Thinking in English or Chinese

After I graduated, and joined international company, I started to use English in my emails within the company. It has been a rule of thumb that all international companies uses English as internal communication tool. English skill has been an important factor during interview process.

However, no matter how good one’s English is, it is still hard to THINK in English. I believe I can think in English (with very hard practices, including writing this blog), but just as my friend put it: “There is at least 20% difference in myself between thinking in English or Chinese”. When I am thinking in English, I do feel the different. The logic is following the western logic, and the terms like professional, systematic, reasoning occupies my head much more than the time I use Chinese.

Recently, when I transit my focus to the pure Chinese market, I found my language changed a lot. I never (or try my best to avoid) thinking in English. When I am thinking in English again, I know I am farther away from the market I am in. I have to use the slang people use, and set my foot to the real land, that may have some affects in my English blog too.

It is an interesting topic – when people do the business in a different language than the target market, the minor difference may affects the reason slightly, and slight difference can be huge impact in the market… Just my two cents.

37 Comments

  1. Just to know that using English in normal life is difficult and just to learn English to a high level but you have begin to be customed back to Chinese :)

  2. Thinking in English, Chinese…or Japanese

    I just read an article from WangJianShuo\

  3. Hello! This is my first time here to leave a comment after visiting your blog for quite a while~

    Acutally I have got a question for you:

    What is your balance of writing and maintaining your Chinese blog and English blog?

    I have two language blog too, one Chinese and one English. Sometimes after I wrote an English article, I would translate it to Chinese. But it doesn’t seem some meaningful…

    So I would like to hear your viewpoint:)

    If would be great if you could send me an email.

    Also my Blog is (www.RichardHong.com) and English one (www.Richardhong.com/en)

    Thanks!

    (PS. I just used TrackBack of this article, but it didn’t work)

  4. A certain Language load a certain culture,include its history,its thought,its logic system and much more.

    We can easily learn a language,but very hard to change our minds,and it will be very hard to change it back if we had been familar with the other.

  5. To think in English,you had to learn its culture, as the culture different affects a person’s thinking also.

  6. I have not thought in English for years…

  7. Hi,

    wow,what a great topic.well,from last few years mostly i’ve thought in english.actually my languages are very mess.cos i got many langs to study here……finnish,swedish,french,etc :P But i hate myself,none is fluent..yet.hehheh

  8. Mr. Wang, I admire your attempt to learn the English language. I live in the center of the United States, (Louisville, Kentucky), and have little need to speak anything other than English.

    However, my brother studied languages at the University of Kentucky, and spoke German, French, and Spanish fluently. He lived and worked in Germany for four years. He told me that his thought processes changed with his surroundings. For example, he told me that after he had lived in Germany for about six months, he not only thought in German, but that he also began to dream in German.

    When he traveled in Europe on holiday, he would often have to speak two or more languages other than English each day.

    Mr. Wang, perhaps all you need is a little more practice speaking the language. My brother joined a German Club a year before he left for Germany. German was all they spoke in their meetings. Hearing and speaking the language helped my brother pronounce the words, as well as formulate better sentences.

    Perhaps you could find a group where English is the predominate language. In any event, you are doing fine. Do not dispair!

    Wayne Nuss

  9. … aileen, you studied Finnish? wow, it’s a very difficult language… I had spent some five minutes :-) on it, sooo long words the Finns have…

    and thinking Finnish, Swedish and French are totally different, you must be a genius!

    working in English speaking environment for many years, I started to think in English… problem is that I realized lately that I started to be a bit slow when I try to think in Chinese… for example, I can communicate much faster in English on MSN than in Chinese, which is not only because of the typing speed… I draft document in English much faster than in Chinese too…

    being a Chinese living in Shanghai, I hate myself that sometimes when I am talking in Chinese, some English word keeps popping up to my mind… I have to do something to change a bit, hehe

  10. “thought processes changed with ones surroundings.” I agree with it. Also it’s a problem for me.

