Thursday, October 04, 2007


I made an interesting discovery today. My handwriting is different depending on which language I'm using. It's much neater and more organised in English, while when I'm writing in Finnish I tend to be all over the place and much more variable in general.

I noticed this today as I was first writing stuff for a webpage in a cafe, and right after that taking notes on a lecture that was in English. The website is about the stuff I teach, so there were a number of English words in the sketch I had written, and they seem to be written with better handwriting than the rest of the stuff that's in Finnish.

Strange. Why is it like this? Does everyone have different handwriting styles for different languages? It would make sense, in a way. Language is a holistic thing, it's not just a code you use, but a set of cultural and gestural norms and conventions. And you don't even need to go as far as think about the embodied nature of cognition and how people often interact socially very differently depending on which language they are using, which set of cultural conventions they are playing with.

This can be a simpler thing. Much of the skill of writing by hand is to get better in writing combinations of letters or words with one fluid movement. We rarely think about individual letters when writing, rather whole syllables or words. And as transition probabilities from one letter to another differ from language to language, the path that the pen takes differ as well, the combinations of letters, typical syllables that are learned well, occur less often in another language, there might be combinations that are in direct conflict with what we are used to. It is easy to see that when the transformation of ideas in mind to letters on paper is unobstructed and automatic in one language, in another the hand might be prone to do one thing while the mind is trying to do something else. And we know that if we need to consciously interfere with things we normally do automatically, we are in trouble. I remember when I was learning new pieces on the piano, I could perhaps play them by heart rather well, but only when I wasn't paying any attention to what I was doing. And if I started thinking about it, or actually listen to what I was playing, I couldn't sometimes even remember how the piece begins.

Why English, though? Years spent in Finland still lead by 28 to 4 over years spent in England, and surely I've written reams and reams more in Finnish than in English. I do admit, that my handwriting is very variable anyway, I write differently on different days. But I want to think that there is a pattern. Maybe it's the same thing as with spelling. Having had to pay so much attention to something develops the skill. There's of course the recency effect, as well. At the moment, I'm more used to functioning in English than in Finnish.

I noticed this also tonight when having dinner with the keynote speakers and guests of the weekend's conference. Having a dinner and socialising in English was very comfortable, it felt relaxing in some way, not just because I do like social events and dinners at nice restaurants (especially when someone else is paying for them) but also because I haven't been able to speak English for a while. Writing isn't the same, it doesn't quite fill the "need". As I said, there's this thing about gestures, interaction, the whole shebang. Even identity, I suppose. And probably the linguistic context amplifies certain features of our personality while damping others.

A quick search didn't find any work on handwriting and second language, but I'm sure there's stuff done on this. There is a lot of work going on in bilingualism and how that works cognitively, and of course the whole second language acquisition -field has looked at things way beyond learning the words and grammar, so they might know about this as well. I wonder if it goes with typing as well? Do I make more mistakes when typing in Finnish than when typing in English? Which one is more comfortable to do, which one's faster? I don't know, really. And now that I'm conscious about the question, I'm probably too aware to ever notice.

I know that I do sometimes "autofill" words, sort of complete them after the first two letters or so, and this happens when my conscious mind is wondering how to continue the sentence. The funny thing is that these autofilled words have nothing to do with the text, they just naturally follow from the letters in the beginning. Just to illustrate this, an imaginary example. I could be writing "And I was walking in the forest that mo...." and then stop in my mind to wonder if I should write "day" instead of morning, and my fingers would autofill the word to "money". This is an imaginary example, but I've noticed this kind of thing happening a couple of times, and found myself adding suffixes like "-ious" to words that didn't really need them. If I were psychoanalytically inclined, I'd probably see the work of Id here, but I'm not and so I think it's just an overlearned motor pattern. This happens when I'm tired and typing in English (so pretty much all the time) but whether it happens in Finnish as well, and whether Finnish words are autofilled with English, I don't know, but I'm eager to find out.

As you can see, I welcome any motivation I can scrape together to write these damn websites. And also seize every opportunity to procrastinate and browse article databases instead.

(Pic: BTW, I think graphology is rubbish)

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