Like many people these days, I’m bilingual. I spent a large portion of my life living in a foreign country where my first language was not spoken. Also like many people, my first few weeks living in a culture that uses different structures of audible communication (not just the language) were some of the most stressful, terrifying weeks of my life.
I arrived in Venezuela where most people do; the airport. I’d taken a rudimentary crash course in Spanish before arriving, and felt reasonably confident that language would not be a challenge.
And then I stepped off of the plane.
Eventually, I learned to speak the language; it was either that, or starve to death. Yet the difficulties and challenges that presented themselves, and the gradual transition to understanding and comprehension formed a recognizable path that is traceable through the applied used of cognitive psychology.
First, a language is defined (for our purposes) by Penn State as “a system of communication using sounds or symbols that enables us to express our feeling, thoughts, ideas and experiences” (PSU, 2015). It’s necessary to note that not all of these things need language to communicate, at least not in the most explicit sense; hand gestures, facial expressions, and even the ‘point and grunt’ of the foreign tourist in a kitschy souvenir shop are all forms of communication that rest outside of this boundary. That being noted, language itself is much more than simply communication.
When thinking back on my experiences as I struggled to learn a language that sounded nothing like my Spanish teacher’s lessons, wondering how I would ever survive or make friends, the first thing that I now realize I latched onto were phonemes and morphemes, which constitute (respectively) the different sounds in a language, and the smallest sounds that carry meaning (PSU, 2015).
An advantage that I had going in was the fact that the phonemes in Spanish are similar to those found in English, to wit, the languages are similarly structured in this particular category. Yet they are not identical, and it wasn’t until my mind was able to hear the difference between the actual sounds being made that comprehension ever began to show itself as a possibility. On the other hand, while the morphemes are similar on paper, in speech, they are sometimes subtly different and sometimes altogether confusing. A good example of this dichotomy between languages is the ‘-s’ at the end of many words in both languages that indicates plurality. In Venezuelan Spanish, it is incredibly rare that the above morpheme is actually heard. Instead, the word takes on a subtle variation of stress, without the ‘-s’ sound ever actually being intoned. It is reasonable to infer that for a new learner of a language, such as myself as a teenager, there is at least a portion of the learning process that is facilitated by phoneme restoration, or the filling in of gaps in received sounds with the expected signals, or, in this case, the filling in of sounds that aren’t there through either context or a very slight or nonexistent change in the pronunciation of certain words (PSU, 2015). This is a fantastic example of top-down processing.
Once that challenge had been surpassed, or at least met with a moderate amount of success, sentence structure was on the docket. The ambiguity of sentence structure is a challenge in any language, as Penn State’s lesson on the subject in Psychology 256 proves, but converting the structure from one of conscious processing to automatic processing requires even more exposure and practice to master. Every language structures its sentences differently; syntax being defined as the way in which proper sentences are structure, it is critical to a language learner that they expose themselves to the syntax until it becomes natural, which follows on with Grice’s maxims of conversation as cited in the lesson on language in Penn State’s Introduction to Cognitive Psychology class (PSU, 2015). In this way, the training becomes more a form of unconscious priming (PSU, 2015), and less a matter of hearing a sentence and translating.
Once sentence structure and sounds that have meaning were understood, it became a matter of avoiding the final sentence of the former paragraph. Most people attempting to learn a language attempt to hear the input and consciously convert it to the language that they speak naturally in their minds; this makes for a great deal of time spent literally lost in translation. Just and Carpenter make a case for this in their 1987 study that focused on the amount of time a reader’s eyes would spend looking at words and assigning them meaning. In their study, larger words (or less common ones) would typically take longer to comprehend than common words like ‘on’ or ‘if’ (Just and Carpenter, 1987). Given this fact, it is fair to say that when a reader attempts to read (or understand in spoken form) a word or sentence from a language that they are unfamiliar with, even if they know the vocabulary, the processing time will be greater, and less effective.
Eventually, the four conversational maxims Grice came up with began to make sense on their own, just as the phonemes, morphemes, sentence structures, and comprehension did. I found myself thinking in Spanish sentence structure. When talking with my friends back in the US, I would often break the maxims as held by standard English, using Spanish structuring and even some morphemes without realizing it. Eventually I got to the point where I could pass in Venezuela as a Venezolano, despite my obvious ‘gringo’ features. I’ve ruminated for most of my adult life on the process involved, and only after learning about the cognitive aspect of language has it ever made any sense. Which is the great thing about cognitive psychology as a subject of study; obscure concepts and complex transitions can all be rationally (if not easily) explained.
Penn State University. (2015). Introduction to Cognitive Psychology, Lesson 11: Language. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/fa15/psych256/002/content/12_lesson/01_page.html
Just, M. A., & Carpenter, P. A. (1987). The psychology of reading and language comprehension. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.