WHAT LANGUAGE DO YOU THINK IN?

Berlin. There I was, at 6 a.m., running alongside the beautiful river of Spree with my friend from politics – the only time slot made available for me to meet up in his packed schedule. If it weren’t for that fact that I had just held my newborn child in my arms the day before, and my cousins were visiting from Norway for the first time in years (a perfect time to celebrate my newborn), I would also have had a packed day with back-to-back meetings.

But, I decided to cancel my afternoon meetings and take an earlier flight back. I went to lunch with one of my creative colleagues to wrap the day up, and we sat down for a sparring on upcoming topics and engagement for my new book, then all off a sudden there it was – the question of all questions – “Anders, in what language do you think?”

I looked at him, and pulled out my regular answer, “An odd question that I keep getting asked,” and turned it around as I always do, “In what language do you think?”

As a German-German guy he looked at me kind of confused as to why would I even ask? His response was obviously clear and structured “German” – as if underlined by the statements, we are Germans we state clear facts. With my background of multilingualism, I had been getting this question for years and it had grown somewhat irritating.

“You see, I don’t know,” I continued, “I don’t think simply in language or spoken words. Yes, there are those self-conversations or thoughts I carry on in my head, and in those instances, I have noticed that I tend to do that in the language related to the topic or in the language I want to express myself, but I think – in thoughts – in visual images. The ‘self-conversation’ is just a very small part of how we think.”

I guess he was somewhat convinced by my answer, but also a bit confused. I had been given this answer many times and as a philosopher and a student of the art of thinking clearly, this time I wanted to turn to science and find out more on the topic.

As I later started to read up, I came to see that there is a lot of literature and information on the topic. I could finally breathe and relax in the knowledge that I was not some weirdo simply because I did not think like everyone else. So the problem then lies in the question, right? Or better, questioning one’s own questions. The consciousness of what I already know. If you were to ask yourself the same question and consciously think about, I guess the question could be rephrased? The words that come out when we speak or write are an oral or visual form of expression of what our mind is producing, but there is so much more to it, more than just the core of thought related to one particular language. The language of thought is independent of the language we’re speaking and is instead a universal human language of thought.

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Though, in a discussion and taking up this question, we tend to answer, “If you are truly bilingual/multilingual, you can switch between the two/multiple languages depending on the context of your thoughts without even consciously realizing it.” But again, here referring to your own discussions in your mind, or thoughts along the line of “planning,” as in “what do I want to say.”

My flight back made it clear. If anything, language (or the words linked to thoughts) is only a very small part of the process and if anything it slows things down – because we first visualize the monologue, then we paint the picture; we simplify, create mental models, categorize, and create visual maps that have subtracted the complexity of our own definition of the “real world” mapped with our experiences and stored knowledge. “Think before you speak” is nothing more than “preparation” – which, of course, remains important in many cases – however, it takes away creativity, spontaneity, and a lot of the beauty of art and creation.

One philosophical term and concept that I have developed is something I call “thinking out loud.” There is a visual perception of what we build – we human beings, as Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out, only consist of Attributes. There is always a next attribute to describe who you really are, and the “I” always escapes. When you remove the attributes, there is no base substance. When Michelangelo created the famous statue of David, he famously planned a lot and outlined his thoughts, but his answer to the Pope when ask how he could create this masterpiece was simply, “I just removed everything that was not David” – In what language did he do that?

If you were to think about the feeling of a sharp knife, or in terms of the taste of that strawberry picked fresh from the garden, or what about the cloud of smoke you pass through when walking by someone smoking a cigarette – what is the language of these thoughts? All this is built on our habits and learning around our senses on how we have defined stuff in our mind, our mental models, experiences, and perception of our own definition of the “real world.” The slamming of a door or the cry of a baby while travelling. What is the language of these thoughts?

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Cognitive science and linguistics teach us that we need to distinguish between our internal visualization of words, or our own monologues, and the actual thoughts. In this case, think about what is the language of your goal, what is the language of sound, of smell, of pictures and images, objects. What about the name or the thing that you cannot remember, which rests on the tip of your tongue, what language is this thought?

Typing the words while running the communication with my friend Google, I also reflected on what would be the first thoughts of my newborn child before she has any relation to any language.

The art of thinking takes us all the way back to the famous “Plato’s Cave,” and regardless of the angle we look at it, we know the thought goes much deeper than merely the question of “in what language do you think.” The art of thinking goes beyond our consciousness and on many occasions is related to our subjective view of our own self-proclaimed reality. We find this in Buddhism and with the Hindus in terms of reaching a conscious state and also in the works of Nobel Prize winner and psychologist Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking fast and slow.”

In many ways, I believe we are still in Plato’s Cave and will with sorting the “wild knowledge” move on. And as the great thinker and philosopher David Hume writes, the sense/experience distinguishing between the forceful impressions, sensations, and passions, and our also lively ideas are tied together in the proper object of the human intellect far beyond the thoughts based solely on language(s). For now this beautiful capacity of thoughts and creativity and the art of thinking clearly is, as I believe, the journey of the “Mensch” over the next years as technologically replaces our defined “left brain activities and capacities,” including thinking in words and language.

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