    “when I am talking in Chinese, some English word keeps popping up to my mind”, it happened to me too. I feel it’s hard to find a word in Chinese as a replacement. or should I say “It’s hard to catch the right word in Chinese!” However, I understand it’s because we think in English and Chinese usually at the same time in life nowadays. I believe it’s a common experience for many of us living in big cities like Shanghai.

    Language is a tool of communication.

  11. Changpeng Zhao

    May 25, 2005 at 5:56 am

    DREAM in English or Chinese?

    Interesting topic. I was having a conversation with my friends (mostly fully bilingual in both E/C) the other day, trying to figure out how to test which language is one’s native/real language. The conclusion is, which language do you dream in?

  12. I often read in English , but infrequently write .

    I like this topic,and I think it would give me some hint how to balance using Englith and Chinese.

  13. I’ve started learning how to speak mandarin. basically i go thru a translation process- concept in english , then find the matching words in mandarin then say it out. not very accurate though, but i get by.

    btw, i’ma an english educated chinese from msia. whatever mandarin that i do pick up comes from my boss and colleagues.

  14. After speaking both languages and thinking about this specific issue for a very long time, I’ve come to the conclusion that no one who is fluent does his thinking “in” a language. Thought exists at a deeper level; language is a tool, an interface through which it is expressed. Do you really need to think through a sentence in your native tongue? Only rarely. Thinking through a sentence is evidence of a dialogue between thought itself and the means by which it is expressed. Once you become truly fluent, you’ve learned to use the tools very well. At least, this is my take, and btw, many disagree with this take on language and thought.

    Rich

    http://www.asiabizblog.com

  15. Shanghai Slim

    May 26, 2005 at 12:00 am

    Rich, with similar thought and self-observation I reached the same conclusion, although I think mutual influence between the “thought-center” and the linguistic “interface” can obscure the relationship. Probably other things like music work the same way. I wonder if really good, intuitive bi-cultural cooks think (and taste?) through a cuisine “interface”? ;-)

    Dreaming in another language has got to be a good sign – you are really internallizing the language and effortlessly expressing yourself through it.

  16. good topic~

    when chatting with friends using instant messengers like QQ/MSN,i used to using English.

    it has been my personal habit for a veeeeery long time(almost 6 years maybe),JUST BECOZ I wanna type and express my thoughts faster.

    Frequently some of my friends point out that it’s bad practice that we Chinese use English as a communication channel.

    i agree with this to some extent.

    The government put tooo much emphasis on English learning. Nowadays even students in the primiliary schools start learning it! We must take English exams in every phase of our study lives! Does it necessary?

    I think it’s some kinda “Culture Invasion”. This may ruin our traditional culture.

  17. I write short message in English for MSN.I just want express in English.the quote need English quote in foreign company.

  18. Shanghai Slim, you were right that foreigners are mixing Chinese with their languegues too… I can hear ‘…oh, just 马马虎虎’ from our expats, some of them even use ‘喂’ when answering the phone just for fun :-)

    …I will not hate myself too much, I promise… ;-)

    – “It’s hard to catch the right word in Chinese!” – as Fiona mentioned above, is the reason why I feel ashamed for myself… what? I can’t find a right word in my mother tongue?

    …language seems to escape just like that, if we don’t use it enough…

  19. This is my first time to visit this blog,it attracts me.I think that I am going to learn a lot from here.^_^

  20. I lived in Singapore for many years, the local people always say their “native” language which mix mandarin and english words together,sometimes even with the dialact,or malay words.At first, it was too hard for me to get used to, but now I become one of them! this is because of the surroundings you live everyday, eveyone knows that there are three races people live under-one-roof in Singapore, it is very common here, they call it “SinEnglish” proundly! So,oneday, if you see a person who speaking english with much more other non-english words, it should be Singaporean! HaHa…

    Alicefeng

  21. It happens not only between English and Chinese, but Shanghai dialect and Mandrin as well.

    I lived in Northern China for over decade when I was little and I spoke Shanghai dialect and Mandrin at that time. But if you ask me, I will say I think in Mandrin even after 15 years living in Shanghai.

