Language and the brain

I’ve been thinking about the way the brain processes language, admittedly in a rather unscientific way, prompted by my own experience of interpreting and reading several articles on the Internet. While reading one of my favourite blogs, The Dilbert blog, written by Scott Adams, I learnt about a condition called Spasmodic Dysphonia, which led Adams to lose his voice 18 months ago. The problem is completely context-specific, for example he could carry on talking in conferences in front of large audiences but was unable to express himself at home. It is obviously extremely debilitating, but Scott never lost hope of one day recovering his speech, and last week, he found a cure: repeating a nursery rhyme again and again, which seemed to "remap his brain". His entry about how he found a solution to his problem is really inspirational. This also reminded me of a condition known as Foreign Accent Syndrome, which causes some people to start speaking in a foreign accent after a stroke.
For my part, whenever I am interpreting, I always marvel at how my brain seems to be able to do two completely, and seemingly competing, activities at the same time: think about a sentence in English while actually saying it in French. It really feels like having two brains, and it puzzles me no end. Here is an example of what can happen:
I was interpreting in a brewery a couple of weeks ago (yes, it was as fun as it sounds), and the person who was showing us around said: "The reason why this type of beer is produced in Kent is that, among other things, this region is excellent for growing barley." So I started conveying this to the French visitors, and while one half of my brain was busy with the converting/talking process (Ce type de bière est produit dans le Kent car etc.), this is what was going on in the other half:
Thankfully, both parts of my brain came together exactly when needed, right at the end of the sentence. I’ve tried to write down what happened to make it clearer: red and blue for either side of the brain, purple when it all came together exactly at the right time:
"Ce type BARLEYBARLEYBARLEYBARLEY de bière BARLEYBARLEYBARLEYBARLEY est produit I’VE FORGOTTEN WHAT BARLEY IS IN FRENCH dans le Kent pour plusieurs raisons BARLEYBARLEYBARLEYBARLEY et en particulier parce que cette région OH NO WHAT’S BARLEY IN FRENCH se prête très bien AAAAAAAAAAARGH à la culture de l’orge."

This is what was happening absolutely simultaneously. While I’m talking, seemingly very calm, conveying information to some very interested people, a part of my brain is seized by panic and is actually verbalising the process of searching for the right word.
How is this possible? What actually goes on in an interpreter’s brain? Does anyone know if "The Idiot’s guide to the brain and language" has been written? I’d love to learn more about how the brain processes language and if anyone has had any interesting experiences in this area.

By |2016-10-18T15:50:14+00:00October 30th, 2006|Interpreting|21 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Christina November 1, 2006 at 8:06 pm

    I completely know what you mean. I’m not sure exactly how I found your site. I’m a Spanish Medical Interpreter in the USA, and I am trying to learn French. I often wonder at how my brain can do the things it does. The same thing as your barley simultaneous conversation happens to me all the time, although mine usually has to do with some difficult medical term. The most amazing thing recently was with a patient in labor. The baby was in trouble and it took almost 6 min (without oxygen) to get her out. In that 5 1/2 min I listened in English to several doctors and nurses yelling instructions, interpreted them in Spanish to the patient, and all the while I was looking at the poor dad in the corner and wondering how in the world I was going to interpret the news to him if things didn’t turn out okay. Then there were another few minutes when the baby was in the next room being worked on and I was still interpreting for the mom, and in the other part of my brain I was counting how much time had gone by before the baby cried. Everything turned out fine and the baby is great. Sorry about the loooong comment, but I totally understand the wonder of how all of those things can happen at one time.

  2. Paty November 6, 2006 at 1:18 am

    You nailed it down! I’m a Spanish interpreter and that exact same thing happens to me. Only every once in a while, I reach the end of the sentence and the word doesn’t come. Sometimes I even try to make the sentence longer or I’ll speak more slowly to give myself more time. Even so, there are times when the dictionary must come out. I absolutely hate that! Another thing I do is look up the word on my Palm while still interpreting. I can’t explain how I’m able to do that. I just can. It’s weird.

