Native Language (a flashback)

by wjw on April 27, 2012

I’m wrapped up in projects, including getting City on Fire ready for ebook release, so I thought I’d offer an essay I originally posted seven years ago, in which I discuss my native language, and why I don’t know what it is.   –wjw

My native language isn’t English.

The problem is, I don’t know what language my native language actually is.

I was raised in a household where Finnish was spoken, but I never learned more than a few words, so I’m reasonably certain my native language isn’t Finnish. I had French in school and Greek in college, and I got so I could think and dream in those languages, but my skills with each language is very rusty and I don’t think I could think in either language even if I wanted to.

Until fairly recently I didn’t realize that my native language wasn’t English. I was in a critique group with other writers, and I criticized another writer on the grounds that his characters always thought in perfect grammatical English sentences, whereas of course people didn’t actually do that. He sort of stared at me in surprise, as he always thought in perfect grammatical English sentences. So did everyone else in the group, apparently.

It was then that I realized that whatever language my brain is using, it isn’t English.

After that I began paying more attention to the way my brain seems to function. When I think, I’m not using a structured, grammatical language, it’s more like I’m laying out a series of Tarot cards. Each card is a symbol, or series of symbols, that stands for a group of concepts or associations. The shape of the array of cards implies a structure and a conclusion. My mind skips from one card to the other without bothering to fill in the grammar that connects them, like a mountain goat bounding from peak to peak without traversing the valleys in between.

I can translate this into English, but it takes a certain amount of effort. I have to add the grammar and explain what the symbols mean. Sometimes my mind gets well ahead of the translation and I stumble to a halt, looking for a word or phrase that got lost. Sometimes I can backtrack and pick up the translation where it stopped; and sometimes I end up totally lost, with people staring at me wondering what the hell I was trying to say.

It’s not bad enough that I have associations in my mind for, say, “Pamela Anderson,” I have this whole complex symbol-set in my mind for Pamela Anderson and it’s tangled up with a whole bunch of other symbol-sets and it probably takes up a lot more space in my brain than I want it to.

This explains why I’m a much better writer than a speaker— with writing, I can take time to polish the translation.

When I talk, what you hear is, unfortunately, what you get.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Iain April 27, 2012 at 8:14 am

When I think about what I think, I seem to think in sentences which are as gramatical and well spelt as everything else I do (i.e. not very)… but Im not sure I am sufficently aware of how I think normally to definitivley say that is how I think all the time…

Patricia Mathews April 27, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Sure you think in English. Your brain is just wired differently from theirs. I’m a language geek. Not everybody is! I know the mindset they’re coming from, and believe me, most people don’t share it.

Steven Chesney April 27, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Sounds like Noam Chomsky’s “deep structures” — he changed linguistics by stating we all think in a shared set of hard wired symbols. Language is just a mapping of that — different languages are different mappings.

I’m probably oversimplifying but I think you aren’t different – just more aware.

DorjePismo April 27, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Consider writing an updated sequel to _Magister Ludi_. You seem to be describing how the bead game worked.

Urban April 27, 2012 at 1:10 pm

And you probably, almost certainly, have a Pamela Anderson neuron which fires if you hear the name, read the name, see a photo of her but only if she’s alone in it.

Nathan April 27, 2012 at 1:10 pm

I don’t think in sentences, grammatical or otherwise. My thoughts are an untidy, unruly flow of often non-verbal, usually non-visual ideas, impressions, and sensations that I only process into sentences when I’m trying to communicate with others.

I think it would be very interesting to read some studies on how different people perceive the way they think.

Ralf The Dog. April 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm

My dyslexia comes from being neither left nor right brain dominant. I think in a different symbol set based on the type of task I am performing. If I am writing advertising copy, I think one way (mostly in symbols of self loathing). When I am writing creatively I use a different set. When writing code, I think a very different set of mental icons. Graphic art and 3d modeling both have their own systems.

Perhaps your view of language, (along with your martial arts background and study of eastern cultures), inspired the body language aspect of Aristoi.

TC/Writer Underground April 27, 2012 at 5:13 pm

After that I began paying more attention to the way my brain seems to function.

Much hilarity ensues…

There must be modes involved here; I notice the difference when I’m fishing, which is a fairly primal activity. Either I’m in a fairly predatory, basic “me catch fish” mode or translating the whole experience into sentences.

The latter returns fewer fish, but more sentences for the blog.

Perhaps some are always working in “writer” mode (when all those symbols are translated directly to sentences) but that others have to shift into it. I expect fiction would tap into different channels than a firsthand experience, but then, write what you know…

JaniceG April 29, 2012 at 3:57 am

I read a study once that said that your native language is the language you would automatically count in if you weren’t strictly paying attention to the language others are speaking because counting is one of the first things we learn to do as children.

TRX April 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm

I always think in grammatical English. From discussions elsewhere, it appears many people don’t. I sometimes have trouble understanding people who speak in broken sentences; if it’s a written transcript of an audio track, it often makes no sense at all.

Further, if someone says “tree”, I visualize it as t-r-e-e in letters, not a big plant. I figure that comes from learning to read very young, and reading much more than I listen or speak.

Don Norman is evidently a picture-thinker; his book “The Design of Ordinary Things” is full of WTF for a word-thinker. Picture-thinkers usually believe their internal symbology is universal, when it might as well be random squiggles to a word-thinker.

A case in point – on my town’s main street there’s a small sign with a pair of V’d hands, heels together, fingers spread. As much as anything else, it might be “bird”, like those squiggles on bad paintings. It’s near a church, so I made the connections bird -> dove -> Jesus -> church, since doves and Jesus seem to go together.

Fully fifteen years later, I found out the dove was supposed to be a book, and the sign was to indicate the direction to the city library, which was maybe half a mile away. There are no words on the sign; if that’s and Universal ISO Illiterate symbol for “library”… what does an illiterate need a library for? They can’t even check out videos or CDs unless they can read the covers.

Similarly, the town took down all of the lights at intersections that said “WALK” and “DON’T WALK.” Now they have pictures: “man with a backache” and “Joshua tree.” Supposedly they’re colored “red” and “green”, but that doesn’t help me any since I’m part of the 15% of males who are red/green color blind. Picture-thinkers did that stunt, I’m sure.

I won’t even get into trying to figure out the heat/AC controls on a strange car…

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