My Experience of English as a Second Language

by Matt Blair on October 2, 2009

in Audience,Life Cycle of Ideas,Meaning,Senses

Last night, while cutting and roasting these little squares and cubes of yum:

sweet potatoes and red pepper

Not quite squares or cubes...

I was listening to an episode of Philosophy Talk about language titled “What Are Words Worth?” and one of the topics was whether and how our native language constrains our thought processes.

Most people would consider English to be my primary language. Anyone who has tried to comprehend my attempts at French or Japanese or Chinese would consider English my only language. And they’d be essentially correct.

Or is it mostly accurate?  Or spot on? I have a notion of what each of those phrases means, but I’m not sure the best way to say it. I could keep fiddling with it, or come back to it in ten minutes. But I’ll just leave it as an example of my frequent inability to find a word or phrase that precisely fits what I’m thinking.

If my thoughts originate in English, shouldn’t the words and sentences just fall out of my head, fully-formed? Why do I feel inclined to hunt through dictionaries, ponder each word’s heritage, and fret about shared perceptions of what specific words mean?

In other words, why does writing feel like translation rather than transcription?


Maybe it’s a matter of converting my own personal and idiosyncratic dialect into more commonly used patterns? That seems plausible enough.

We each use language in our own peculiar way. Through editing and revision, we move from the quirky, hyper-local dialect of our internal monologues towards the language practices we share with our audience.

To communicate a specific idea, I have to capture its meaning, seal it into these little semantic packets called words and phrases, sequence those into sentences and paragraphs, encode it with one computer, transmit it to another computer, and let you take it from there.

As a reader, you go through an inverse process: you use a tool like a browser to copy it from a computer to your computer, which retrieves text from the numerical codes, and positions the sentences and paragraphs, which you then parse into words and phrases. Hopefully they mean something to you which approximates what they meant to me.

This model works well enough for blog posts, which tend to focus on words and voice, so it’s easy to assume that only the machines are translating and transmuting the ideas as they move from my mind to yours.

An Inadequate Container

But what about all the ideas that never take the form of written or spoken languages?

Could anyone imagine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring captured in words alone, and then accurately transformed into sound? It might be possible — after all, musical notation is a kind of language — but it would certainly be inefficient and absurd.

I could have described the objects depicted at the top of this post using only language:

“Two well-scrubbed sweet potatoes from the Farmers’ market (cut in 1.5cm cubes) along with a red pepper from the Farmers’ market (cut in 2cm squares) tossed in olive oil, cumin, coriander, black pepper, a pinch of salt, roasted in a glass dish at 400F for approximately 53 minutes, until they were just right.”

Yet there’s nothing intrinsically linguistic about them. I used language to procure them. I just used language to describe them.

Other than that, the experience of them, it seems to me, has very little to do with language. I decided a photo paired with a flippant phrase (“little squares and cubes of yum”) was a better way to present them. Smell and taste would create a more accurate perception in your mind of what came out of the oven, but digital media hasn’t quite caught up with those senses — yet.

If language is not an adequate container for all thoughts, then what is thought?

Do ideas form out of a kind of raw “thought stuff” which is then sometimes translated into language?

In my experience, yes, which is why I feel like writing is translation, like whatever I express in English is at best an approximation of what I’m after.

I’ll explore this question, and some of its implications for idea-making, in my next post.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear about your experiences:

  • Do you feel like you are directly transcribing what’s in your head when writing a short story or a blog post or painting or dancing?
  • Or do you feel like you are translating your ideas, whether into language or image or sound or other physical forms?

Please add a comment or send an email or a tweet, and let me know.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Gina Anzaldo October 5, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Good question! I try to translate my ideas through pictures (painting)- because my words are often inadequate. Then again…some amazing writers, through words alone, are able to present an image more vivid than any picture could.

James Madison has something to say on the subject in Federalist 37 when talking about the difficulty in writing the Constitution..when they had the ‘idea’ framed, but not the words:
“The use of words is to express ideas. Perspicuity, therefore, requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but that they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them. But no language is so copious as to supply words or phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas. ”
.-= Gina Anzaldo´s last blog ..While you can go home again, you should =-.

Matt Blair October 8, 2009 at 9:57 am

Given your ability to distill the thoughts of some of our founding bloviators into tweets, I don’t doubt your linguistic abilities! (Check out Gina’s translation of the Federalist Papers on Twitter.)

I wonder if ideas have a native medium? What you paint might be an idea that would lose some of its nuance and force if translated to words, and then back to image again. A director with even a modest film in mind can’t just go make it, and woo actors and financing on that basis, but must first create the script as an approximation of the idea, and then use that script as a vehicle for gaining interest in realizing the actual film.

I’m glad you brought an historical perspective into this. When I first read through the Federalist Papers I was struck by the casual use of historical references such as the Amphictyonic League. That such references were chosen to make their arguments, rather than an example involving a local merchant or farming community, says much about the expectations they had of their audience. (As well as the context they wanted to create for the Constitution.) Without a classical education and/or Wikipedia, that section might as well be in Greek for many readers — including me. Perspicuity, indeed!

I’ll be exploring some of this in a future post.

Thanks for your comment!

Barbara Martin October 8, 2009 at 10:29 pm

Communication is fascinating. We have the expression about a picture being worth umpteen words, but in this case the photo doesn’t really clarify what you mean in the step by step when you say “until they were just right” — that expression is about as clear as “cook til done” n’est pas? We know what you mean …but we don’t know what you mean.

