My Native Language
My native language isn’t English.
The problem is, I don’t know what language my native language actually is.
I was raised in a household where Finnish was spoken, but I never learned more than a few words, so I’m reasonably certain my native language isn’t Finnish. I had French in school and Greek in college, and I got so I could think and dream in those languages, but my skills with each language is very rusty and I don’t think I could think in either language even if I wanted to.
Until fairly recently I didn’t realize that my native language wasn’t English. I was in a critique group with other writers, and I criticized another writer on the grounds that his characters always thought in perfect grammatical English sentences, whereas of course people didn’t actually do that. He sort of stared at me in surprise, as he always thought in perfect grammatical English sentences. So did everyone else in the group, apparently.
It was then that I realized that whatever language my brain is using, it isn’t English.
After that I began paying more attention to the way my brain actually works. When I think, I’m not using a structured, grammatical language, it’s more like I’m laying out a series of Tarot cards. Each card is a symbol, or series of symbols, that stands for a group of concepts or associations. The shape of the array of cards implies a structure and a conclusion. My mind skips from one card to the other without bothering to fill in the grammar that connects them, like a mountain goat bounding from peak to peak without traversing the valleys in between.
I can translate this into English, but it takes a certain amount of effort. I have to add the grammar and explain what the symbols mean. Sometimes my mind gets well ahead of the translation and I stumble to a halt, looking for a word or phrase that got lost. Sometimes I can backtrack and pick up the translation where it stopped, and sometimes I end up totally lost, with people staring at me wondering what the hell I was trying to say.
It’s not bad enough that I have associations in my mind for, say, “Pamela Anderson,” I have this whole complex symbol-set in my mind for Pamela Anderson and it’s tangled up with a whole bunch of other symbol-sets and it probably takes up a lot more space in my brain than I want it to.
This explains why I’m a much better writer than a speaker— with writing, I can take time to polish the translation.
When I talk, what you hear is, unfortunately, what you get.