Thursday, May 14, 2015

Do you think...

One question I've come up against multiple times since coming to Japan is this.

Do you think in Japanese or English?

I'm always at a loss for how to answer.

I think it's a very natural question. In fact, I think I'm guilty of asking that once or twice back when I hosted exchange students. Nevertheless, it's a difficult question to answer. When you have a real conversation with someone, more than likely you respond without thinking. Which is the problem with answering this question. I remember the first few years of learning Japanese I was constantly thinking before responding. Actively translating from Japanese to English and then translating my response into Japanese before responding. But now, for the most part, there is none of that going on. So how can I tell you what language I'm thinking in?

When I first came to Japan two years ago I would have been able to answer that question instantly. I think in English. Back then I was constantly, constantly translating. What did they say in English? How do I reply? Now how do I say that in Japanese? It was a constant translation game.

Nowadays there are still things I translate when I hear them, but they're usually words I don't know very well, or haven't heard in ages. 経済 (keizai) is an example of a word that I heard recently. I know I KNOW this word, I've studied it and heard it a million times. So after giving that "what?" frown with my brow furrowed for a minute I finally had the light bulb. Oh! Economy! So there are still times when I am thinking in English.

For the most part, however, I think in whatever language I'm speaking in. If we're talking in English, I'm thinking in English. If I'm talking in Japanese, I'm thinking in Japanese. The problem with saying this is that that's not always necessarily true.


Some days, I can't "turn off" the Japanese or English in my brain. There are days where I'm struggling to speak English because I'm thinking in Japanese and I've suddenly forgotten all the English I've ever known. The reverse is true as well. Some days I just CAN'T think in Japanese. I can't recall how to tell you "hot" or "My name is" or "I like it" for the LIFE of me.

How do I say it again? ....
My family and friends back home have had the (unfortunate on their part) experience of dealing with me when I couldn't "turn off" Japanese in my brain. After I went home last January there were times I'd stare at them and say things like "I need a なべ", "お手洗い", "Where is an えんぴつ?" and just stare at them and make hand gestures while repeating the word or phrase because I was at an utter loss for how to say it in English.

The truth of the matter is, it's not as easy as "turning off" or "turning on" a language. There is no switch. So when you ask me what language I'm thinking in, half the time I can't answer you because I'm not constantly noting what language I'm thinking in. Think about the last conversation you had. Did you plan your sentences before hand? Did you consciously note every word your partner said and store it in your brain before replying?

Probably not.

One of my JTE's (Japanese teacher of English) was trying to help me explain this to my co-workers a couple months ago. When you're having a conversation with someone you're not consciously thinking about the conversation. You're not planning sentences or noting every word or even necessarily thinking in a language.


If you're talking about a cat that did something funny, you're more likely picturing the cat doing whatever is being described than thinking in a language. If I am thinking in a language while holding a conversation, it's most likely because I'm trying to figure out one of a couple things, 1) HOW to respond. What advice to I give them? What is the appropriate way to respond? or 2) Dear god how do I say this in Japanese!?! I feel like this is true no matter what language I'm thinking in.

I feel like this has been one long ramble, but maybe you understand what I mean. Here's your homework for those of you reading. I want you to pay attention to how you think next time you have a conversation. Are you actively thinking in any given language? Or are you "seeing" the images, feelings, etc. associated with what you are hearing? For those of you who are bilingual (or more) I'd love to hear what you have to say when people ask you this question.