To me, one of the more interesting things about learning Japanese is when people say that they start to dream or think in Japanese.
That’s amazing because not only does it mean that those people are completely engrossed in the Japanese language, but it also means that their “inner monologue” is switching from their native tongue (whatever it may be) to Japanese.
But the implications of a mental switch from somebody’s native language to Japanese aren’t always clear. Does thinking in Japanese mean that you’re getting better at Japanese? Is it something you should try to do?
And most importantly of all, is it even possible to “think” in a language, let alone a foreign language?
Should You Try To Think In Japanese?
On Japanese learning forums and sometimes in real life, I’ll see people talk about how they have thoughts or dreams in Japanese, or they’ll accidentally slip into Japanese in everyday conversation. It’s like the wrong wires got crossed somewhere in the brain.
A lot of people see this as a milestone. The argument seems to go that if you’re thinking and dreaming in Japanese, your Japanese skills must be getting really good. But is that true?
If Japanese starts floating around in your head on its own, it’s definitely an indicator that you’re getting a lot of exposure to Japanese. Whether or not this means that your Japanese is getting better, or if the Japanese floating around in your head is even correct is another story altogether.
But can you even think in a language? Sure we all have an inner monologue and “talk” to ourselves in our heads, but is that actually thinking?
Does Language = Thought?
Lately, I’ve been trying to learn a little more about language and linguistics, so I’ve started reading Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct. One of the most interesting things he talks about in the book (so far) is thinking in language. Are our thoughts really grounded in language?
According to Pinker, we don’t think in any language, and we don’t need to. How do we know that people don’t think in any human language? He gives us a bunch of different examples.
We can all agree that even though babies don’t have language skills they still, at least on some level, think. Even if baby thoughts are only as sophisticated as “Oh look, a shiny thing!,” they don’t suddenly learn a language and switch on their brains.
Or how about this – have you ever been unable to turn a thought into words? Sometime you’ll be talking or writing and you either won’t be able to find the right words, or you’ll use the wrong words. How can that happen if your thoughts are in the same language you speak?
And besides, when you want to go and do something, you don’t mentally say to yourself “I am going to go into the kitchen and take out a glass and pour myself some water etc.” you just go and do it, without any inner monologue telling you.
Scientists obviously don’t fully understand how the brain works, but they know for sure that when it comes to thinking, the human mind doesn’t use English, Japanese, Latin, Farsi, Hindi, or any other language you can come up with. The brain speaks a language of its own.
Let Me Think About It
You shouldn’t feel like you’re missing out on something if you aren’t thinking and dreaming in Japanese. Having Japanese floating around in your brain isn’t any indication of how strong your Japanese language skills are. And hell – you wouldn’t really be “thinking” in Japanese, anyway.
Instead, just focus on using your Japanese where it counts: outside of your mind.