When I was 45 I moved to Berlin and overnight lost my voice.
7 months on, I consider myself to be in a very privileged place; floating between languages
These bright summer mornings I wake up early to bird song and the sound of the odd car on the road. Both posess an international language; (Olivier Messiaen may have queried this about the feathered ones; he observed that from continent to continent the same species of bird could have a different song.) But to my untutored ear the soundscape could be that of 10119 Berlin, NW5 London or Fife, Scotland.
It is only when the radio is switched on that location becomes linguistically specific. The channel, Deutschland Funk, (nothing to do with the music of US black origin ) spews out a flock of words that soar and flap around the room and I begin another day of trying to Lug them. Slowly my catch increases; to put a percentage figure on it would be difficult, perhaps anything between 25 and 65 percent. From this I can get the gist and sometimes, completely the wrong gist.
It is one thing accumulating words but it’s another putting them into a sentence. On the occasions I have attended language classes, I have become utterly dejected as fellow classmates from Malaysia, Japan, France , Spain, Italy, Lebanon and Turkey, reel through conjugation tables and identify Dative and Accusative sentences. At the end of each class and in the coldest winter I have ever experienced, I became at times the unnamed vagrant from Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger; trudging the snow, slush, grit pavements, hating everyone around, because they could speak German and I couldn’t! At times like this I would seek refuge in the Melodic language of Schubert and Haydn or convalesce in the silent ward of Renaissance painting at the Gemaldegalerie.
A sobering thought occurred to me quite early on when surrounded with exercise books full of indecipherable sentences and pages of my incoherent notes; language is an egalitarian currency, equally available to all. Was it this that attracted a young Noam Chomsky to study linguistics? My desire to live an enlightened life drives me on to try and learn a new system of speech. However, belief in the ability to do this often leads me to grimly meditate on the life of an illiterate pauper.
A few months back a friend noting my frustrations with language studies, offered this advice; You don’t learn language through the head it comes through the gut. At the time I liked the saying but wasn’t quite sure what they had meant. Another friend said recently, that they retain much more of a new language when they are relaxed; perhaps sitting in the sun, having a coffee and cake or a beer, taking in the smells, the air, the weather, the touch and feel of something. I offered up a similar experience with a life spent drawing in small books which I always carry around. On the odd occasion that I flick through them,( some going back 25 years), a whole flood of memories can come rushing back to the exact time they were made; the taste of a cigarette or a specific conversation. This is not the same for me when looking at old photographs.
I have noticed that if one does concentrate just as much upon the context as what is being said, you can pick up a lot. I mean, I dare say we could all identify a fire in the building by the clouds of smoke and fumes before we needed someone shouting Fire, to convince us of the fact. A final demand bill is easily detected by its warning total being printed in red ink; although this could be an occasion when you turn, not being able to read or speak that specific language, to your advantage.
It is here as an artist, that I begin to consider the pace of learning a new language; for once you get over the sudden shock of not even having the words to ask for the right kind of bread, and once you get use to, linguistically, feeling like a complete fool, then you can begin to enjoy the Tabula Rasa; a new beginning and all its freedoms.
I am currently reading a biography of Leon Trotsky; The Chapter of the book that deals with the first World War, talks about his brief time in Zürich. He, a Russian could read and speak French, English, Italian, German and Austrian, and he was just about to go off and lead a revolution! Although there is no mention of this in the book, I have been thinking about another group of revolutionaries in that city, a year or so after Trotsky. For the Cabaret Voltaire, language had betrayed the world; the pen pusher, statesmen and Politician, had through their eloquent use of language, lead the world to the logical insanity of mass slaughter on the battlefields and in the trenches of the Great War. Even though the Dadaists could probably speak as many languages as Trotsky, they chose to grunt, scream, bang and dance; destroying and creating language and often saying much more with nothing.
Last Year I attended a lecture given by Gustav Metzger and really liked the point he made about waste in language. He focused specifically on the mobile phone and not just on the unknown damage it may be doing to the environment. He also spoke about the absolute waste of language through the mountains of unnecessary phone conversations had everyday.
In the past months I have kept in touch with people in the UK mainly through the internet . Whenever I speak to my good friend Michael Wedgwood on Skype, he is often accompanied by his 6 month old daughter. In recent times she has become increasingly vocal as she lies in the background, at first I thought she was distressed and kept asking if he wanted to check all was ok. Oh no, she’s fine. She is just making noises. listening to herself and learning. Giacometti’s deathbed, is the other end of the life scale but one account told of the strange noises coming from the dying artists mouth. When asked if he was in pain he communicated that he wasn’t, he was just enjoying the sounds he was making. Shortly after, he passed away.
So now in Berlin, where each day I behave a little less like Kasper Hauser and speak a little less like a German version of Manuel in Faulty Towers; I must also be aware and alert to how the huge gaps in my language are filled in. Did I really move to another country in order to repeat all the things I was doing already? If that is the case by the time I am 90 I will be back chasing my own dusty tail and still banging my head against the wall, only then in fluent Deutsch. However, in these salad days, I should celebrate all the things a new country and language offer. Especially the absolute bliss of now and again, hearing, speaking, and understanding absolutely nothing.