Thursday, March 24, 2016

Internal Something: 4 - English As A Second Language


4 - English As A Second Language

How do we understand and process language? At first thought, a person might be inclined to respond "We just do." Sometimes it seems that way, because it's something that "we just do" on a daily basis, and have done ever since we were young. Try to learn a second language though, and the answer is far more detailed.

The way the mind breaks down language comes in quite a few steps, and without getting too scientific, let's briefly review some of those steps...

Firstly, we need to receive the message given to us... We read words on a page; we hear someone speak to us; we see someone flail their arms around using semaphore... The key to this step is attention and maybe a bit of understanding that someone is trying to tell us something somehow.

Secondly, we should be aware of what those words, sounds, symbols, facial expressions, dots and dashes, images, and so on are. Not necessarily what they mean... Not yet. Simply what they are. We see the word "Pencil" and we know that it is a string of Latin characters that make up a word in the English language. If we see a bunch of raised dots in little patterns, we can be relatively sure they make up a word using Braille.

Thirdly, we know what that word is. The word is "Pencil." Sometimes we might just say that aloud to confirm that this word is the word that we know. Pencil. This step might seem like the most simple part of language, but I can assure you, it is one of the most important.

After we are sure the word we just read is "Pencil" and have maybe said it a few times to ourselves to be sure, we then have to apply a meaning to that word. It's no good for us to just say the word without understanding the meaning. Sometimes we can sing a song or say all sorts of words and phrases in a foreign language, and we can say them with perfect diction and clarity, but that doesn't necessarily mean we have any clue what the words mean.

This step is called "comprehension" and is absolutely necessary to the understanding of any and all uses or forms of language. We often grow up hearing the phrase "reading and comprehension" without even thinking twice about that second noun... but think back to our childhood, and we might remember those books with the words and the pictures to go alongside them. We might recall how difficult it was to apply certain words to certain pictures. Comprehension is actually one of the most difficult stages of language, even more difficult than the reading part itself.

But comprehension doesn't stop at understanding individual words. It continues on to the next step, which is figuring out how all these words go together. We see a group or cluster of words, we hear someone speak rapid bits of dialogue, and we piece them all together to discover the message. "Is that your pencil?"

After that comes the next really big phase of comprehension: Determining the meaning or intent behind the words. Sometimes it's obvious. "Where is the bathroom?" is fairly simple to suss out... while others might depend on additional context to figure out the implication the sender is trying to make. Someone asking "Is that your pencil?" could be wondering where you bought it because they like it, or they might be accusing you of stealing it from them.

There are very surely many other steps and parts to our minds' understanding of language... Trying to figure out what to say and how to say it is its own horrible monster, but I'm going to stop here on comprehension, because this has been one of my biggest difficulties over the past six months.

There were plenty of times that I found myself able to read or hear words and know the words themselves... while left dreadfully unable to make any sense of them. Other times, I was simply left unable to understand context and meaning behind what people were saying to me. (Specifically, there was a period of time I thought everything said to me by anyone was an attempt at starting an argument.) Luckily, there was not much occasion where I found myself unable to read or hear words.

My receptive sense was fairly decent, while my comprehension was greatly lacking in many different ways. Eventually, I realized that I was "translating" English. My understanding of the English language, my primary language, was similar to that of a second language. My ability to process was slow and broken into very deliberate stages, often times having to spend time creating mental images to apply to the words I was receiving, before I could even begin to attempt sentence structure.

This not only led to plenty of frustration, but also a lot of misunderstanding. Not even three months ago, I failed a "reading comprehension" test a good dozen times in a row before giving up completely... and I mean failed. Not just partially; completely. I've had to mentally take myself back to elementary school and essentially re-learn some of the English language. I spent months relying often on vocal and facial cues, as well as filling in the gaps between the words I completely knew, to get by in communicating with others.

I have been trying to write this one blog post for a good month or so, reveling in the irony of not being able to figure out how to write about communication... And a week ago, I was finally able to completely pass a reading comprehension test of the kind I had failed only months ago.

I'd call that "progress" if I could be sure that meant what I think it does.

(Fun fact: I misspelled the word "progress" four times.)

Monday, March 07, 2016

Internal Something: 3 - Disaffectation

Internal Something

3 - Disaffectation

I've spent much of the past few months agonizing over a certain emotional state that I simply could not name. I knew what it felt like, and I knew it contained a lot of frustration and strong emotions... but what the name was for those feelings?

Trying to figure this out sent me into so many spirals of thought, normally resulting in a complete breakdown of function. I called those "Error 11" or "BSOD" or my favourite, "Kernel Panic"... My thoughts, emotions, and actions were quite incredibly disconnected, and everything about it felt and seemed logically like a paradox.

Occasionally, if I was tired and cognitively fatigued, the results of trying to figure things out would be me lashing out in anger, my emotions and actions connecting in ways that my thought processes were left very viciously out of... Similar to a system dump when a computer crashes, complete with bizarre output of numbers and words. I simply could not understand how these two things correlated beyond the frustration involved in trying to interpret these feelings, whatever they might have been. I wasn't angry, so why was I acting angry? I had no idea.

A week or so ago, after another one of those BSOD instances, I wrote a lot about the situation and some of the feelings I was having and how I could not define them... Then I thought about it some more, from a different perspective... Then I talked to a friend, describing some of those feelings and emotions. I came to a conclusion.

It was anger. Plain and simple anger. Pent up, repressed, and very strong... Anger.

I had said many times that I wasn't angry and that my actions didn't come from anger. I firmly believed that there was no anger behind things I said or did. Why would I even think that if what I was feeling was so simple? This is where the mind gets interesting.

I had no name for the emotions I held. I knew logistically what anger was, as a concept, but my understanding or concept of what anger FELT like was completely different than what I was feeling. What I felt did not FEEL like what I knew as "anger" so I spent months denying it, both to myself and others.

This is actually a very weird concept even for me to understand: I did not know what anger felt like. Even reading that seems a bit absurd, but it has happened to me with a few other emotions already. I suppose this is just another that I've figured out.

It should come as no surprise to me though that the areas of the brain that manage every other problem and issue I have dealt with (frontal lobe and amygdala, specifically) also manage emotions and our understanding of them. It just seems so "second nature" to us though sometimes... We feel something; we know the name for that feeling; we do something about it. I never expected that the one strongest feeling that I've had the most difficulty defining would end up being something so simple as just plain old-fashioned anger.

And what was I angry about? Well, it's actually a bit personal between a friend and me, but suffice to say that it's something embarrassingly dumb. Granted, it was something very important to my mental state and the struggles I have gone through, but it's also so very stupid in hindsight.

I'm pleased to say though that since figuring this all out, I haven't even felt this "anger" anymore, and I am no longer frustrated by trying to figure out this weird emotion. Now, in regards to the situation and the results of it all, I simply feel sad... but maybe that too will pass.

At least I know what sadness feels like.