  3. Marieke November 7, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    Very familiar scenario. This process also happens whilst, for example, I am singing on stage. I will be singing, playing guitar and panicking about the lyrics of the next verse at the same time and then I get to the verse and it just comes out of my mouth…..
    I have always wondered how the brain works its way around a foreign language.
    People ask me if I think in Dutch and then translate to English as I speak. I used to always say no. But I think the answer is actually yes but the process is so fast that you just don’t notice it.
    I can see no other explanation for the following scenario:
    During a conversation, I am speaking a sentence in English and suddenly, without warning, I hit a word that I do not know in English and…I just stop talking because the word is on the tip of my tongue in DUTCH (my native language) but to get to the English word, I have to stop and think or admit I do not know it and then reconstruct my sentence to create a grammatically correct sentence with a synonym, or a different sentence to say the same thing but without having to use that exact word that I do not know.
    To me this indicates that my brain actually does a translation of some sort before I speak the sentence.
    Really weird and endlessly fascinating.

  4. céline November 8, 2006 at 8:10 am

    I think that with your singing example, you’re describing a slightly different process, which could be described as multitasking. The brain is incredibly adept at doing several things at the same time: anyone can talk on the phone while reading an email or wondering what they should have for lunch.
    What fascinates me more with language is this seemingly incredibly neat divide between two languages in the same “space”. I have a Very Intelligent Friend, who works in a lab with brains and everything, who’s promised me to look into it, so I can’t wait to see what she can find.
    On the issue of translation and speaking a foreign language, I remember getting extremely frustrated at teachers at school exhorting me to “not think in French when I try and speak English”. I used to find it impossible. Now I can honestly say that there is not translation at all involved when I speak English. I think English, and speak English. French doesn’t come into it. If I forget a word, I’ll automatically try and find another one in English, or I’ll paraphrase what I want to say in English. I’m prepared to bet that the same would happen to you after years in an English-speaking environment.

  5. Marieke November 8, 2006 at 5:06 pm

    I see your point about multi tasking.
    However, with regards to translating things, I am not so sure.
    I am confident that my English is neigh on fluent. I do not think about speaking English, I do not have to think about how to put something in to words. I do not, for a single second, think in Dutch whilst speaking English.
    Until, suddenly, I hit a word I want to use but do not know in English. In the middle of the sentence, that word will suddenly come out in Dutch instead of English. Or, just before I want to say that word, I realise I do not know the word I want to use and then I stop (a little like what you describe above).
    My point is: what is going on in the brain at this point? I am speaking English and when i do not know a word in English, my brain will put the word in in a different language.
    So, my brain knows WHAT I want to say, but it has not able to decide HOW I want to say it (Dutch or English) and hence it will put forward the only way it knows at that point: Dutch.
    And this seems to happen fully automatically. That is the thing I find interesting. Does that mean that, deep in your brain, some kind of translation DOES happen right before you speak? If that is the case, then you would alsways struggle when the grammar of the second language differs from the grammar of your native language. So that can not be it.
    I have done some searching this morning and I have come across a fair few articles that claim the brain develops ‘separate’ language centres for each language.
    In a very very simplistic way, I think they meant something like this:
    If one language centre can not express a thought, then the brain will switch to the other one to see if that one has the right words to express a certain thought.
    This would also explain how, as you experienced, you can do things in 2 languages at the same time.
    The more I think about it, the more sense that seems to make to me. It also said something about bilingual kids. They still have only 1 centre and will therefore mix up the different languages they are being tought, until their brain develops ‘properly’.
    If only I had kept the URL of the article……

  6. Bela November 9, 2006 at 4:48 am

    I’m with Céline here: I’ve been in the UK for 27 years and there is no translating involved at all when I speak or write in English. None whatsoever. My thought processes are exactly the same as those of a native speaker. I think purely in English; I dream in English; English is *the* language that now comes naturally out of my mouth when I speak.
    It has become a bit of a problem when I’m not actually working on a translation and therefore don’t have to switch between the two languages. I only have a couple of French friends, whom I don’t see regularly, and I only have contacts in writing with a few friends in France, so whenever someone addresses me in French it takes me a couple of seconds to readjust my brain, as it were, and respond in French, and even then I sound slightly ‘off’ to myself, and I’ve been told I have a faint English accent when I speak French. It disappears after a little while.
    Like Céline, I believe that you wouldn’t feel as if you were translating if you’d spent more time in an English-speaking environment.

