Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Joy of Babel

I love learning languages. This seems to surprise lots of people - not the fact that I in particular love learning languages, but the idea that anyone at all would enjoy such a task. Many English speakers appear quite content to remain within the gilded cage of their own language's confines. To them it seems to be a pointless effort to bother learning some foreign Johnny's lingo. After all, most people in the world understand some English, so why make the effort to learn to speak anything else?

Amazingly there are even a few foreigners who share this view. Certainly  the sub sub-Zsa Zsa Gabor I met soon after arriving in Budapest gave every sign of doing so: when I told her I might try having a bash at learning Hungarian, she seemed genuinely shocked. Raising her perfectly tended eyebrows and grasping my wrist with her manicured, heavily jewelled fingers, she asked in a shrill voice, 'Darling, whatever for?'

In fact, there are many very good reasons for learning a foreign language, not least avoiding experiences like the one Shaun Tan, the Oscar winning illustrator, recounted in the newspaper the other day:

Of course, balanced against the advantage of understanding what is going on around you when you go to a foreign country - or even avoiding making unnecessary trips to that country, because you have understood that you have not in fact been invited - is the considerable hard work involved in learning another language, at least for me.

Because saying I love learning languages is not at all the same as saying I am good at learning languages. I'm not at all. I have heard of - although I've never actually met - people who have a gift for picking up languages, mastering strange grammars and vocabularies in a matter of days. I'm not one of them.

And if I were, I don't think I would actually love learning languages, for it is the never-ending, day-in-day-out, slow-acquiring-of-a-complex-skill element that is part of the delight of learning a language for me. I like activities involving steady perseverance. In fact, I believe it is those kinds of activities that actually provide the greatest satisfaction to humankind.

And, useful though being able to communicate and understand communications is, the ability to speak and understand on a daily basis is the smallest of the pleasures that learning a language holds, in my view. Apart from anything else, I find conversation somewhat harrowing in any language - even my own mother tongue. I am hopeless at gathering my thoughts, finding the right words to formulate them, remembering what I want to say while at the same time listening to what others are telling me and thinking of ripostes while actually on the spot rather than two days afterwards, when it is too late.

This partly explains why, while some people enjoy the opportunity a new language offers for self-reinvention, I would never want to be taken as a native speaker (not that I could probably ever manage it anyway, except in my own on a good day).While Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night observes, 'In French you can be heroic and gallant with dignity ... in English you can't be heroic and gallant without being a little absurd', I am unwilling or unable to shake off my English sense of absurdity and throw myself wholeheartedly into the new identity that goes with a new language.

What I like more than talking a new language is the discovery of the language in a more abstract sense. I enjoy encountering new approaches to grammar, which reveal subtle shifts in the way different nationalities view reality - the odd Hungarian verb form variants that depend on whether the object of the verb is definite or indefinite, the Slavic languages' aspectual system, which focuses so surprisingly on whether actions are completed or not, the mystery of why so many languages retain a formal and an intimate second person and why we Anglos chose to dispense with that, and, when we did choose to do so, what made us decide to get rid of the warmer, more friendly, 'thou'.

I find the different vocabulary available to different nationalities equally intriguing - when we saw, for instance, in a visitors' book in a country museum in Austria that the people before us had written under the heading, 'Reason for visit', the single word, 'Kulturausflug', I wondered whether it was the Germans' innate pomposity that had led to the creation of such a word or whether they were led by their language to have to express themselves with such solemnity.

I also enjoy the certainty that grammar and its cast-iron rules provide for me.  I like the fact that there is no need to formulate original and complex argument when learning a language. Instead, all you have to do is memorise structures and bang words into your head. You do not need to question - in fact, it is best if you don't do any questioning. You just need to understand the relationships between the various components and also to remember how the various components are spelled.

Which is not to say that there aren't intriguing questions to be asked - who set down these rules, who decided that these particular sounds would henceforth designate this thing? These are fascinating and mysterious lines of enquiry, However, they are destined to remain ultimately enigmatic. There will never really be any satisfactory answers to be found to them and so, instead of asking them, it is wiser to spend your time accumulating vocabulary, heaping it up in your mind until you have a trove of different, sparkling words, which you can run like jewels through your mental fingers (I think there is a case for the New Yorker cry of 'block that metaphor' at this point.)

