Vocabulary and the mysterious subconscious

I hate vocabulary lists.

One of the many reasons is that the brain does not function on a one-to-one basis, and indeed words are generally found lurking in the brain without conscious thought.

An extreme example: I arrived five years ago one lunchtime at Hamburg Central Station for a stag night. This meant that I had to find somewhere to put my case, knowing that it would probably be 24 hours before I saw it again.

Being a keen rather than talented linguist, I find I have consciously to switch language when arriving in German-speaking Europe, but as I walked towards the information point I had determined (in German, insofar as you “think” in any particular language) that I did not have the word for “locker”.

So I resolved to ask the gentleman at the info point:

  • Gibt es hier in der Nähe irgendwo, wo ich meinen Koffer lassen kann?”
  • “Is there somewhere nearby where I can leave my case?”

This is in many ways the fundamental skill of linguists. It is not that they know the word for everything, but that they have enough of the language to get around any such problems. (This actually applies in any individual language – there is a body of evidences which suggests educated English speakers are not so much better spellers than uneducated English speakers, but better at finding ways to avoid the word they cannot spell without affecting comprehension.)

So I approached the gentleman and said:

  • Wo sind die Schließfächer?
  • “Where are the lockers?”

Wait. Where did that come from?!

Consciously I was fully resolved to say the first sentence, not knowing the word for “locker”; and yet what actually came out was the second sentence, containing the word “Schließfach”, “locker”, in its plural form.

Evidently somewhere, in my brain’s hard drive on a file I had consciously ignored but which was subconsciously somehow available, I did in fact have the German word for “locker”. It was almost as if my brain had performed a reverse-definition function – that by determining how I would define what I was looking for, the brain then presented me with the headword.

This case is prominent in my recollection because it was so bizarre – it was the one time I remember clearly determining to say one thing and then saying another! However, it was an example of how language works – we do not spend a lot of time thinking about which words we use, we just operate from the store.

This is yet another reason I vehemently dislike vocabulary lists! Put them in a Schließfach and throw away the key…

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One thought on “Vocabulary and the mysterious subconscious

  1. While I was learning Spanish, I found myself consciously looking for the right words, and coming up and speaking whatever words that I could come up with to communicate what I wanted. However, as I learned more vocabulary, I consciously thought about it less and less — easier to recall all those new words.

    Fast forward a decade or two of non-practise, on holiday in Menorca, the first few days were rough recall. Then suddenly I am coming up with the words that I didn’t realise I knew, just like you — learned long ago yet subconsciously recalled.

    Like many of our daily actions, if we had to consciously think of every word we said, we’d be exhausted pretty quick!

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