  7. Marieke November 9, 2006 at 9:58 am

    I am afraid I am not expressing myself properly 🙂
    I do not FEEL like I am translating at all. Since I do not speak with my family much, weeks will go by without speaking or thinking a single word of Dutch.
    I am merely posing a theory that the process *might* be going on subconciously when we speak a foreign language as this *might* explain why sometimes we stop in the middle of a sentence, trying to look for a word that we do not know in the foreign language.
    I have lived in Australia and have been in the UK for 3 years now but was fluent in the language well before then.
    I was not describing a process that I notice happening in my head. I was trying to find a totally non-scientific explanation.
    I guess we are all poking around in the dark on this one as the very point Celine was discussing was: who knows what goes on in your brain when it comes to speaking multiple languages……

  8. Paty November 9, 2006 at 10:02 pm

    Celine (please excuse me, still no accents on my laptop). One more thing while we’re still on this subject. I have noticed that when interpreting in the consecutive mode, I have to listen, then when it’s my turn to interpret, it’s kind of like a playback going on. I “hear” what was just said in my head in its original form, like an echo, then I proceed to interpret it. If I try to interpret in my head as the words are being spoken, hold it in my memory, and then go on and give the interpretation… no way! I’ll lose it and won’t remember what was just said. Is this the way it happens with you?

  9. Bela November 10, 2006 at 3:55 am

    I understand what you’re trying to say, Marieke, but I still don’t believe that there is any subconscious translating going on in the brain when we’re speaking in everyday life. I believe a completely different process is taking place, but I wouldn’t know which one exactly.
    Interpreting is a different matter: it is indeed translating, so stopping in the middle of a sentence when interpreting is probably a failure of the translating process.
    I haven’t done any interpreting for a while and I can’t remember the last time I stopped in the middle of a sentence – in the course of a normal conversation – to look for an English word.
    I think we may have to agree to disagree on this one. 🙂

  10. céline November 10, 2006 at 7:38 am

    Paty: Yes! I get the echo too, but only when I’m interpreting short sections of speech, say when we’re moving around and people speak freely: they’re much more likely to pause more often. In a meeting or during a presentation on the other hand, where people speak at some length until I kick them under the table, the ‘echo’ thingie doesn’t happen as much, as I’m busy taking notes, which allows me to retrace what was said.

  11. Marieke November 10, 2006 at 11:15 am

    I agree that finding myself stopping in the middle of a sentence, lost for the right word is ‘proof’ that I may be fluent in English but not quite yet as good as a native speaker. This happens perhaps once a month or so, and more when I am tired (which in itself adds more questions to How Does This Work).
    I would LOVE to know how the brain DOES handle languages with different types of communication. Because speaking, thinking and writing are all treated in a different part of the brain so how does the ‘language’ part of the brain send out signals to the writing. speaking or thinking part?
    oooo….days, weeks, months of fun to be had theorising about this. Thanks for the great post because I have spent the past 3 days discussing this with just about everyone I know and they all have a different opinion.

  12. céline November 10, 2006 at 11:22 am

    Pleasure. My Very Intelligent Friend has now recruited the help of another brainy person and they will be writing something on the subject as soon as they’ve finished partying following the recent elections (they’re American). I can’t wait.

