My Exhilarating #Infomagical Story

Neuroscience. My information goal was to start organizing some information about how our brains work that could help explain why people find interpreted interaction so awkward. (If you don’t know about #Infomagical, it’s a project of the WNYC Note to Self Podcast Team; they are re-running it so sign up if you want to make your information overload disappear!)

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Medical interpreting is a common kind of interpreting that occurs every day in hospitals across the United States. Interpreting in legal situations is increasing in frequency. Social services, education, and business also benefit from interpreters.

Interpreted interaction?

Folks are often not at their ease when an interpreter is involved. The popular idea is that automatic translation — such as Douglas Adams’ fanciful Babel Fish, or the increasingly sophisticated programs by Google and Facebook — eliminates the need for linguistic and cultural mediation. It seems that the desire for instantaneous, easy understanding resists staying conscious (not complacent!) about the interpreting essential to meaningful communication.

Let me restate: the presence of an interpreter makes obvious the reality of intercultural communication. Substituting a machine algorithm for the participation of another human being merely obscures the fact that meaning always has to be negotiated in order to be mutually understood. Even when people are speaking the same language, interpreting is always happening! It’s hidden though, within each person’s mind, unless/until they recognize a possible misunderstanding and act to resolve it. The professional interpreter brings this reality into interactional time and space so we can explore and examine how social artifacts get made — especially meanings, identities, and relationships.

“I take my coffee with milk and dog.”*

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Wernicke’s and Brocas Areas are the main language locations. Event-related potentials (ERPS), however, are not linked to a location; instead ERPs are extremely precise in measuring time. ERPs are measured non-invasively by EEG electrodes on the scalp.

The N400 starts about 200 milliseconds and peaks at 400 milliseconds after hearing a word. The size of the N400 wave is associated with semantics — whether the word fits in the sentence or not. The P600 occurs when people are trying to repair a grammatical violation in their mind. This repair involves reconstructing the sentence, so the P600 wave occurs 600 milliseconds after the grammatical error, indicating extra mental labor. P600’s are also indicators of “garden path” meanderings of the mind attempting to parse meaning: this is when one is initially interpreting a certain kind of meaning then realizes this is wrong, and has to backtrack to reconstruct a more accurate meaning.

In the sentence, “I take my coffee with milk and dog,” the semantic violation of “dog” triggers a larger N400 wave than the contextually-sensible word “sugar.” In Weber-Fox & Neville’s study, different N400 waves occurred only in the oldest/latest group of second language learners (ages 11–16), there wasn’t much variation. This suggests that when you learn a language (called age of acquisition) doesn’t have a big impact on semantic processing. But the P600 and ELAN waves showed differences between bilinguals and monolinguals in the older and younger learners too. The conclusion of their study is that grammatical processing, and the brainwaves associated with grammatical processing, are sensitive to when a language was learned.

I’m extrapolating wildly from the milliseconds-scale of brainwaves to the real time interaction among human beings, but the N400 finding makes sense. Based on teaching and talking with people who have learned (or are learning) English as a second language, when a word is wrong, listeners often figure out which word was meant, ask for clarification, or make a joke. (Not everyone, of course. Attitude, interest and perhaps aptitude play a role.)

The P600 is more interesting…if our brainwaves ‘skip a beat’ (to use a mixed metaphor) when the grammar is off, this makes me wonder if our brains react differently during live, simultaneously interpreted communication than they do during same language (what I call homolingual) communication?

And, if we could demonstrate the differences between homolingual and interpreted communication, would explaining this help people become more comfortable and proficient with using the social technology of interpreting for communicating among linguistically-diverse peoples?

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Iranian President and the Pope at the Vatican with interpreters. Turn-taking is managed by the rate of interpretation; which helps avoid otherwise ‘invisible’ intercultural problems such as different pause lengths between turns at talk.

Half-a-second can make you rude!

Scollon and Wong-Scollon looked at, among other things, the distribution of talk in direct (non-interpreted, homolingual) communication between English speakers and Athabaskan speakers.

