Meaning

Reading a play in Spanish earlier–a language in which I am far from fluent–it struck me that as I read I don’t think about the English equivalent of the words and sentences. They have meaning without any conscious translation to my native written (and spoken) language.

I’ve found I have a certain facility for learning to read some languages: basically those that share some common roots with English. This includes Latin, Middle English, French, Dutch, German and Spanish. (I’m keen to add Celtic languages such as Welsh and Irish to my list as well, but my available time is finite.) There’s no trick to it: it appears to be a consequence of how my mind works.

My lifelong immersion in English had hidden from me the non-verbal nature of my thoughts, because whenever I come to communicate them I use that language. But, as I have described before, inside my mind there are no words, only impressions: feelings and visions. Meanings in elemental form.

When I read a text the parts I recognize cause these impressions of meaning directly. The parts I don’t recognize I must consciously, mechanically translate to English first. I quickly become familiar with new words, at which point this intermediate English stage no longer happens. At that point I’m reading fairly fluently. I generally find it takes several hours, maybe a few days, to reach that stage.

There’s a curious effect of understanding the meaning directly (i.e. without translating via English): if I express that meaning in English I use my own phrasing and structure. I often find it more difficult to render a literal translation than simply to convey the essence of the original. This is something I have also noticed when I’m reporting information (text or conversation–it doesn’t make a difference) that I encountered in English.

If somebody asks me what another person said to me in conversation I am usually unable to recall their words, instead simply retaining the underlying meaning. The implication is that I do not require English (or any equivalent language) for thought. I describe my thinking as visual but the reality is much richer and involves more senses than just sight: touch, smell, taste, hearing and emotions are also involved. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as sensory rather than visual?

Most of the time it is effortless to translate my thoughts into English, expressing myself through writing or speech. But sometimes I will hit a block: I know what I want to express but can’t immediately find the words to convey that meaning. My choice of words is also very important to me. I like to find le mot juste, the exact word or phrase that matches what I mean. Failing to do so causes much frustration.

Exactly the same mechanism applies to programming. I “see” the structure of the code, how it operates, how the parts interact. The actual computer language used to express this is mostly irrelevant: I’m fluent in several and have no difficulty expressing equivalent meaning in any of them. To me there is no essential difference between writing in English and writing in C++ or Perl. It is only that computer languages operate in a restricted domain, defining sequences of operations. Natural languages are much more extensive in scope.

The common link is that they are all forms of communication, ways to express or record what is inside one’s mind so that it may be transferred to another mind. This also applies to computer languages: sure, programs are converted into machine instructions, but the reason that programming languages exist–as opposed to using those low-level instructions directly–is that they provide a means for programmers to express what is in their minds in a more natural way, one that is closer to the mental model than the binary codes that are the end result.

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4 thoughts on “Meaning

    • Yes, it is Tierra Cautiva (the 1962 edition published by the University of Veracruz)! Only read a couple of scenes so far but I’m hooked.

      It’s something that I find much, much easier with written language than spoken (although I can usually get the gist of spoken French which I studied at school). I’m curious whether your husband can read languages that are written in non-Latin script such as Greek or Russian: I find my unfamiliarity with their alphabets to be a serious obstacle. xx

      • Ah! I’m so thrilled you’re reading it Alex! I’m very touched that you’re hook too 🙂 No my husband is just like you about non-Latin script. As you say the lack of familiarity with the alphabets get in the way. xxx

  1. I have had very similar experiences with language, and with learning foreign languages specifically. As I became more familiar with them, I stopped consciously translating them in my mind, and I started having just as many frustrating “I know what this means, but I can’t describe it” experiences as I do in English. I also have to make a conscious effort to translate things literally, instead of adjusting them to make more sense in English.

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