  22. Hi new friend here~~~

    I like this topic, because my major is Business English.

    After leaving school for 2 years, I found I learnt nothing useful in school :(

    Luckily my work taught me a lot

    Althought I can speak fluent English now, I am still struggling in English learing

    reading English books, watching English movies, ect.,

    the more you do such stuff, the more you WILL think in English

    I hope my English can be as local as possible

    Finally, hope your business is doing well in China~~~

  23. Thinking in English or Chinese that is the question; But I found out that, one is able to react faster if thinking the language one is using without translation (in brain), when someone ask me translate the English word to Chinese, I will try to let them understand what does it means in action or simpler English, so they will understand it in English for this word, that will increase their speed of thinking when they use this word again.

    So don’t ask anyone translate the English to Chinese for you anymore, try to understand it as is.

    that is my 1/2 cent.

  24. I am a Chinese,and I am living in US now.My wife is a native English speaker, I am working in a US comapny,no one talk to me in Chinese here, so maybe my English is much better in China which place I lived over 40 years. I know it is very hard to Chinese people whom live in China to thinking in English, because most people speak Chinese there, how can you do that without native English speaker in your daily life? Even for a lot of Chinese whom live in China Town in some big US cities, they are still hard to use English to thinking & speaking.For me, my first language is Chinese, so every times I went China Town I was still thinking in Chinese, because you will see or hear Chinese everywhere in China Town, that is my mother-language,it is easier than English to understanding.

  25. What an amazing blog it is! It is the first time that I have visited a blog. Actually, I just tried to find some information about my hometown Shanghai, then opened this website curiously.I really like this wonderful blog!

    Regarding English, my viewpoint is that it is quite helpful if you have an Englishing speaking environment like mine! I have been working in United Arab Emirates for almost 2 years. My daily language is only English. This situation forces me to speak, write & think in English every minute (even in dream)! My English improved a lot and I got 240 score of TOEFL (CBT) for the first time without any private class. Frankly speaking, I almost forgot English in 2003 since I worked 3 years in China without practise although I got very good score in CET-6 in 2000. Practice is more important for non-English speakers.

    Secondly, I find that the people working here in Dubai speak English much better than our Chinese. I mean that they are also non-English speakers especially Indian. Most of the Indian speak fluent English as long as they are educated. But they have very strong accent. In the early days I was completely lost. I was not able to understand what they were talking about because of their odd accent! It took me almost 3 months to become used to that. Now I am enjoying this multicultural life in Middle East.

  26. oh,so wonderful.Now I prepare my project the title is .It was difficult to find the relative information.So,if someone have the information of the title,please send it to my email address which is “wealthhealthjoy@hotmail.com”. Thank you.

  27. Hello

    I live in the State of Michigan in the United States. I do not speak any other languages except I have studied ancient Latin with my children. I think it is very wise for people to know more than one language. I am ashamed that Americans usually only know one language. I am studying the Tao in various english translations but I long to read it in the original Chinese.

    I am considering coming to China to learn Chinese. Do you have any advice for me concerning do that?

    Thanks

    George Blake

  28. Mr. Blake. Do not go to China to learn Chinese; go to Taiwan, where the best university programs exist.

    Regards

  29. Hi! A really nince blog. I found it when I was searching for academic materials about thinking in English. Learned quite a lot of personal experiences under the topic of my interest. Thank you. I will come here again later.

  30. Hi I am from Tamilnadu a Southend State (province) of India where the main language spoken is Tamil and the political situation of my State turned the People of Tamilnad to 2 language people and rest of India normally speaks (Regional Languages like Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi etc. (Totally 18 major languages) , English and Hindi (national language). I felt like an alien in my own country when I visited North India where main lingua franca is Hindi. So Last few weeks I started to watch lot of Hindi Movies in TV and I feel I am grasping control of the language.

