On-the-fly mental translations

  1. Math Is Hard

    Math Is Hard 4,915
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    I had an interesting experience in my French 2 class this quarter. My teacher was retelling a story in French (Jean-Paul Sartre’s "La Nausée") and I noticed that I was not processing her speech the way I normally process French. Usually, my brain does a translating step :

    French -> English -> Mental Pictures

    But this time, her words were making a more direct connection in my brain:

    French -> Mental Pictures

    I was seeing the story play out in real-time, as she told it. I was pretty surprised -- but I think this might have been happening before, from time to time, and maybe I just was not aware of it. It happens more and more frequently now. I’ve heard that when you become fluent in another language you can "think in it". I don’t suppose I’ll ever get that far, but I am getting a little taste of what this is like.

    The only thing I can compare this experience to is something that happened when I used to play piano. At first, when I wanted to transpose a piece to a different key it was very laborious. I had to think before every note. After a while, I became so comfortable with sight-reading that I could transpose any piece to any key on the fly. No thinking involved!

    Have you had any experiences like this with automatically transposing one thing in your mind to another? I was thinking artists possibly do something like this when they scale drawings from one size to larger or smaller.
     
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  3. iansmith

    iansmith 1,430
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    When you are fluent in at least two different languages, you can think and dream in both languages. It is as if your brain has a switch. For me, when I am in a english environment my brain is in english mode. In an French environment, my brain goes to french mode.

    Sometimes, my brain does not distinguish between both languages. So sometimes I'll think a english speaker in speaking french.
     
  4. Math Is Hard

    Math Is Hard 4,915
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    That is really fascinating to me, and I have heard others compare it to a switch. Did you grow up in a bilingual environment? That is amazing to me that you dream in both languages!
    A lot of people here speak Spanish and English and they tend to move back and forth between the languages when they are conversing. It is fairly seamless and I never know why they switch from one language to another - except that maybe whatever concept they are trying to express comes across better in one language than another.
     
  5. turbo

    turbo 7,366
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    That happens here in Maine a lot with French. Many of the families of French-speakers came here from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick during the Acadian diaspora, and as new concepts and inventions came along, they adopted the US English words for them, resulting in interesting phrases such as "Callez back, s'il vous plais."

    Your comparison with learning the piano was apt. Part of learning fluency is a grasp of some more universal tools, as opposed to simple "decoding". I liken this to my experience with guitar. When I first learned to play, I taught myself chords from a book and learned songs by reading tablature. Transposing keys using chords in the root position is quite tedious and often changes the character of the song, for good or bad. I started making real strides with my playing when I learned different flavors of barre chords that can be played all up and down the neck, making transposition an absolute no-brainer. Up until I developed a severe sensitivity to perfumes and colognes, I hosted an open-mike jam every weekend at a local tavern, and only rarely did I have trouble accompanying somebody on an unfamiliar song. If only I had developed that fluency in French.....
     
  6. DaveC426913

    DaveC426913 16,244
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    You know, I *thought* it was like a switch too. And I tried an experiment.

    I was waiting for a friend to finish a phone-call wherein she was conversing with a family member in Polish or Ukranian (I forget which she is). During her phone convo, I started "talking trash" (just joking around) under my breath in English. I assumed that, while conversing two-way in a foreign language, she would be unable to understand both convos at the same time.

    In fact, she did quite well, without even breaking stride in her phone convo he was able to retort to my comments - in English.
     
  7. turbo

    turbo 7,366
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    I have friends who demonstrate that ability in a really stunning way - holding spirited discussions with multiple family members in a group, some of whom speak only rudimentary English and some who speak only rudimentary French and every gradation in between. They switch from one language to another seamlessly, depending on which person they are addressing, and in which language they can best get their point across.

    I should point out that the bilingual French in Maine generally consider it rude to leave someone out of the conversation on the basis of language, so if I'm not picking up all the French, they'll stop and fill in the gaps. This is most prevalent when discussing matters that require words that don't show up in French language courses, especially those relating to specific occupations. You should also know that bi-lingual people have a really rich tradition of puns based often on homonyms from one language to the other.

