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.)

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