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Workshop or greater in height? Depends what language you're reading in.

Workshop or greater in height? Depends what language you’re reading in.

Do you think in English or Spanish?

This is a question I am frequently asked. To be honest, I don’t know how to answer. If I’m having a conversation in Spanish, it stands to reason that I must be thinking in Spanish. If I weren’t, then I would be translating everything the other person said to English, thinking of the response in English and then translating it back to Spanish. It seems like that would take a long time. So long, that surely someone would get up to go get another copa de vino or glass of wine, as the case may be.

Last night when I was asked this question (in Spanish), I said, “I don’t think I think in words.” To which the person I was speaking to said, “that’s crazy, of COURSE you think in words.” Is it? Do I? I don’t think so. I mean, what if I ask him if he spells correctly when he is thinking the words, then what would he say? “I don’t think in print, I think in words I think about”? In what form do you think about them? Do they sound like something in your head? What does it look like to think in a word? And how do you know which meaning of the word it is, if it’s the actual word you think of, not the meaning? If it’s muñeca, for example. Doll or wrist? Bank, place for money or side of a river?

I’m not being pretend facetious. I really don’t understand. Do you think you think in words? Do I think in words and not know it? Does it feel different to think in English or Spanish? Can I not think in two languages at the same time?

One thing I will say is that when I am speaking Spanish to someone and they suddenly throw in an English word in with Spanish phonetics (happy hour, headhunter, etc), I usually have no idea what they are saying. I may not be thinking in Spanish, but I am definitely listening in Spanish (one point for Spanish thinking, if we assume that thinking and listening, those two silent processes are somehow related, in that they take place inside my opaque head). However, people speaking English near me when I am having a Spanish conversation is more distracting than people speaking Spanish near me when I am speaking in English, which I think is a point for thinking in English. But I get the feeling that this is about phonetics. I know which sounds belong in which language. English words said with Spanish phonetics sound like gibberish to me the first time I hear them, unless the person is already speaking English with Spanish phonetics, in which case I’m primed for it.

Something similar happens when I read words that could be in either language. For example red (English: the color red, Spanish, net), or taller (English: greater in height, Spanish: workshop, see photo above). If I hear them, I know immediately which they refer to, because of the pronunciation. But when they are written, I will on occasion, read them the wrong way. At the Y near my sister’s house on Long Island, one year when I was there, they were putting on the show Evita, and upon seeing the sign “Evita Saturday,” I thought to myself “you cannot avoid Saturdays, and further, why would you want to?” (Evitar=to avoid in Spanish). Evitar is a more common word than Evita (Perón). Or maybe I was “thinking in Spanish” when I read it that way? I’m still not convinced that my thinking is language-specific, or at least cemented to a particular language. Are you?

Then what about pre-linguistic babies? Do they not get to think things, because they have no words to hang their thoughts on? Or is the “think in words” thing only related to concepts that maybe don’t have a physical representation, like hate or global warming?

This is not the only thing I have been thinking about since we last spoke. Next up: what the hell does it mean to be a cuico, anyway, including great gales of laughter when one friend suggests that perhaps I occasionally read as a cuica in Chile because I am one in the United States.