    Q: Why couldn't the newbie French carpenter frame up a wall?
    A: He didn't have a clous. (pronounced clue) Edit: I forgot to add that clous is the French word for nail.
     
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2006
  8. DaveC426913

    DaveC426913 16,244
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    That's not limited to French, Maine, or even America.
     
  9. Hurkyl

    Hurkyl 16,089
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    Yep. It's nice when that middle step is gone. :smile: I had 5 years of French, and I could think in French. (But I've since forgotten most of it. bleh)

    If you want to hear about a -weird- experience along these lines, I've recently been learning (American) sign language... and I find it very unnatural to actually speak English while signing. In one of our first classes, we had everybody sign their name -- and while I knew many of their names in spoken English, I simply couldn't remember their names when trying to read their finger-spelling. (Which made the exercise more worthwhile, but it was still very weird!)
     
  10. DaveC426913

    DaveC426913 16,244
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    I'll bet this is a left-brain / right-brain thing. Your speech uses your left brain. Visualizing your hand movements could be a right brain thing.

    Additionally, your right brain controls your left hand while your left brain controls your right hand.
     
  11. turbo

    turbo 7,366
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    Actually, in some areas of Canada, if you don't make an attempt to converse in French (even if your French is lousy), a bi-lingual person may not speak to you in English, even though they can. Inexplicably (because she made money from tips) a waitress in a French restaurant near the Evangeline Chapel in Nova Scotia snubbed us (my wife, mother-in-law, wife's aunt, and myself) until I tried ordering our meals in French, then she rolled right into perfect, if accented, English. In Quebec, the situation can be worse, especially if the people you are dealing with think you are Canadian. In my experience, they tend to give us Mainers a better shake than English-only Canadians. I might be wrong about this, but I don't think so.

    This type of exclusion never happens in happy crowds, like at QC Winter Carnival, concerts, hanging with bikers at a beer/barbeque party, family events, etc. Usually, some highly functional bilingual person out of the group will "adopt" you and make it fun. I'm an older guy and can keep up with some conversational Quebecoise French, but it is kind of fun to be adopted by a young biker girl who is only too happy to explain things like "smoke show" (burning rubber) and other colloquialisms.
     
  12. iansmith

    iansmith 1,430
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    I did not lived in english environment untill I was 15-16 years old. Pior to that age, the english I encounter was in school and it was 4 hours a week.

    I do that sometimes. When it happen, it is as if my brain tries to fill to hole in my thoughts with the other language instead of translating the concept or the word.
     
  13. hypnagogue

    hypnagogue 2,265
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    I think the left brain/right brain thing is overrated. There is something to it, but it's probably not as clear cut and pervasive as it is sometimes made out to be.

    My guess would be that Hurkyl has difficulty speaking English while signing simply because he has not yet learned signing to the point where it is effortless for him (I presume), and so for him signing requires some degree of conscious effort, deliberation, and attention. If this is the case, then trying to do another complex task like speaking English could use up enough attentional resources that an insufficient amount would be left over to carry out the signing. It may not be all that different from e.g. a novice guitar player who has difficulty playing and singing at the same time, an effect that persists until the guitar player becomes proficient enough that playing the guitar is effortless for him (i.e. has been taken over by a dedicated unconscious process, thus freeing up attentional resources).

    Alternatively (or in addition to the above), it could also be that the motor programs governing hand movements and signing compete with the motor programs governing mouth/tongue/throat movements for access to the underlying networks that processes language on a semantic and syntactical level.
     
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2006
  14. turbo

    turbo 7,366
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    My mom moved to central Maine from northern Aroostook county (French-speaking town) when her father followed the jobs that resulted from the 1930's hydroelectric projects. She was put into first grade knowing no English. She graduated with honors. The teachers and other townspeople were so harsh on her and other French kids (Maine's wetbacks) that she refused to teach me and my sisters French, hoping to spare us the stigma. I could listen to her speaking French to my grandfather and other older family members who spoke little English, but she would not speak to me in French. One day when I was about 6, she and my great aunt were talking in a mix of English and French and then they slid into all French (a warning sign to me a young kid). When my great aunt left, I excitedly asked my mother when my 2nd cousin was going to have her baby (she was not married, and this was in the 1950s). After that, Mom started encouraging me to play outside when sensitive things were to be discussed.
     
