Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Missing Off Switch

For some time I have been trying to get my shorthand speed up and the more I practise, the harder it is to switch off. I found after five days without practise, my speed had deteriorated somewhat. Frantically practising again over the past two weeks ready for yet another shot at the exam, I spent hours listening to and annotating practise exams, transcribing shorthand notes back into long hand and transcribing everything the residents of the Chatsworth estate had to say.

After all this, I was back into “dream mode” where I lie in bed for hours at night infuriatingly unable to stop inventing sentences and imagining them in shorthand outlines in my head. Walking to the bus, I experience the same phenomenon - reading signs, watching films, talking to friends … no matter what I seem to do my brain refuses to switch off and the virtual shorthand practise continues to torment me.

I began to wonder if multilingual people experience the same thing. I am sure I must think and dream in English words but I don't notice because doing so comes so naturally, unlike the mental processes of T-Line. I wonder if multilingual speakers think in certain languages depending on the situation and who/what they are thinking about? For instance, do French speakers living in England, think in French when thinking about French friends or food specific to the motherland?

At the pub one Friday I met a German guy who is a fluent English speaker and tells me that he occasionally finds himself inventing German sentences in his head. Curious to get closer to an answer I decide to research theories about language and thought. Rather like the age old argument, what came first the chicken or the egg, there is divided opinion on whether thought depends on language or to formulate language, thought is needed first.

Classical Developmental psychologist, Piaget, believes that language is dependent on thought for its development. The main basis of this belief comes from infants demonstrating the basic principles of thought before they are able to speak. Contrastingly, Vygotsky believes that thought and language are initially separate systems that merge around the age of two, producing verbal thought. Vygotsky views mental operations as being embodied in the structure of language, suggesting thought is the result of the application of internal unheard or unseen language use.

Safder Alladina in her guide to being bilingual:


points out that if we thought in the same language we speak in, our actions would no longer be instantaneous. The exception to the rule is thinking out loud or talking to ourselves, a type of thought that is generally much slower and allows us to work through ideas or processes. Bilingual people are described as often using their native or dominant languages for different purposes, for example a person may count in their mother tongue because that is the language they learnt to do so in. How long the person has spoken each language for and who they are with may also affect which language they think in. Scientists believe that dreams take place through ideas rather than language, explaining how a whole sequence can go by in a flash. In dreams language that we can recognise generally only takes place when a person is dreaming about a language or imagining a conversation.

Browsing chat rooms, it still proves difficult to find a definitive answer to the question of what affects the language we think in. Accounts support the idea multi-lingual speakers dream in their mother tongue, will dream in whatever language they were last using before going to bed, will use whatever language relevant to the content of the dream or may even code-switch. One user claims to think, dream and sleep-talk in English rather than their native language because they prefer English.

The language of thought or "mentalese" is certainly no cut and dry matter. In a lecture the famous linguist, Steven Pinker, explained:

"Fundamental concepts such as space, time, causality and human intention, such as what is a means and what is the ends? - these are reminiscent of the kinds of categories that Immanuel Kant argued are the basic framework for human thought. Language is not so much a creator or shaper of human nature, so much as a window onto human nature."

No wiser or nearer to a definitive answer, I can safely say right now the view into my soul is pretty dire – full of strange squiggles, coded language and redundant exemplary sentences.

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