20 November 2012

Is language subconscious?

Is language subconscious?  It's a question I hadn't given much thought to -- I'd always pretty much taken it for granted that it was.

Well anyway, apparently it's been a pretty contentious topic in linguistics and psychology for a while now, but a group of scientists from Hebrew University have found compelling evidence that it is, indeed, subconscious.  (And not only "language" language, but even symbolic mathematical language to an extent).

Discussing this elsewhere called to mind a time when I was working on learning Scottish Gaelic with the aid of a piece of software.  It flashed the word "eye" up on the screen, and I couldn't translate it.  I had a complete block.  I knew the word.  I knew I knew the word.  But it wouldn't come.

It felt to me like my brain didn't believe it was "eye", and that it wasn't sure it wasn't "I", or "aye" (or possibly even "ay").

The way I see it, a conscious language skill should have allowed me to override this confusion through conscious attention to the written form, which is (in theory) unambiguous.  The fact that I couldn't force my way through to the correct meaning suggested that language is something you have less conscious control over than you think....

But fair enough, I've always felt that contextless words are very much a first step, and that for the most part you should be practising in context.  This experience kind of confirmed it for me.

But the publishing of the findings came at the perfect time for me, having just written the draft of my last blog post about translation, and the way I automatically translated frames of reference (eg using the first person when the software says "you are..." etc), because that's the source of my dilemma:

Translation is effective precisely because native language is understood subconsciously.  You understand and internalise the meaning effortlessly.  This means you know exactly what message you want to express in the target language.  There is no other means for a teacher, book or software package to indicate so clearly to a learner what do say.  Also, there is no other means to ensure that the teacher knows exactly what the student is trying to say (I've heard many teachers "correct" students errors by leading them to say something that is valid in the target language, but completely different in meaning to what they intended to say).

Translation is ineffective if and whenever the native language is not understood subconsciously.  Too many courses present contrived, meaningless examples.  Perhaps these aren't quite as nonsensical as the examples the researchers from Hebrew University used, but as long as they are unnatural, they will interfere with subconscious processing, leaving the learner to process them consciously -- it's not "translation" that's the real problem here, it's "word juggling".

And translation's weak spot is the one I mentioned in my last blog post: our subconscious deals with relative references automatically.  When you say the word "I" to me, I understand the concept of you, the person speaking.  So dealing with first and second person pronouns is a perilous task.  In order to do it correctly, the student has to stop using their subconscious processing, and language starts to become a conscious process... which is when translation stops working as a language learning technique.

This leads me to a conclusion that I really didn't expect, and that I'm not yet fully convinced of:
the optimal mixture of native-language instruction and target-language instruction in the classroom isn't a simple function of how advanced the students are, it goes right down to the level of "I" vs "he".


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