  15. Hurkyl

    Hurkyl 16,089
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    Hrm. I had attributed it to being a different "langage center" (if I may invent a term) in my brain -- so that my brain wants to sit in the sign language portion when I'm signing, instead of working in both the sign language and English portions.

    It's not necessarily hard to speak and sign at the same time (in fact, I gathered from most of the others in the class that they used to have a hard time signing without speaking!) -- it just feels really weird, and I typically won't move my lips at all unless I consciously decide to speak while signing. (And you're "supposed" to mouth the words while signing)


    Incidentally, I've made a point to learn to sign both left-handed and right-handed, so that wouldn't be the issue anyways.
     
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2006
  16. yeppppep.....yeah i remember that trqnsition......its a good sign .
    keep up the good work "math is hard"(of course u could force this transition also...try no translation at all..)
     
  17. hypnagogue

    hypnagogue 2,265
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    Actually, that may not be very far off from my hypothesis. I may be misinterpreting you, but when you talk about your brain "wanting to sit" in a certain region to the exclusion of the other, that sounds a lot to me like a metaphor for your attentional resources being devoted to one kind of cognitive process to the relative exclusion of another.

    Can you explain this weird feeling in more detail? Is it analogous to any feelings you might experience in a more common or easily reproducible (for those of us who can't sign) kind of cognitive task?
     
  18. Hurkyl

    Hurkyl 16,089
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    Hrm, I am at least sometimes aware when my attention is being stretched to/past its limit -- I didn't notice it in this circumstance.

    At the moment, I get the impression it was more like the proverbial student who is perfectly capable of doing algebra problems, but forgets everything about algebra when trying to do a calculus problem.

    In other words, I suppose my brain was focusing on a context that wasn't used to associating with the "names of people I know in English" part of my brain. Or, in general, the English speaking part of my brain. When I've explicitly thought to speak while signing, I haven't had trouble -- it's just that speaking doesn't often occur to me otherwise.
     
  19. Math Is Hard

    Math Is Hard 4,915
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    C'est cool! :cool:
    That's too bad you can't do the open mike jams anymore. Sounds like fun! I used to play in bands when I was younger.

    I was just thinking that these automatic translations probably also include typing. That would be very similar to sign language in some ways, since it's a motor skill, and when you reach a certain "fluency" your hands just execute your brain's intentions without a lot of thought in the process. My mom used to type around 180 wpm so she could probably think and type something nearly as fast as she could think and speak it!

    I used to spend a lot of time with sign language interpreters. I was a note-taker for hearing impaired students in some networking and database classes, and we always had two interpreters assigned for a class. What was interesting to me is that they continued to sign to each other, even when they were sitting at a table together and speaking directly to each other. It was sort of habitual, I suppose.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2006
  20. Math Is Hard

    Math Is Hard 4,915
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    I was reading this:
    and then this:
    So, at first I thought that processing two languages simultaneously could be like speaking and signing, or playing and singing. One a conscious effort, and another on "auto-pilot", but then Ian's comments about hearing one language as another seems that there are two active conscious "channels" going and both are being picked up and instantly translated as pictures -- so the brain might have to back-track a little to discern the source of the mental images. Now I am not so sure about the "switch" effect that so many people mention.
     
  21. I've studied four languages besides English and, while I'm not near fluency in any of them, the extent to which I am proficient strikes me as an extension of my pre-existing skills in English. In other words, when you get the hang of a certain turn of speech in a "foreign" language, it actually feel more like a new addition to your pre-existing stock. Deep down it has become a perfectly valid alternate way of expressing the notion in question: you've accepted it can be used to communicate an idea as appropriately as the English equivalent. Before that you feel like you're "pretending", or "faking" hence the need to formulate first in English, then translate.

    For the most part all this alternate vocabulary stays clustered together as a separate language by accent and grammar. That is: once you start in to that grammar or accent more of the same suggests itself, plus there's usually an intermittant conscious thought to stay in the same "mode" when you feel like straying.
     
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