialize a concept that was conveyed in the same manner that we may use language privately to assist us to sum 25 and 35 and it is important to remark here that the language assists because the act of addition is performed regardless.

When students of a foreign language are assigned a task in which they are required to produce orally, they retrieve their linguistic knowledge combined with conceptualizations. Imagine a student that spent quite some time in the city of Urbana, Illinois, in an immersion program for English Language Learning and this person had countless meetings at a cafe where the student learned to order the coffee of the day. In that specific city, in the late 90’s, customers would order the coffee of the day (1) producing a peculiar construction (Jackendoff, 2002).

(1) I’ll have a day.
(2) I’ll have the coffee of the day.
(3) One coffee of the day, please.

The student of English as a foreign language, having the immersive experience in that city, arguably knows the meanings of ‘I’, ‘have’, ‘a’ and ‘day’ and possibly controls the use of the future tense with ‘will’. However, while being exposed to (1) this student may include in the repertoire developed with time and quality of exposure that collocation and when in a situation that requires its retrieval, this student can use his/her private language (whatever language that is) to access that chunk and not word by word (Dabrowska, 2004), i.e. this student can use a native language to assist in the retrieval of one big unit even if this linguistic chunk is not part of his/her mother tongue. Therefore, conceptualizations and higher order functions do not possess an official language, instead they use language as a vessel to either aid in these processes.

Whenever a person or even worse, when a language teacher says that it is necessary to “think in the language” in order to communicatively produce there is a significant misconception of how languages – first and second – are developed. Being exposed to a language, as stated by some and even published by famous blogs, will not generate a language for our thoughts, so it is not accurate to state it. What exposure causes is reasoning upon native and foreign language, association of concepts (sometimes creation) when the mother tongue is consolidated and when it is necessary to retrieve a linguistic token, it is done as a unit and the entire procedure may or may not have languages involved for thoughts have no official language.

What have you experienced, as a language teacher, regarding thinking in a given language? Tell us in the comment section below.


Rodolfo Mattiello holds a BA in Languages of Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Campinas, Masters in Applied Linguistics of the University of Edinburgh specialized in Language Acquisition under the Usage-based perspective with interest in Cognitive Linguistics, specialization degree in Lesson Planning of University of Oregon, Education Technology for EFL Classes of Iowa State University and he also co-authored the book ‘Formação de Professores’ (Paco Editorial). Founder of Mattiello Consultoria Acadêmica, a center for teachers’ development and BELíngue, an online English school.

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