Wednesday, March 9, 2011

English Is Not My First Langauge

I was born in America and attended school in a Midwest farming community.  My parents and their parents and on and so forth for generations were born in the United States.  My genetic makeup includes ancestors from England, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, and two of my grandmas from way back were American Indians from different tribes.  Professions and class structures of my ancestors are as varied as a mayor, an indentured servant, and a family of pioneers that battled with Native Americans over land in Pennsylvania.

I am about as red-blooded American as you can get.  And I am Yankee to boot.  But English is not my first language.

I have to translate every word and sound that comes into my ears into my native tongue and re-translate to give you an answer in English.  And I didn't even know I was doing it, or better yet, that everyone else didn't do it, until I was in my 30's.

I am a visual learner.  That means I think in Pictures.  Every word I hear has an associated image.  So every time a word goes into my ear, I have to translate it into my native tongue, Pictures.  For me to relay a word back to you, I have to form an image, find its matching English word, and then speak.

Sometime I can do this quickly without a lot of conscious thought, because some words and phrases are used so often in English.  But when I am tired or uncomfortable, such as in a room full of people, the translation slows to a crawl and I find it so much easier to remain silent.  Math is difficult because my images often do not apply to a math setting.  Analyzing literature is an agony of words, words, words without a lot of meaning (aka pictures).  Let's not even discuss spelling and the idiosyncrasies of the English language.

Instead, I have developed my own arsenal of skills. 

I can manipulate images in my head and go back to just about anywhere I have ever visited once, from only memory.  Drawing blueprints from any angle is easy and I can pack a car more efficiently than anyone else in the house.  I can often eyeball a measurement, whether for building or cooking, and be dead on.

My husband, however, is a native English speaker.  Frustration used to reign supreme in our house whenever we would work on a project together.  How could he not see what I meant!  And one day, I discovered that was the problem.  He really could not see what I meant.

The day I discovered English was not my native language was a wonderful day.  It was the day I started to really understand who I was.

Today, my husband and I work well together.  I draw the pictures he talks about, and we work at it till Pictures and English are precisely aligned.  He now understands my need to say things a variety of ways until my English matches his English, and he is more than patient in repeating something until I have fully translated it.  I understand why he cannot always understand my English and why illustrations are so invaluable in our communications.  He is no longer self-conscious about delving into writing Pictures for me and doesn't tune me out when I need to talk a problem out in English.

Dragonette is an amazing hybrid and is a native speaker of English and Pictures although some subjects go over better in one language than another.  Flower is definitely a native Picture speaker, so I have worked hard to help her become a nearly native speaker of English too, so she doesn't repeat the learning curve her mother had to endure.

I spent so many years thinking there was something wrong with me because I could not think on my feet, but I realize now that I was trying to do the wrong kind of thinking on my feet.  If only I had know that Pictures, not English, was my first language, I could have saved myself a lot of heartbreak and dents to my self-esteem.

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