    When a child learns a first language it is not translating the words to anyother language to understand. It directly attaches the visual actions, emotions to the sound of that word. So If we start to behave like a child just

    watching and trying to understand without translating to mother tongue I think we can learn any language very fast.

    Any how nice topic for all.

  31. Hi,

    Thanks for providing the interest topic on the webside.

    For a long time, I confused about the topic. But now I seems to find a way to solve it.

    Thanks

  32. I love to read your blogs and i am sure i may learn a lot from your blogs .

    Thanks you for give me such good chance to learn and know more about outside world.

    Adamy

  33. I got the similar situation whit author of this blog. I am now working for an international company, and english serves as our working language. I was born in China. It’s hard for me to think, to express ideas in english way, even hard to translate Chinese to English. I wana here get to know some guy who will chat whit me in english via MSN. My MSN is :zhangfozi@126.com

  34. regarding this topic,i have a question,how could a native without surrounding acquire foreign language complete.

  35. Thinking in a language other than your first, native language? Don’t try to fool yourself. Thinking in a second language is possible as long as you don’t run into a dead end in your thought process, e.g. if you lack a particular word. That happens to me all the time. I try to think in English as often and as much as I can, but whenever I run into a dead end I have to re-phrase my thoughts in German and then re-translate the German sentence into English. That works b’cos German-English translation can be done quickly and easily.

    Whenever I think in Chinese and run into a dead end, there’s no way escaping from it b’cos Chinese-English or Chinese-German translation doesn’t work mechanically. Therefore it’s really hard for me to imagine a mainland Chinese to really be able to THINK in English unless he grew up in a bilingual environment. Even some Chinese returnees from top U.S. universities are unable to think in English. They are very proficient, or in some cases even fluent in English, but that doesn’t mean they think in English.

  36. ijust see Marc Anthony ‘s advice for George Blake .maybe it’s not right. in taiwan ,there may be some good univeristies,but not the best .otherwise ,most people there speak the local language.in the mainland there are some top-class universities like nanjing normal university where you can have a enviroment for studying chinese.

  37. The key for me, when teaching my students, is the ‘philosophy’ of the language and in particular learning ‘first-hand’ English rather than learning through a non-native. There are three fundamentals for those of you studying English;
    1. Which would you prefer to be asked? “Where are you going?” or “Could you tell me where you are going?” The first question is direct (rather American-English) and rather abrupt, whilst the second question is indirect and more friendly. The opening comment/question and its ‘style’ can often dictate the ‘flow’ of a conversation or negotiation amd how it may end!
    2. “May I borrow your phone?” using the modal verb and main verb in the present can indicate presumption and therefore arrogance. “Would you mind if I borrowed your phone?” using the modal verb and main verb in the past to indicate speculation and therefore no presumption and reducing the pressure on the listener. (First and second conditionals, in my opinion, and their influence in other areas of the language, are the cornerstone of the diplomacy, politeness and consideration within the structure of the language.)
    3. The use of ‘inversions’; which you would rather be told? “You application has been refused” or “Your application hasn’t been accepted” “You have failed your English test” or “You haven’t passed your English test” The use of positive verbs with negative prefixes can ‘soften’ bad news. Some of you may scorn such ‘consideration’ but as Henry Clay, the 19th-century American statesman said; “Courtesies of a small and trivial character are the ones which strike deepest in the grateful and appreciating heart.”
    I teach these philosophies as well as the language to my students and without exception they have reported back of favourable outcomes in meetings, negotiations when adopting this ‘style’ of respect and consideration.
    And remember, English is a mixture of Latin (from the Romans-500 years in England), Anglo Saxon from the Angles of what is now Germany, Scandinavian from the Vikings, and of course French (William the Conqueror-1066) so the language has all those different influences where as Chinese, Latin etc are very rigid languages and don’t really absorb other languages (other than the odd word). And of course, French was long the language of diplomacy ans still is so in some situations, and I believe it has transferred its influences across into English.
    Embrace these three fundamental principles when using English and see how your engagement with others may advance. (I’m English). I hope you find the advice useful when learning English.

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