Feb. 27th, 2012

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I feel silly for not really pondering this question before, and for not having a ready answer to it, but: do we think in language?

A few days ago my friend who lives in Japan send me a video he'd taken, during part of which he can be heard talking to himself in Japanese. (He opens a door in a prospective apartment and says, "Ah, toire.") I was curious whether he was talking to himself in Japanese as a way to practice the language or because he actually thinks in Japanese. Did he open the door and think "toire," or did he think "bathroom" and then translate?

Or are those both wrong? Did he open the door and have a concept or thought or feeling of bathroomness which is only then translated into a word at all, such that the concept of "thinking in English" or "thinking in Japanese" is meaningless in the first place?

I feel certain that several readers of this blog will have learned or thought about this before. I am finding myself flummoxed by not being able to work out whether I think in English or not.

Certainly some words seem to be very closely tied to the experience that they convey. Sometimes Zoe briefly wakes up between sleep cycles and is angry at the prospect of waking up. (Join the club, kid.) When she was tiny, she used to just cry in those moments. Now she says "NO!" or sometimes "Uh-oh." (Once she woke up as I was moving her from the car seat to her stroller and, with her eyes still closed, she both said and signed "All done" -- clearly meaning "Cut it out, Mama.") It has been interesting to see that, even when she's not fully conscious, a word rather than a cry has become her instinctive expression of a strong feeling. But is that the same as thinking in language, or is language always layered on top of the feeling or thought itself?


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