When people find out that I have a dual ethnic identity, that I share Russian and Cuban origins, and that I had a childhood and adolescence that were also shared between the two countries, they often ask, “What language do you think in?”
The truth is that I learned Russian first, from my mom and her family in a railroad crossing village 150 km from Moscow, but at age three I began to come into regular contact with Cuban society. Encounters started becoming much more systematic when I started Cuban elementary school in Moscow.
From an early age, my dad would read to me in Spanish, and I would also hear it in my family circle here in Cuba. They were people from the east of the island, so many of the Spanish words I learned had different meanings from those here in the capital.
Because of all this, I could speak, read and write in both languages by the time I was around six or seven.
But the question “what language do you think in?” doesn’t make any sense to me (sorry for those who asked it of me).
It’s not that I’m embarrassed to publicly acknowledge what language my thoughts are in. No, not at all. It’s that I don’t use any language to think.
Ideas come to me in the form of images, associations of concepts and emotions, and only rarely as words.
Actually I don’t need any words to think.
So I find it funny what some philosophers and psychologists have said about the importance of words for thought.
To me, words are clearly important, but to organize thought, to shape it. When I think I don’t use words, but when I express ideas I obviously need them.
Then comes the hard part: When I have to turn ideas—not necessarily in order—into a sequence of words, which is something hard for me. That’s why it takes me an effort to write, which also explains the intermittency of my entries in Havana Times.
In fact, I can’t say that I like to write. For me it’s like putting thoughts in the prison of language. It’s like the linearization of something essentially non-linear, reducing into a single dimension what has many dimensions – perhaps an infinite number.
On the other hand it doesn’t bother me that people think in words. I find it rather interesting. In this case, to me it’s hard to imagine where ideas come from if they appear in words.
For me an idea is like a gift and the word is its packaging.
It’s interesting how we think in ways that are so different but that we can still manage to communicate.