RE: Thinking in a foreign language

From: Elina Lampert-Shepel (
Date: Fri May 02 2003 - 12:19:46 PDT

Hi Ana et al, Sorry for my delayed answer to your e-mail. I believe you raised some very important issues. So, I am going to answer them in your order..
 Ana Marjanovic-Shane <> wrote:Dear Elina and all, First I want to address the "Other Language"= "Other self" concept. I heard from my father that my grandfather used to say (in Serbo-Croatian) something equivalent to: "The number of languages you speak is the number of people you are worth". This always intrigued me and was one of the reasons I started to look for answers in theories like Vygotsky's, and also Whorf's. This saying in Russian was interpreted as ,"The number of languages you speak equals the number of lives you live". I believe it is related to the idea of various cultural selves we are able to construct with different languages we speak. How are cultural meanings grasped ? created? performed? I am very interested in the curriculum you developed, Elina, to allow children to construct Other Selves an a different culture. Could you share more about your curriculum??I would like to know more about the various aspects of thinking/being/!
 communicating/feeling/self-directing that can be changed or learned for the first time with the foreign language. Are there functional equivalents? Is everything expressible in every language but sometimes with different devices? Are there "affordances" that are given just in one language/culture but not in another? Is it possible to transplant them from one language/culture into another? I know that wonderful translations are possible (although they might be rare). For instance, the translation of Ogden Nash's poetry into Serbo-Croatian is just perfect. Or Alice in Wonderland... So are various translations of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Tagora, Borges, Lorca, Haiku poetry, etc... You raise some important questions, Ana. The curriculum materials were unfortunately lost during my immigration, but principles of curriculum design are still in my head and in Bahtin's writings...:-) The basic idea was to study EFL by building what Bahtin called subjectivity in a speech activity.!
  We tried to create different sociocultural situations, which required
 different speech genres to be used. Instead of going from new words as elements, or grammar structures, we were learning various social roles and language neccesary to mediate the actions in the activities. I was teaching 6 year old children at that point and for them role play was a well developed leading activity, so for some as always partially mystical reasons they started speaking English in emotionally expressive language forms ( not always correct grammar, though). Anyway, it is a long story...We can discuss it. Translations is an important and separate topic for discussion. What is expressed when translated? Do we have the same means in every language? Well, I believe meanings can definitely be negotiated...Sometimes strange things happen when people read books in translation. I am not even mentioning the fact that I was introduced to a different Vygotsky, when I read it in English. I do not claim them being wrong or incomplete, but just different...I am constantly !
 thinking what were those factors that influenced the development of CHAT ideas in anthropology, psychology and linguistics in US rather than in education when in Russia they were initially applied to education and developmental psychology? The history of the development of the theoretical framework can be influenced by the translation and language tools used to mediate the ideas in a different culture. While translating American poetry of imagism into Russian, I discovered that sometimes it was impossibly difficult to translate abrupt rhythmic English structures into flowing stream of Russian ones. I believe we read different Shakespeare in translations. I learnt that when I tried to quote Hamlet in England and realized that the meaning I got that time from Boris Pasternak's translation was quite different. The metaphorical structure and philosophical nature of Shakesperean tragedy was somehow more tangible for Russian readers. As Zukovskiy once said, " The translator of p!
 rose is a slave, but the translator of poetry is a competitor." The qu
estion for me is what we translate when we translate cultural texts. I have the same questions, Elina. What is transformed in higher mental functions when we learn another language? And more specific: how does it differ with different combinations of languages: how different is it learning a foreign language that is similar, culturally close to the "mother tongue" or learning a foreign language that is different and distant from L1. Second: what are the differences in learning another language in the childhood and as an adult? Obviously, there are many aspects that can be addressed. I am not very familiar with the existing literature on bilingualism and I don't know if there are any CHAT approaches. (But, I just found a promising website: -- at least it looks like a place to start). I agree, it is a fascinationg issue to explore. I am concerned with the methodology of research, though. Thanks for the reference... The issue of the devel!
 opment of voluntary behavior and second language learning is probably the least explored one. Your experiences are very interesting. I would like to know more about them. My personal experiences were always more along the lines that it is harder for me to translate from my visual representations to any language than from a language to another language... Also, Whenever translating my articles from one to another language, I had to rewrite them - and often I got new ideas and had to essentially rewrite both versions. Visual images, graphic representations, sign languages, gestures...dialectical interplay of signifier/signified. I had the same experience with writing articles. This is a fascinating topic Ana Ana Marjanovic-Shane1-267-334-2905(m)1-215-843-2909(h) -----Original Message-----
From: Elina Lampert-Shepel []
Sent: Tuesday, April 29, 2003 3:20 PM
Subject: RE: Thinking in a foreign language

Dear all,
I am also very interested in "thinking" in different languages...As a multilingual person ( Russian, Ukrainian, English, Latin, little French...) I believe that language and cultural literacy are in dialectical relationship, being mediators to each other. I few issues concerning thinking in different languages from my experiences:


   As a teacher of EFL, at some point of my career, I developed curriculum for 6-7- year -olds based on Bakhtinian ideas of speech genres. I noticed that social roles performed by children allowed them to construct their OTHER SELVES in a different culture. So the interplay speech genres-social roles created a totally different context of learning EFL as a socio-cultural medium embedded into human experience.
   Do our thoughts have cultural origins? I remember as I was interpreting simultaneously to our British colleagues Boris Elkonins presentation  mission impossible from the point of view of my Russian colleaguesJ Vasiliy Davydov observing the situation asked me what I was telling to British professors : Elina, what are you telling them???? In fact, they somehow understood what Boris was saying and started a! sking him questions, while our bewildered Russian friends were still struggling with making sense of it. Obviously, it can be different interpretations of why it happened. But I will take risks to add some complexity to the situation. When I analyzed the situation, I realized that Boris was using Florenskiy- Losevs naming-renaming pattern of thinking. Maybe the naming-renaming dynamics was simplified in the process of translation; maybe this pattern of thinking was acceptable for English colleagues. But still, how are higher psychological functions transformed i!
 n the process of learning another language and adding another system of meanings? Does it create a qualitative shift in our imagination, analysis, theoretical thinking, etc.?
   I believe there is another interesting domain where second language acquisition is related to what Vygotsky called voluntary behavior. I noticed that now I am consciously choosing English vs.Russian in different situations. When the idea is just emerging, there is twilight of thought; Russian is more helpful for me, because it is vague. It allows wandering in the jungles of the senses without transforming them into meanings (I am using Leontievs sense vs. meaning). However, when I have to articulate or communicate the idea, English is much more helpful. I believe that the situation when you can consciously choose mediational means of your thinking ( language in my example) is one of the possible examples of voluntary behavior. Therefore, there is a value in teaching language as a mediational means.


What do you think?


Thanks to all of you who made me think about these language experiences



Ana Marjanovic-Shane <> wrote:Dear Vera, Huong, Mike, I am also very interested in the issue of "thinking" in a language (foreign or native, L2/L1). I think we all have some experiences but it is hard to catch them. And there is a problem of research, too. Maybe we will have time to talk about it at AERA, Vera. Mike,It may have been a clash of C1 and C2 (as in Culture) -- You meant a praise, and I took it as... something else. But thanks for clarifying... Ana -------------------------------------------Ana Marjanovic-Shane1-267-334-2905(m)1-215-843-2909(h) -----Original Message-----
From: Vera John-Steiner []
Sent: Sunday, April 20, 2003 7:44 PM
Subject: Re: Thinking in a foreign language

Dear Huong, Ana and MikeMy point was that we don't really "think" in a foreign language; we use L1 or L2 subvocally, at times, which we equate with thinking in that language.We think in condensed meanings which we expand into fully formed utterances in a particular situation. As Ana's example about sneezing illustrated-she is aware that one is supposed to say something after a person sneezes. What she actually says is a realized meaning in a particular situation. Language and thought are not identical, it iscommunicative intent and meanings that are realized in words. Once a semantic system is expanded with new shades of meaning as a result of learning a new language, that system becomes more complex nuanced, etc. But, I believe that in fluent speakers of two or more languages the meaning system is unified while the production system is what is more and more differentiated. These thoughts may not communicate well I will have to get off the conversation for a while becau!
 se of AERA.Thanks for raising the topic, Vera ----- Original Message ----- From: Ana Marjanovic-Shane To: Sent: Sunday, April 20, 2003 12:51 PMSubject: RE: Thinking in a foreign language
Hi Mike, Huong, Vera,

