Grant Barrett said
Polyglots sometimes experience faulty language selection, accidentally reaching for words from a language different from the one they’re speaking. Listener Phoebe Liu of Seattle grew up speaking Chinese, then learned English, and studied Japanese in college. She says that physically embodying stereotypical speakers of each language when speaking helps her keep the languages straight.
I like languages. I like them a lot. Even back when I thought I was bad at them (although my mother knew better, but she couldn’t convince me), I thought the whole idea of wrapping my head around a brand new way of encoding my thoughts was fascinating. If I could be perfect at anything, I’ve often dreamt of being mistaken for a native speaker of any language I hear.
But once I started actually speaking languages without translating them in my head first, I found it difficult to switch between them. I can say most of what I want to in both Spanish and French, though I’m not fluent in either. But when I try switching from Spanish to French, even though French is my better language I keep mixing in Spanish words for the first minute or two; I have to think hard to remember the French word. I always figured it was just me, but this sounds like maybe I’m not the only one.
But it isn’t just language. Around the turn of the century I taught myself to use the Dvorak keyboard layout. I’d heard about it for a while, I was curious, and I thought it would be interesting and might be faster. And it is, a little. But now that I use the Dvorak layout without thinking about it, I’m almost useless at QWERTY. I can, by concentrating hard, sit in front of a QWERTY keyboard and use it without looking; but it costs me a second or more for almost every keystroke.
…Except when I’m not trying. Sometimes I’m flying along in Dvorak, pause for a moment to think, start typing again—and realize that the first word has made no sense whatever. Usually when that happens, it isn’t because my fingers were on the wrong position; it’s because for just that one word, I was thinking in QWERTY. Where did that come from? K.pf reev (That would have come out “Very odd.” on a QWERTY keyboard.)
So what’s going on in the brain when this happens? And where else does it show up? Once I was going through a doorway just as I finished a phone conversation with my son; I said goodbye, and instead of closing my cell phone I turned off the light by the door. In my head, I was turning something off—I just turned off the wrong thing. Bruce Cameron and I have talked about our shared tendency to type a similar but wrong word; I tell my fingers “I am not unhappy” and they type “I am now unhappy”. When I was a child, my brother and I were snacking on some leftover steak; I cut myself a piece, he jokingly reached for it and I jokingly pinned his hand to the counter—but there was a steak knife in my hand, and I cut him rather badly. And once, I was driving late at night and blew right through a red light not because I didn’t see it, but because for a few seconds my brain failed to connect “red” with “stop”. Scary. I think of this as my brain calling the wrong subroutines, and probably it can happen to anyone but I suspect I do it more than most.
In music this sort of thing is common. As you may have surmised, I am a trombonist (amateur), playing primarily bass trombone these days, and I sing in the bass section of the community chorus. In both instances the music is written in bass clef, so that’s my strongest musical language. I’m reasonable competent in reading treble clef, which extends fairly logically from the bass clef. The two usually appear together in piano and choral music. Sometimes I’m called upon to play tenor trombone parts. Many modern composers write these in bass clef, so no problem; but in earlier music it was common to put tenor parts into tenor clef, which puts Middle C, which is midway between the bass and treble clef, onto the fourth (from the bottom) line of the staff. In bass clef that line represents F. My experience with tenor (or, Oh My! alto!) clef is limited, and, until I’ve practiced sufficiently, I must painstakingly translate note by note until I get it right. There is always the danger, sometimes the reality, of automatically moving the slide to the position of the bass clef note rather than the tenor.
My wife plays clarinet. Her instrument is pitched in B-flat. Sometimes music is written for a clarinet in A, and if she can’t manage to borrow an A clarinet, she must either transpose the music on paper or mentally shift each note as she plays. Many musicians are very used to this, and very little bothered by it. Hornists transpose on the fly all the time, trumpeters do it a lot. Sometimes, though, they start typing on the wrong keyboard.
As I was writing the above I thought there might be an analogue in music, but I didn’t say anything about it because I couldn’t think of an example. Yet now that you mention clefs, tromboniator, it should have been obvious to me. I had to think for a while to come up with an explanation for my dullness (and such an uncharacteristic dullness, too, heh, heh). But I think I have a good excuse. Many musicians, including you I gather, play more than one instrument. I have played others, myself, but my principal instrument is keyboard. Thus I’m used to music with multiple clefs all the time. As a result, it never occurred to me until you pointed it out that reading just one clef most of the time would tend toward that confusion when confronted with another one.
(It’s interested what channels the brain falls into. I once had a deaf friend in college; she and I and a few others who were learning sign language would hang around between classes, sometimes, and gab. My roommate once asked “so does she think in sounds, or in signs?”. It sounded like a dumb question, to me; how could one think in signs? But I asked her anyway, and she answered offhandedly that she thought in signs. “In fact,”, she added, “sometimes when I’m reading and I come across a word I don’t immediately recognize, I think ‘what is that?’ and spell it to myself [finger-spell it, of course]; I recognize the feel of it in my fingers, say ‘oh, yes, of course’, and go on reading”. Not a dumb question at all, as it turned out.)
Bob Bridges said
she answered offhandedly that she thought in signs. “In fact,”, she added, “sometimes when I’m reading and I come across a word I don’t immediately recognize, I think ‘what is that?’ and spell it to myself [finger-spell it, of course]
Chinese-speakers often “draw” a character into the palm of one hand with the fingertip of the other before trying to look it up in a dictionary. The attempt there is to count the number of strokes, since that’s how Chinese dictionaries are organized.
Nobody remembers phone numbers these days. You click to return a call, or click on Joe’s name. God help you if your battery is dead.
But I remember a time when I had to call someone and the only thing available was a dial phone. My fingers knew the number, not my brain. i punched the number onto plain surface, and an observer figured out what the phone number was. I seem to be growing more and more pathetic all the time.
I may have mentioned it before, but I never understood what was meant in the story of Sauron: He made a ring and poured a lot of himself into it, and it made him both more powerful and more vulnerable. I understood the vulnerability part, because if the ring is destroyed after you put a lot of yourself into it then that part of your power is destroyed with it. But what can be meant by putting a lot of yourself into something and it makes you more powerful?
Then I thought of my PC. Now that I’ve got an Android phone, even more. And if I lose it, I’m worse off than if I had never had it.
I was describing this site to a fellow logophile, and I realized I left out another fine example.
I use ciphers a lot. Sometimes I solve them in the Sunday papers, and occasionally I have to design or use them in computer programs, but mostly they’re for my password file. (If you enjoy encryption, let me know and we’ll get into this more deeply; it’s a sort of hobby of mine.) And I have any number of ciphers that I can retrieve if necessary, for secret-keeping purposes, but only two or three that I keep in my head for normal everyday use.
When I say I keep them in my head, I mean that if I want to encipher “elephant”, I can pretty easily turn that into “ryrcunag” without extra brow-furrowing and scratching on paper; I don’t have to calculate or reach, I just know by rote that ‘e’ enciphers to ‘r’. (I don’t actually use ROT-13 as one of my ciphers; this is just an example.) And that works very well; when I’m logging on to AWWW, I can remember that the password is “password” and type “cnffjbeq” with very little effort.
The problem arises when I try to enter a password that for some reason isn’t enciphered. On that occasion, typing in “cryptopass” can be very difficult; my brain knows I’m doing a password and keeps trying to substitute ‘p’ for ‘c’ and so on. I frequently type it in wrong as a consequence. I haven’t yet locked myself out of an account doing that, but it’s been close.
You’d think it would be equally difficult switching from one cipher to another, or at least I would think so; but so far that hasn’t been the case, or not much.
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