Publish at March 15 2023 Updated March 15 2023

The reflexive profile of a polyglot person

An immersion in the psyche of multilingual people

According to philosopher Barbara Cassin: "Language is not only a means of communication, it carries a culture and a singular vision of the world. Consequently, it influences the thought and reflections of the speakers. In this sense, we seek to understand the effect of languages on multilingual people. Below is an analysis of thinking in polyglot people.

1- Thinking, reflection and language are intrinsically linked

The word reflection is a polyseme that can refer to several referents both physical and abstract. Thus, it is found in physics and psychology. The latter field is the one that captures our attention, as it refers to thinking. According to the Centre national des ressources textuelles et lexicales (CNRTL), reflection in some of its meanings refers to the "faculty that thought has of looking back on itself to examine an idea, a question, a problem; capacity to reflect." or to the "act of thought that returns on itself, that returns on an object in order to examine it."

There is a remarkable presence of thought in these two definitions. One cannot, therefore, speak of reflection without evoking thought, which is the "set of processes by which human beings in contact with material and social reality elaborate concepts, link them together and acquire new knowledge" (Larousse)."

Thought or reflection that is abstract at first is concretized through oral or written language, which are two expressive processes of languages. A person who manipulates several languages is said to be a polyglot.

2- Plural thinking

The polyglot, if we stick to the relationship of language and thinking is a person capable of developing several thinking systems and consequently has access to several resources in different languages. Thus, the process that leads his idea to maturation may involve the summoning of several sources in several different languages.

So he or she has fewer barriers than someone who speaks fewer languages. We can therefore conclude that he or she saves time and can be more effective in maturing his or her ideas or shoring up his or her thinking. This is a person predisposed to be cultured.

Thinking is therefore plural because the languages mastered would be interdependent: "If there is a shadow of doubt about the autonomy of languages among polyglots, it would be dispelled by the fact that they think internally, on certain occasions, in the different idioms with which they are familiar." (Epstein, p. 38). This journey into different languages and consequently into different cultures makes the polyglot a translator in principle.

3- A permanent translator

According to Izhac Epstein, author of the book Thinking and Polyglossia: A Psychological Essay, it is common for the person who speaks more than one language to be regularly translating his or her thoughts through the linguistic codes he or she has mastered. This is a psychic process that very often occurs spontaneously in the polyglot. It is a mental, internal translation. The brain of polyglots is a translation tool par excellence. This translation can go so far as to serve as a point of recollection for speakers.

4- An occasional retrospective traveler

A polyglot person may at some point in his or her life forget the data related to one of the learned languages. And, depending on the context of evocation of said language, the speaker may find himself or herself remembering objects or ideas related to the lesser used language. Epstein recounts in his book several contexts in which the polyglot recalls data learned in a lesser-used language:

"I have completely forgotten the dialect of our canton, but when I think of the things among which I grew up, I remember their names."

"Having once spoken mentally in French to a man from Lausanne, I switched abruptly to Hebrew when the imaginary interlocutor was replaced by a student from Palestine." (P. 43)

It is enough for the occasion to arise for the speaker to slip back into a previous context, into a memory through language. He is thus in a way a prisoner of the language used.

5- The Polyglot is a prisoner of the language recently used

It happens very often that someone you know very well, in front of you, speaks in a language other than the one you use regularly. This can be surprising and may seem cheeky. However, your speaker may benefit from extenuating circumstances. Indeed, if this person is a polyglot, he or she is most likely not exalting his or her linguistic knowledge but is certainly manifesting a consequence of multilingualism: verbal constellation. This is a special case of the constellation of ideas, taken up by Izhac Epstein.

This confusion of language code can lead to misunderstanding.

6- A misunderstood

Just as it happens to a multilingual person to mix language codes, it can happen that she does not make herself understood during a communication, not only because of the language but especially her way of thinking. Language being dependent on a system of thought.

This is often observed by certain expressions in speech used by speakers when they feel they are not understood or when they have difficulty explaining: "the French say...", "the English say...", "in Spanish one would say this..., "in Swahili the word is..." etc. While these expressions can instantly facilitate communication when speaking orally, it can be complicated when the mode of expression is written.

Written text is thought out in advance, so if syntactic errors appear, communication is likely to fail. Polyglossia can lead to syntactic imperfection: "Competing syntactic series tend to inhibit each other, so the subject often arranges terms and propositions incorrectly. Construction errors are very common among polyglots." (Epstein, p .125).

Izahc Epstein in the aforementioned book advises reducing language instruction to students while recognizing that the realities of life lead humans to acquire multiple language systems. One can therefore be a polyglot freely or by obligation.

The effect of learned languages on thinking is inescapable and can sometimes be disadvantageous, such as constructing false syntactic structures because they are influenced by those of one or more other languages. However, is it better for you to master multiple languages even if it means making mistakes that can be corrected by peers, or learn one language but resort to translators and interpreters every time you want to access information in the other language?

Illustration DepositPhotos - Syda_Productions


Epstein, Izhac, 1923, Thought and Polyglossia: A Psychological Essay.

Cailloce, Laure, 2014," Diversity of languages enriches thought"


Louapre, David, 2014, "Does the language we speak influence the way we think?",


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