Language of thinking

It can be the mother tongue or another, depending on the context

September 25, 2022 01:53 am | Updated 01:53 am IST

Change your language according to the context.

Change your language according to the context. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In a get together of family and friends, out of the blue, I popped a question: “In which language do you think?” My wife was the first to reply, “Of course, Tamil, my mother tongue.” A few others concurred and claimed that everyone thinks only in their mother tongue.

To prove this, one of them narrated a story about Tenali Rama, in which he was challenged to find out the mother tongue of a person who was equally proficient in several languages. Tenali accepted the challenge, and in the middle of the night, scared that person who was in deep sleep. Shocked and scared, that person instinctively yelled in his mother tongue.

After this narration, it was my turn to answer. I deliberated for a while and declared, “I think in English.” My son and daughter disclosed that they too think in English. Soon, others joined but with contrasting replies: “I never thought about it”, “I don’t know”, and “There is no language involved since thoughts are created by millions of neurons in the brain.”

I began to get confused and decided to search the Internet for an authentic answer. I came across what is known as the “complementarity principle”, developed by François Grosjean, a specialist in psycholinguistics, Switzerland. According to this principle, usually we think in our native language. But for those who know more than one language, it is not always so. In such cases, they use different languages for different purposes, with different people, in different situations. Besides, there is a ‘learned behaviour’, which is related to special tasks like counting, doing arithmetic and praying, in which, if one chooses an inappropriate language, that could either slow down the task or even result in mistakes.

Even as I was trying hard to comprehend these findings, I came across Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, who, in his book The Language Instinct, proposed that some thoughts could be in terms of colours and images too, known as ‘mentalese’.

I realised that the more research I did on thought processes, the more confused I became.

That’s when it occurred that my situation is akin to the centipede that had an encounter with a fox. The story is: “A centipede was moving effortlessly, when a fox posed the following question to it: ‘Just with four legs, I stumble often. How can you, with a few hundred legs manage to walk without any problem?’”

The centipede started to think about it and soon enough, it was unable to walk any further.

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