In this case, taste/mouth feel/aroma would be the most precise form of communication, I suppose. But which came closer, the description or the photo?

I am leaning toward relying on context and on past experience, on common knowledge, on known quantities, on shared touchstones to pull the communicated meaning into focus. In other words, a shared vocabulary. This could be words, pix, music, touch, taste, smell … ideas.

What if all you had to say was, “just like mom used to make them”? What that could communicate would depend on whther you were speaking to a family member who shared your memory, or to a stranger. And would you communicate the idea of a specific recipe prepared in a particular way, or would it be the idea of comfort food — or possibly something akin to the code at my house relating a certain cook’s home made soup and dishwater….

I do know that idioms reflect a sensibility, and they vary from language to language in colorful ways. But whether the expression came first or the thought pattern/cultural imprint, I don’t know! And yet, they do inform our way of seeing/interpreting/relating to/defining/sharing the world around us.

I suspect this is related to the power of metaphor.

Just muddying it up, no clarity from me. Enjoying the pondering.

Matt Blair October 19, 2009 at 9:52 am

Thanks for your comment, Barbara. Learning happens in the mud!

Great points about shared memory and meaning.

“Cook ’til done” is an interesting example. It could be translated into specifics, e.g. at 375F for 29 minutes, but that will yield varying results: overdone in one oven, still too raw in another. Such a vague instruction seems like a purposeful ambiguity, a reminder to adapt to local conditions. It’s a goal, rather than a technique, and the details are left to the reader.

A word like ‘cumin’ points to a specific plant, and in the context of a kitchen, a very specific use of that plant. Even though the name changes in different languages, it can be translated easily. But while the definition is clear, the way it connects to each of our own pasts will vary: maybe it smells like that great restaurant where we used to hang out in high school, or the barely-edible chili our friend makes with way too much cumin.

With a word like ‘done’, there’s a shared sense of ‘ready to eat’ but a local meaning, an individual definition, as well: some people like their Brussells Sprouts al dente, while others want them fork-soft.

To use such a word is a kind of half-translation on the part of the writer. The rest of the translation (i.e. done = al dente) happens in the mind of the reader. Which is kind of where I’m going with it in a subsequent post.

Zoe October 26, 2009 at 5:27 am

As always, your writing taps into subjects of endless interest to me!

I’ve always been fascinated by exploring these questions, because although I consider myself a writer and lover of literature/writing, I also recognize that the spoken/written word is not the end all be all.

I wrote my thesis on surrealist poetry, and it was extremely interesting to study how the surrealists tried to “unleash” the unconscious using all sorts of exercises, games, and writing strategies — “automatic writing” for example. There was this constant question of how to give legitimacy and light to these ideas and experiences before they were “tainted” by the conscious mind. I read a lot of Julia Kristeva’s work as a lens through which to view surrealism; she proposes that poetry comes from the “semiotic chora” — energies and drives that are an expression of the unsignifiable.

I don’t remember who said it, but I believe it was a writer who said that all arts aspire toward music — it has the quality you alluded to, of accessing that unconscious in a pure, incomprehensible way. I think honoring this “other” system of thought — or whatever we can call it! — is undeniably important for the human experience.
.-= Zoe´s last blog ..Listening in on the Other Side =-.

Matt Blair November 4, 2009 at 8:21 am

Here’s quite an odd circumstance: I’d heard that idea, too, about all arts aspiring to music, and didn’t know who said it.

Then last night, I came across this quote in the closing paragraphs of the essay “The Wall and The Books” by Jorge Luis Borges:

Generalizing from the preceding case, we could infer that *all* forms have their virtue in themselves and not in any conjectural “content.” This would concord with the thesis of Benedetto Croce; already Pater in 1877 had affirmed that all arts aspire to the state of music, which is pure form. Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The only reason I even opened that book last night — rather than next week or next month — is because it is overdue at the library, and I’m rushing through select essays. Weird.

Even though I’ve been a musician for a long time, I don’t know if I think sound is any purer than abstract visual information, or other senses. And I sometimes wonder if sound and light are thought to be richest in information because so much art focuses on hearing and sight. Taste is a sense well-catered to by the culinary arts. Could we imagine art forms in which smell or touch alone trigger the same range of emotional response as music or film or words ? On a personal level, I can think of ways, but on a broader, one-to-many scale, I’m not sure.

I have always been partial to songs without verbal meaning: the Vonlenska/Hopelandic of Sigur Rós, Lisa Gerrard, Liz Frazier of the Cocteau Twins, and their precedents in Luciano Berio and György Ligeti, who used phonemes from the International Phonetic Alphabet where more traditional composers would have used poetry, libretti or liturgical texts. There is definitely something in our minds that yearns for this wordless realm.

An excellent insight to bring the surrealists into this discussion. I’m going to have to really digest that and integrate it into some of the follow-up posts. Looking at surrealist/sound/Dada poetry on the page has often left me cold, but artists like Christian Bök have reminded me that this was work which was meant to be heard. Check out his performance of Hugo Ball a couple minutes into this episode of the Poetry of the Shelf podcast: Stop Making Sense

Bök is a particularly evocative practitioner, and really brings out that liturgical aspect of Ball’s work.

Well, I better stop, before this comment turns into a post.

Thank you, as always, Zoe! You’ve given me a lot to think about.

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