My Native Language

by wjw on February 22, 2006

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 actually works. 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.

Peter February 22, 2006 at 10:14 pm

Brilliant! I think I’m like this too, even though I’ve only spoken English since my birthday. My Dad is Hungarian and my mother Russian and both speak English fluently but with occasional verbal aphasia, which I seem to have picked up.
Possibly this is a problem for many children of ESL (English as a Second Language) parents?

Rose Fox February 23, 2006 at 6:20 am

I tend to say that written English is my first language. I didn’t learn how to interact in spoken English until my teens. I could fake it extremely well, but it was all using writing techniques in my head and then reading off the results. So I guess I’m one of those people who thinks in grammatically correct English, but it’s a process of drafts and edits. I’ve been doing it so long that I’m not sure I could say anymore what raw thoughts look like in my head. Usually I start with a quotation (of myself or someone else) and then revise and refine as necessary. I almost never work with pure concepts anymore. It’s very interesting to watch myself craft spoken sentences when I’ve encountered a new concept that doesn’t fit any of my preprogrammed response patterns; I imagine I get a look on my face much like someone waiting for the teleprompter to come on.

This conversation might be of interest to you.

Anonymous February 23, 2006 at 7:41 am

Very interesting. WJ’s description sounds familiar to me (who grew up with two languages). When I become overly enthusiastic in conversation, I find my language-generation system struggles to keep up with the task of making fully-formed and elaborated utterances.

dubjay February 23, 2006 at 10:14 pm

I remember that Roger Zelazny was one of those whose mind worked much faster than his speech. Since for the most part he spoke in complete, grammatically correct, complex sentences (if not entire paragraphs), what he seemed to have done was to compose, revise, and edit these sentences in his mind— and to do it very fast— then store the result in some kind of communications buffer, which unspooled into his vocal apparatus while his mind leaped ahead to the next structure.

If you interrupted him or asked an unanticipated question, he sort of unravelled for a bit, then had to mentally rewind back to that point in his history and revise the whole structure from that point.

Or sometimes he’d accidentally clear his buffer, and be left with nothing to say while he reverse-threaded his mental construct and rebuilt the whole thing.

If you watched closely you could see this happening, and it was one of the fascinations of knowing the man.

Ling February 23, 2006 at 11:49 pm

My native language isn’t english either. I grew up learning Mandarin and Taiwanese, but I’ve mostly lost them. I can’t speak in complete sentences when I talk in those languages. But I still think in English and I think in full sentences too.

You’re quite unusual (most of us are), but not freakish. I did notice you pausing once during a party in the SFWA suite, but it wasn’t a long pause and it wasn’t something that seemed strange to me. We all pause sometimes when speaking because well, our minds just work faster than our mouths most of the time.

dubjay February 24, 2006 at 8:57 pm

Far better it is to have your brain working faster than your mouth than your mouth working faster than your brain.

Bill Patterson February 25, 2006 at 3:57 am

Sounds like your syntax map is graphical rather than linguistic — there are quite a number of people that way: in fact, that is the main “alternative” way of processing things. Not terribly surprising, as the brain is really hardwired to privilege maps over sequences. Sequence-style patterns are a relatively late addition to our cognitive apparatus.

Jed February 27, 2006 at 5:45 pm

Like what Bill said, except it sounds like you are quite Right Brained… are you a southpaw by chance? When I started taking chinese, I found that the easiest part for me was reading the written characters- As a designer I tend to think visually so this was my home turf.

motemeal February 28, 2006 at 5:19 am

I tend to think most people don’t think or speak grammatically correct english with perfect sentence structure. The honest truth is- it doesn’t really matter if it’s perfectly sound English or not- so long as it reads naturally.

I think it would be worse for someone who does think and speak in perfect King’s English,(rare as these people probably are outside of that group,) to try and force ‘realistic’ dialogue rather than use what is comfortable for him/her.

dubjay February 28, 2006 at 10:19 pm

I’m not sure that “graphical” best describes my mental process, as I don’t think in pictures, but rather in little bundles of concepts. Unless “graphical” is a term of art, and used simply in opposition to “syntactical.”

The analogy of Chinese ideograms occurred to me when I was writing my original post, but I decided not to use it because I can’t read Chinese, and so I don’t know if the analogy is in any way correct or not.

I was fairly ambidextrous when I was little, but was trained up right-handed. When I learn a new physical skill, my left side picks it up more quickly, but though my right side has a longer learning curve, it will perform the skill much more strongerly when it is finally learned.

It’s a funny thing about “realistic” written dialogue, because when spoken it doesn’t quite seem realistic. Elmore Leonard is a master of written dialogue, and it looks completely natural on the page, but when you read it aloud it isn’t quite natural. (He’s an artist, in other words.)

Anonymous March 5, 2006 at 4:35 am

I was always under the impression that very few people thought in complex sentences. I sure don’t. If some telepath could hop into my thought process at any given moment, they’d find (all at once) images, stray sentences or bits of sentences, fragments of songs or music, and amorphous clouds of emotion and body awareness.

Luckily I am capable of speaking in complex sentences. But that’s different.

Rachel Brown

sage March 5, 2006 at 3:33 pm

I’ve heard (read) the premise stated flatly: Thought is not possible without words.

My instinctive reponse is, hell, no, that’s so wrong. I don’t need words for the scent of skunk or tea rose, for time travel to pre-verbal childhood, for the prickle of sunlight on my left cheek on that particular day.

dubjay March 6, 2006 at 10:00 pm

Rachel, that’s what I thought, until I was corrected. Some people apparently do think in sentences. Whether the sentences are complex or grammatical may depend on education level and natural talent for language, but for a large percentage of our population, language seem to be the way they cogitate.

HaloJonesFan April 3, 2006 at 1:26 pm

This is an interesting conversation, when you compare it to some of the muddled mess in Shirow’s “Ghost in the Shell”. Cyber-brain communication (that is, using the nanomachines in your head to talk to someone else via the nanomachines in their head) often referenced things like the “visual field”, the “linguistic field”, and so forth. I suppose that this is what Shirow was trying to get towards–that people didn’t just have different heads, they had entirely different ways of thinking, and the nanomachines had to translate between the two. One person might imagine themself speaking to another, but the other person wouldn’t imagine themself hearing the words; reality would just change so that they had been told, the same way they process every other piece of input.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.