  13. Rocio November 15, 2006 at 10:56 am

    I think that the brain is capable of functioning on different levels. In my experience, (I am bilingual English-Spanish with a few other languages thrown into the mix) I often find myself doing what Marieke does, substituting a Spanish word I can’t remember for an English one when my interlocutor also speaks both languages. Strangely enough, when I speak with someone who only speaks one language, my brain then ‘miraculously’ remembers the word in the right language – following the process Céline described. Obviously I am not translating from one language to the other; instead, I think that the brain just looks for the easy way out.

  14. Oleg Kuzin November 20, 2006 at 2:44 am

    I recently discovered a website by McGill University, in Montreal, totally on the Brain:
    that also has a French counterpart – Le cerveau.
    The unique feature of this site is that it can be read a several levels of complexity. Check it out.

  15. Franklin November 20, 2006 at 8:59 am

    A Linguist friend of mine put me onto this site. Bloody fascinating. Having had the good fortune to grow up tri-lingually (Dutch, Spanish and English in that order)I can contribute some examples to the discussion.
    As for how the brain works in as far as language is concerned I am as confused as everyone else appears to be. Sometimes I am concious of translating in my mind and other times I am “speaking, thinking, feeling, being” Argentinian or Dutch or Australian, transaltion then being redundant. Which “level” of language applies on any occassion seems to be erratic.
    Language switching gives a mental pleasure akin to that given by music (listening or playing).
    That different parts of the brain are involved for different languages (de eso no cabe duda), would explain the occassional “loss” of a word in a language. I suspect that for those “Babel-fish” people that do those instant translations at the U.N. their separate “language compartments” are not as separate as for other multi-lingual people.
    Herewith a couple of examples: When reading Don Quijote, I came across something very funny that I wanted to translate for my wife, and whereas I knew exactly what ‘marfíl’ was, it took me more than a day to come up with ‘ivory’.
    When my father told me that my sister had bought ‘een bos anjelieren’ for a funeral, I immediately translated it into ‘claveles’ but couldn’t come up with ‘carnations’ despite the fact that I may not have used ‘anjelieren’ in several decades, and English, being the language I most use, gradually pushing the other languages aside.

  16. bathrobe November 20, 2006 at 10:44 am

    I envy you people. I have three languages (English, Japanese, Chinese) but I would not describe myself as really ‘fluent’ in the last two.
    I also find it confusing when three languages come into play. If I’m translating Chinese-English, or Japanese-Chinese it’s ok. But if someone introduces a third language, I get totally messed up and switch into the wrong language.
    I don’t think my brain is as miraculous as other people’s 🙂

  17. Anna November 21, 2006 at 9:17 am

    I think this happens because when you know the subject well enough, interpreting becomes more like a mechanical process. And when you do something mechanically, you do it without thinking, so you can think about something else:) I know that some interpreters can chat with their partners while simultaniously interpreting at the same time.

  18. language hat November 21, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    I posted about this, and commenter rr recommended Susan Greenfield’s The Private Life of the Brain if you’re interested in what goes on in there.

  19. céline November 21, 2006 at 1:01 pm

    Yes I saw that this morning, thanks, I’ve made a note of it. I might buy it just for the title!

  20. Chris November 21, 2006 at 4:42 pm

    hey folks
    i just found this site by chance and bookmarked it. i’m a (tri-lingual: portuguese, italian + english) software engineer fascinated by neural networks the brain & its workings. thought i might recommend “the language instinct” and “how the mind works”, both by steven pinker.
    the guy is a harvard professor, and explains things wonderfully. he suggests we dont primarily think in any one language: the thought-process happens in a symbolic “language” he calls “mentalese”, and then goes to Broca’s area, the brain section involved in language processing, speech production and comprehension.
    essential reading.

  21. Mark November 25, 2006 at 11:24 am

    Celine, how right you are regarding the multiple voices at work inside the brain when interpreting – I always feel totally detached from the sounds leaving my mouth – has anyone else ever noticed that if either side of the people you’re interpreting for starts using the “wrong” language while you’re in full flow (i.e. your English client tries to make a joke in French) you automatically switch languages without initially realising it – I’ve been caught several times rambling on in French to my English party..

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