These are difficult topics, for a letter format, but I'll try to add some of my views: both as a "foreign" languages speaker and as someone who studies language and construction and creation of meaning.
First I somewhat agree with Mike that a better way to learn L2 is through immersion in a meaningful, goal oriented activity, face-to-face. This is probably true for every L2 learner. But some will also benefit from the written materials and explicit teaching of grammar and vocabulary. It is also possible to learn just the written language and be able to read better than to speak. (A friend of mine who is deaf can read English -- as a foreign language -- but cannot speak it; she speaks Serbo-Croatian and "hears" it through lip-reading as a native speaker)
As a foreign language student I have been exposed to many different methods:
   I learned several foreign languages in school from textbooks: they were usually organized so that each chapter (lecture) contained a simple event based short story with a lot of dialogues; then a vocabulary list of new words, then new grammar rules, and a little test at the end.
   I learned in an audio-visual lab, where instead of written lectures, we viewed short films, then played out the same situations through casting ourselves and trying to repeat the dialogue in a reenactment of the same event; and finally getting all in a text form to take home and practice. There were very little grammar drills or other "meta" language exercises.
   I learned through total immersion in a foreign language country with and without structured coaching.
   Finally I watched my children learn foreign languages at different age levels, and through different methods.
As a student, I know that nothing can replace the total immersion in the L2 culture and communication. But I also know that for some people, learning can be speeded up when supplemented with appropriate structured coaching using written materials. However, that does not depend only on age and education of the L2 student but also on many other things. Some people like to get a grammar rule and some feel intimidated by grammar. Some people are afraid to use L2 in live situations, for a long time, because they feel embarrassed to be so "ignorant, and "deficient" -- they can "concentrate" better on written materials and reading... Other people don't mind making mistakes as long as they get their meaning across. As a researcher of language development I would try to conceptualize learning L2 in the following ways: L2 skills range from alternative ways to do the same as in L1, (like knowing synonyms in your first language) to completely new skills and relationships which do not ex!
 ist in L1. Learning a foreign language is a combination of these two types of learning. These cover not just the vocabulary, but also grammar and pragmatic rules (rules of appropriate use in actual situations). Language, according to Vygotsky, originated as a communicative device, but at some point in development (both individual and species development), started to play a major role in shaping cognition. What does that mean? As a communicative device, language is a means of creating relationships between co-locutors and the topic they communicate about. Every utterance is an action in which a speaker does something to the listener(s) r! egarding some topic. These three: speaker, listener(s) and the topic, are three functional elements of every meaning. In every culture, the relationships between the three elements become coded and rule governed specific to that culture. Because of that, once language starts playing a cognitive function, cognition (understanding the world !
 around us) becomes culturally mediated by these three intertwined elem
ents of every meaning. Learning the first language means at the same time developing a specific, culturally dependent cognitive skills. These include not just the creation of a very developed conceptual system, but also a very developed and built in cultural norms and values and ways to create relationships.Learning L2, obviously means on one hand learning new codes for the existing conceptual/cultural system, but, on the other hand, it also means learning new concepts and cultural norms. The difference between L1 and L2 will probably determine how the types of leaning that will occur more often and be more important in the beginning.For instance: I think that the pragmatic rules of language are very important: what relationships and actions are appropriate at what time, for which situations and between which participants. They will determine the "entry point" into the foreign language and they would be the "tacit" boundary rules at every point of learning. Especially the !
 differences in pragmatic rules between L1 and L2. Becoming a fluent speaker of a foreign language is as much becoming a member of the "foreign" culture as it is developing certain conceptual/cultural cognitive tools. We will probably tend to use those tool which do the task better, or in case of "synonyms" those that are more in use in the "current" culture we inhabit. And sometimes, a gesture is more in uttering something than in what exactly is being uttered. Here is a personal example: For a long time, I felt totally inadequate when trying to say something to a person who had just sneezed. I would just freeze. I could never remember which utterance to use from the four I could use: "god bless you", "tzum gesund", "gesundheit", "nazdravlje". Until one day I realized that the situation is so structured (here in the USA) that it really does not matter which actual words I use -- When someone sneezes, and then someone else exclaims something, everyone immediately understa!
 nds the meaning regardless of their particular language and culture. S
o now I just utter the one that comes first in my L1 -- "nazdravlje". I would call this a total situational synonym between several languages/cultures.
But there are many more situations when the part that is synonymous between L1 and L2 is smaller and smaller and the differences between the languages/cultures are greater and greater. In all those situations, there are many facets or aspects that a learner of a foreign language has to grasp. And that takes time and engagement in the meaningful activities both face-to-face and through all kinds of written and other materials. Finally, one of the media that is hugely underrepresented in the foreign language teaching and learning is play. Play is a "natural" mode for children's learning, a true Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Play is also one of the main places where children learn a foreign language. Observing my children I became aware that it was their play that FIRST became spoken in a foreign language -- long before they started using L2 with the same proficiency in "real" activities. For instance, when we came to the USA, my older son was 5 and a very prolific speak!
 er of his L1 (Serbo-Croatian). On the first day we came, there was a party we went to, with a lot of children. He asked me how to say "freeze" in English, and the next two hours he spent playing "Freeze tag" with the rest of the children and learning to say other things about this play, and everything else, in English. The point is: he could organize the whole play just with the knowledge of one word. This was a great natural entry into the new language/culture. The closest I came to using play in learning a foreign language were those "audio-visual" labs when we re-enacted a short situations observed in a movie. Play is a great way of learning even for adults, and I think that it is grossly underrated as mode of learning language. What do you think? (as Eugene would say) Ana

-----Original Message-----
From: Mike Cole []
Sent: Saturday, April 19, 2003 6:21 PM
Subject: Re: Thinking in a foreign language

Huong-- Seems like an empirical question about how to arrange for
L2 learning in an optimal way. You think that reading will engender
more and different kinds of talk and have a positive effect? Could
be, depending upon lots of factors. My guess is that reading textbooks
about a language as less efficacious than being immersed in face to
face, goal-oriented, joint activty were the oral mode is dominant.

Perhaps I am wrong.

Lets see if others have any opinion on the issue.

I have on my table a violin ! string. It is free. I twist one end of
it and it responds. It is free. But it is not free to do what a
violin string is supposed to do - to produce music. So I take it,
fix it in my violin and tighten it until it is taut. Only then it
is free to be a violin string.
Sir Rabindranath Tagore.

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I have on my table a violin string. It is free. I twist one end of
it and it responds. It is free. But it is not free to do what a
violin string is supposed to do - to produce music. So I take it,
fix it in my violin and tighten it until it is taut. Only then it
is free to be a violin string.
               Sir Rabindranath Tagore.

Do you Yahoo!?
The New Yahoo! Search - Faster. Easier. Bingo.

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