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Learning languages Jun 22

Seven lessons into my beginners’ Mandarin course, I was contemplating how the brain deals with different language. We were doing a role play of a fruit stall and as the shopkeeper I asked “hái yào?” (“Anything else?”). The customer wanted to say “Nothing.”

“Just say ‘rien’,” someone else suggested, and that desire to pluck a word from a different foreign language makes me wonder if the brain has one section for native language and another for all others.

It was the same when I was in Germany last year. If I didn’t know a word, it wasn’t the English that came straight to mind but, if I knew it, the French. Sometimes German words pop into my head when I don’t know the Chinese. Probably, though, on more occasions than not it’s the English word that I think of first, but I don’t notice myself doing it because it’s so natural. In that case, each word (as a concept) would have its own cubby-hole in my memory with a version in each language, including English, attached to it.

This is rather unscientific, of course. Is this psychology or linguistics? Either way I’m sure people with PhDs have investigated this in great depth.

2 Responses

  1. 1

    Psycholinguistics: language for psychos. Or actually really revealling information about the functioning of one organ that is shrouded almost totally in mystery. I have also had that English vs foreign dilemma. If language is processed in a similar way to eg faces you may well be close to the truth with your guess. In psychology there is the theory that we develop paradigms based on our experience. These are used to guide decisions surrounding future experiences of the same or similar things. Not anything controversial there. But it has some interesting connotations: you can think of it like a series of Venn diagrams – as we encounter more examples of a face we construct a sort of face template that gets more detailed the more examples we see. Of course, if we see only white faces, our average face template is very skewed to white features. Any black faces we encounter, no matter how different they are from each other, will be equal outliers from our template until we have seen enough to incorporate them properly into our paradigm.

    This is true for a lot of things we experience in life. Thus for a native English speaker, any other language not programmed from birth will have a lot of catching up to do. Our language paradigm is skewed, and if we try to operate outside it we may end up in a totally different Venn diagram altogether.

    Does that make sense? It does in my head!

  2. 2

    Yes, that makes a lot of sense. I guess the point at which a language gets its own paradigm is the point at which you become able to \”think\” in that language.