I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, as I struggle to learn French in fits and starts.
At one level of analysis, the answer is straightforward. One understands a word or sentence, when the appropriate neurons fire in the appropriate fashion. Understanding, whatever else it might be, is a function of brains. It happens when neurons do their work.
However, I’m asking the question at a different level of analysis — at the level of experience. How does one experience understanding? How does one know when one has understood a word or a sentence?
Consider a habit that people often develop when they learn a second language. People often feel like they only understand a word in the new language, once they translate it into their native language and repeat that word to themselves.
But, that can’t be right. The fact of accurate translation indicates that the word is already understood, otherwise translation would have been impossible. The speaking or thinking of the translated word may provide some kind of reassurance of understanding, but it is not itself understanding. For translation to occur, the original word must have already be understood. Understanding, it seems, proceeds articulation.
This habit that people often develop when they learn a second language makes me wonder if we should take less seriously the hemming and hawing of our “inner voice”. That ever present and always nattering voice often seems far more “in the know” because it is so much more present, and seemingly much more active. But, if the translation habit I’ve discussed is representative of how the inner voice relates to the other parts of the brain, it’s clear that the inner voice only reflects or repeats work that has already been done. More problematically, it is fair to assume that it can sometimes wrongly second guess what was already understood.
In life, as in speaking a second language, perhaps we should more easily trust the conclusions of our wordless self, rather than seek the reassurances of the vacant but more present echos of our inner voice.