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Internal discourse and operational languages

A while ago, I wrote a summary of some ideas I had about an upcoming setting, either for for fiction or role-playing (it’s about a world where the Artilleryman’s delusions  in The War of the Worlds were actually true) . Then a friend of mine asked me why I wrote the summary in English, and I replied that I thought it likely that I would write the game in English as well. This might not sound very interesting, but there are two things I should point out which make it important enough for me to write an article about it.

First, my native language is Swedish. I’ve never lived in an English-speaking environment and most of the English I know I either learnt in school or on my own, mostly from reading novels. Writing something creative in English is probably not the default choice for someone with my background, which is why my summary in English generated the comment it did.

Second, I made the decision to write about the setting in English without thinking about it too much; it was the obvious choice. If we step back from this article for a while and review what I’ve been writing in general, we can see that I started writing regularly in English in 2007 and have written a total of 629 articles in English. I know for a fact that it felt quite awkward in the beginning.

Now, almost five years later, I seem to have reached a point where English hasn’t only conquered this website,, but where the language is largely dominating my internal discourse as well. How did this come to happen?
The ascendency of English

I think my two years in Taiwan are key to understanding this shift towards using English as the default language. Naturally, I spent lots of time studying Chinese in Taiwan and I left the translate-in-my-head stage of language learning fairly quickly. Still, most of what I read about Chinese was written in English, including textbooks and dictionaries. I’ve learnt Chinese using English, not Swedish.

If the internal dialogue is going to run smoothly, I need a language I’m very good at; Chinese was far from enough back then. It’s starting to get close to where it’s genuinely useful now, but more about that later. But why didn’t I continue using my native language?

The point is that I almost never thought in Swedish during my two years in Taiwan. If I didn’t speak Chinese, I spoke English. Everything I wrote on my website was in English. The only Swedish I spoke was during occasional conversations with friends or family back home. After I returned to Sweden in 2010, I suppose the habit has just refused to go away. I still think mostly in English, not Swedish.
Three languages, one internal discourse

Naturally, it depends on what I’m doing and how conscious I am of what I’m doing, but generally speaking, my thoughts are usually in English, Swedish or Chinese. Let’s see how I use these three languages I have at my disposal. To start with, I only refer to situations where I’m not speaking, because if I’m speaking English, Swedish or Chinese, of course I also think in the same language I sue to speak.

Here are some cases where I use the different languages and how much I use them (this only includes internal dialogue):

English (~60%)

  • Making complex decisions
  • Brainstorming
  • Maths and physics
  • Education
  • Internal chatter

Swedish (~20%)

  • Household chores
  • Diving, gymnastics
  • Family, childhood
  • Some creative tasks
  • Internal chatter

Chinese (~20%)

  • When I consciously decide to do so
  • When I read, listen or write in Chinese
  • For a while after doing the above

Internal and external language use

What about output, then?  Below, I have included a rough estimate of how much of my actual output (writing, speaking) is for each given language (measured in time, not words). I haven’t really tried to count, so these are nothing but very rough guesses:

English:  Writing ~70%, speaking ~5%
Swedish: Writing ~5%, speaking ~55%
Chinese: Writing ~25%, speaking ~40%

As we can see, English and Chinese both beat Swedish. In the case of Chinese, this is because I deliberately try to use as much Chinese as I can, but in the case of English, this isn’t the result of a conscious choice, it feels more like the inevitable outcome of the shift in internal discourse discussed above.

I write everything on both on this website and on Hacking Chinese in English. I write most of my personal texts in English as well (notes, memos, brainstorming). I do this naturally, without thinking about it.
Chinese, a pretender to the throne?

What I want to do is make Chinese my operational language. I don’t think the current position of Chinese is weak because of lacking proficiency, it might just be the result of little effort to change the situation. If I really tried to use Chinese, I think it would work fairly well for most situations.

Naturally, I would need to use English or Swedish in some cases, but that will always be true, what I’m talking about here is the default operational language, not the only one. There will always be at least three languages vying for position, it’s just a matter of which one comes out on top a majority of the time.

I’m not going to force this shift by imposing immersion, however. I have lots of things I enjoy doing and that can’t be done in Chinese (such as writing articles like this one or maintaining Hacking Chinese). Also, I have lots of friends who don’t speak Chinese and I’m not crazy enough to ignore them while I still live in Sweden. However, I do plan to go back to Taiwan for a master’s degree in the near future. That looks like an excellent opportunity to help Chinese topple the English hegemony.

Let’s return to this topic again in a couple of years and see what I have to say about it then!

  1. Laura’s avatar

    Hi there! I think this article is very interesting, because it’s what happens to most polyglots. Neurolinguistics has a lot of research to do on this field. I have the theory that your second language sometimes takes over your internal discourse.
    Through the dominance of the US American entertainment business and its use as lingua franca, the English language has become the most powerful language for us globalized citizens. After Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese seem to be a good option, don’t you think?

    Best

    L

    Reply