Learning a language is also a very inexpensive means of travelling. Without leaving the comfort of your home, by learning a language you can get a lot of the pleasure that comes from actually visiting a foreign place. Just as when you go abroad, everything becomes suddenly interesting by virtue of its novelty - even the milk cartons look different and therefore ever so slightly exotic - so, when you embark on the study of a new language, all objects become fascinating and foreign, by virtue of the new names that you discover exist for them. Clad in their new labels, each spice in your kitchen cupboard, each piece of furniture in your sitting room, each whitegood, each ornament, all your possessions acquire the allure of strangeness for a while, just as a new place does until you get to know it well.

And later, as you penetrate further into a language, there is the pleasure of reading its literature, using a dictionary if necessary, so that the meaning emerges like treasure being dragged up and out of water, at first blurred and dim and then finally coming into the bright clear sunlight. And there is also the pleasure of translating into the language you are learning - for, in the same way that trying to play a piece of music is a good way of really coming to comprehend its structure and trying to draw an object or scene is a good way of really seeing it, so trying to translate a text is a marvellous way of gaining a thorough understanding of it. The reverse is true also - if you ever want to truly clarify your thoughts, try expressing them in a foreign tongue. Nothing crystallises the mind quite like it.

Finally, if all the other attractions of language learning fail to entice, there is the joy to be found within the language textbooks themselves: each one contains countless sentences of startling strangeness. Whole novels could be based on many of them.

To find an example of what I mean, I open 'Introducing German', completely at random and immediately I discover this surreal single phrase - Er hat die Tauben im Park vergiftet. It stands there quite alone, this profoundly odd and entirely unexplained statement. Who he is, why he did it, what happened next, what had happened before he decided to poison all the poor birds, all of this is left to the - in my case, possibly over-active - imagination.

Opening another textbook - Russian this time - I come upon a set of exercises that together might well qualify as a found poem:

A cool wind was blowing
Lightning flashed
It is snowing
The first snow of the winter falls
A lesson is in progress
The decisive minute arrives
Silence falls
The lime trees blossomed

Last of all, in my high school French book, the page falls open at this sequence, which I imagine in a voice over to a Jean Luc Godard movie, or possibly discarded in a wastepaper basket belonging to TS Eliot:

He spends a lot of time in the mountains
The road is lined with beautiful poplars
There are no flowers in the garden
You always make too many mistakes
He wore a silk shirt and cotton trousers
The palace was surrounded by green lawns
The swallows have not returned this year
The clock stopped at midnight last Wednesday
A shot was heard
The curtain rises
Where do the Orlovs live?

Even those who don't care about tenses or vocabulary must also find themselves drawn in by these odd and haunting passages. You may not want to learn French but can you honestly say that you won't lie awake tonight at three in the morning, repeating that age-old unanswerable question: 'Where do the Orlovs live?'


  1. It sounds as if the compiler of your German text was a Tom Lehrer fan: "For it's not against any religion/To want to dispose of a pigeon."

  2. I was helping some schoolkids with their English homework in Thailand, once upon a time, and they were so irritated by plurals that I ended up wanting to side with them against my own language. Why, they said: why? If I tell you, "I have ten table," you know what I mean, don't you? Then why do I need an s? I thought they had a point.

  3. Oh yes, how clever of you to pick up the ref, George.
    I feel stupid because I've never ever questioned the idea, Umbagollah - have you thought about it further? Surely there are situations where plurals do have a reason for being? Or even several reasons for being?

  4. The only answer I can come up with is the same one I had then: "It's just how English is," "It's just what we do," "It's normal." Plurals are useful when they save you the trouble of giving a number ("Angry dogs coming, run!" is more urgent than "Angry dog coming, run!") but in the case of, "I have ten table," I think it's not so much useful as conventional. "It evolved that way and there it is."

  5. Yes, that is essentially the pleasure of learning language - you just get on with it. No need to think. Very relaxing.