When an English speaker pauses he [or she] waits for…his [or her] regular length of time (around one second or less), and if the Athabaskan does not say anything, the English speaker feels he [or she] is free to go on….At the same time, the Athabaskan has been waiting his [or her] regular length of time before coming in. He [or she] does not want to interrupt the English speaker. This length of time is…around one and a half seconds. It is just enough longer that by the time the Athabascan is ready to speak the English speaker is already speaking again. (p. 273)

Debra Tannen (2012) has found similar challenging dynamics of interaction even between people speaking the same language! Depending on where they’re from (eg., New York, London, California), native English speakers can unintentionally create stress in conversation due to differences in interactional style, including variations in pause length. Tannen also cites a finding by Yamada (1997) who re-enacted a Japanese business meeting for college students in which the pause length between turns was eight seconds long.

What were those business people doing during those eight seconds? Would speakers of different languages show different or similar kinds of brain activity during such pauses? Are those pauses like the pause when people are waiting for an interpreter to begin interpreting? Or are there important differences that can generate new knowledge? All of this brings to mind the noise-cancelling headphones and half-an-hour of settling in time designed by Marina Abramović and Igor Lebit for the J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations performance Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant reported on for Notes to Self.

What if people used the pauses and ‘delays’ of interpreted interaction to become more present? What if these little bits of time were received as gifts rather than experienced as a frustrating waste? “Make time matter,” tweeted @Evanshapiro Evan Shapiro for his #infomantra.

[tl;dr] Day 1 — Day 5: My #Infomagical Journey (with gratitude)

I chose the “become more knowledgeable” goal but then took the assessment quiz, which said I wanted to “become more creative” — so I switched :) To me, this meant becoming creative with how to achieve my information goal as well as how to package the result.

Day 1 was singletasking. I already know I can’t multitask… (except — aside… when I’m interpreting? There is neuroscience on interpreters’ brains but, fascinating as that is, what I’m trying to problematize is the assumption that “interpreting” is something that is done only by the interpreter. Not!)

My day job as a medical interpreter does not allow me to dive deep into anything except each medical appointment as they come. I switch my attention as I have to…but it was intriguing to learn that being interrupted can generate the impulse to self-interrupt! What I needed to do, I realized, was use moments of ‘down time’ to single focus on my prioritized goal; I also needed to prioritize how to use my time after I am off the clock.

Day 2: clean up the phone! I turned off all the notifications. Didn’t feel the impact of this until Day 3: which was avoid a meme day. Wow. My immediate impulse was to avoid all social media, which I succeeded at until just before bed. By then, I had started writing this Medium post. (I pretty much stayed away from social media for the rest of the week — no notifications!)

Day 4 I was ready: I paged the on-call neurosciences department at my hospital. The on-call doctor only gave me four minutes. (I was bummed!) He works with epilepsy and seizures, not the ERP-level (the N400 and P600 event response potentials), but he said my idea is “fascinating” (!) and suggested who else I might talk with — that’s a score even if it was under the magic 7-minute mark. By coincidence, I also had an evening appointment in the neuroscience sleep lab. The polysomnographic technician did not know specifically about ERPs, but we had a 24-minute conversation about how we might design an initial study with mobile EEG units . . .

Day 5. Consolidate what I learned about making information overload disapper by writing an infomantra. I wrote a haiku (pressure pressure be creative) and finished this post. My energy this week has been great. My time has been meaningfully filled with a project that’s been lingering in my mind. I had believed many-hours-strung-together were required to do it, but what I really needed was not to fritter away every short window of opportunity with silly stuff! There was balance, too — some exercise, and social time with friends. Easily the best week I’ve had since last summer’s vacation :)

Also, I’m aware and appreciative that there was a suitable container. Infomagical made me feel part of something bigger than myself (over 25,000 participants!!!). I felt a sense of accountability to the Note for Self team and designers of this cool social experiment. You provided a structure I could use to regain traction. That’s why I’ll be signing up again!

References and Acknowledgements

Thanks to Professor Arturo Hernandez, University of Houston, who teaches a fantastic free Coursera on The Bilingual Brain.

Scollon, Ronald & Wong-Scollon, Suzanne. (1990). Athabaskan-English Interethnic Communication. In Cultural Communication and Intercultural Contact, D. Carbaugh, Ed., NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Deborah Tannen. (2012). Turn-taking and Intercultural Discourse. In The Handbook of Intercultural Discourse and Communication, 1st Edition. C. B. Paulson, S.F. Kiesling & E. S. Rangel, Eds. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (Online)

Weber-Fox, C., & Neville, H. J. (2001). Sensitive periods differentiate processing for open and closed class words: An ERP study in bilinguals. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 44, 1338–1353.

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