Think, Think, Think…§

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: February 6, 2006; revised: August 15, 2017; readers in past month: 508

Winnie the Pooh Thinking

Learning Italian has been frustrating to me. Not that there’s anything particularly difficult about the language, but learning a new language is a chore. People tell me in their attempt at wisdom, that I must learn to think in Italian. That bit of information is useless to me. I understand that if I consider the words that I want to say in English first and then spend time translating them into Italian in my head before speaking, there is a delay and the result is not natural. I also realize that if I am to say a sentence composed of more than seven words, it’s unlikely that I can juggle all seven words in my head before beginning to speak. The mind is not good at hanging onto bits of information in that way. It can deploy thousands of words on end, but not bounce a few of them in the mind like disassociated hot potatoes. So, yes, the processing of language has to go on within, but at a deeper level.

It occurs to me as I’m learning Italian, that I don’t think in English even. I suspect that we don’t think in any language actually. Words are like pointing verbally. When I don’t know how to say what I want in Italian, I just point to it and say, questo. Before there was language, in our cave dwelling days, did we not think? Or did we sit around grunting pointlessly awaiting the dawn of language? I’m starting to realize that in my mind, when I speak English words, I am not thinking in English, but speaking to myself in English — a reflexive action. For example, when I talk to a beautiful woman and she says to me, — How do I look? — , I can assure you that I am thinking far more that I say in response to her or even to myself in my mind. There aren’t enough words or time to present all of my thoughts even to myself that quickly. Life presents us with too much data to process and translate into any language, even our native language and even internally.

So, the trick is not to think in English or Italian, but to have both languages available as a set of tools for communicating information to myself, as well as others. I can draw upon my English methods or my Italian methods to say, beautiful or bella. When I went to Frankfurt, Germany in November, when I landed in the airport, I was desperate to find a bathroom. I walked up to an airport worker and without thinking said, Wo ist die toiletten, bitte? I didn’t have to give that a split second of thought and I didn’t hear the words in my head first either. I did it naturally and reflexively.

To achieve fluency, I suspect that familiarity, repetition, exposure, and taking chances are all required. But it’s not a matter of trying to squelch the thoughts in one’s head. That would tend to lock the brain, grind the gears. Instead, it’s just thinking and having other language options. Another example is when I speak to people in English, if they are not native English speakers, my language changes. If they are Italians, I tend to choose words that are either simple or words that have cognate equivalents in Italian. It’s better to say that something is interesting since the Italian equivalent is interesante, rather than use a word like neat. It’s more likely the Italian who knows English will know what I mean. If I am speaking with someone from the U.S. of lesser education, my vocabulary and language naturally adjusts for them. If I want to say that I like something, I don’t think to myself that it’s marvelous and then translate that to great in my head and then say great. I just say it’s great. I also rachet down my sentences from more complex ones to ones more straightforward. Again, I’m not thinking in a less educated manner in my head, but rather speaking in simpler terms so as to be able to communicate effectively with the other person. The same thing occurs when speaking to children or babies, but more so. Sure, I may muse in my mind for a moment or two in the language and at the level in which I feel most comfortable, but when it comes to communicating, I must deploy the language available to both my listener and myself.