useless knowledge

In which he reveals that he speaks six and a half languages

Monolinguals ask frequently how many languages I speak and, when I say, “Six and a half”, they marvel which is the half. But languages aren’t like pregnancies – one’s either pregnant or she isn’t – but like dollars: it is possible to own various fractions of one. Just as one can have two dozens coins in his pocket and yet all those coins may all add up to but $3.25, so it is possible to command umpteen languages which yet may only add up to six and a half whole languages between them.

I speak four languages well: one English and one Polish; seven eights Chinese and three quarters Japanese. At the other extreme is my French, which I do not speak at all, though I read it fast without dictionary and can even make sense of it when it is spoken at conferences, especially by Italians. Somewhere in between these extremes lie the languages I speak badly: Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai. Then there are languages like Latin, Sanskrit, Persian, and Indonesian of which, due to my interest in certain art-forms, I command large vocabulary without being able to as much as make a single sentence.

Of all these languages I like speaking Polish and Chinese most: they are extrovert languages and they require their speaker to be, above all, funny. Inter-personal contact in these languages is much easier, much less burdened with formalities and tabus than in others. I miss speaking them, and I delight in the rare opportunities I have to speak them. All Poles living abroad miss the experience of speaking Polish: there is a pleasure to just wielding the language which, I suppose, must be comparable to the pleasure of wielding the tennis racket.

To my ears, the prettiest of my languages is Japanese, though is not the most beautiful spoken language I have ever heard. That honor goes to Turkish – a language to which Japanese is related – which I heard for the first time in my life spoken by two beautiful women, in candlelight. It sounded to me like a crystal stream. My God, I exclaimed, what language are you two speaking? I am not sure how I have managed so far without having studied it at all. (Chinese spoken with Beijing accent can have this effect on me sometimes).

My spoken Japanese is often disorienting to my interlocutors: Japanese is gender-specific, meaning that men and women speak differently; my work experience in Japan was in a sales division of a media company, where I acquired a rough, masculine foundation, to which I then added the influence of the people I like speaking to most – women. When I speak in Japanese, I tend to mutate, like a shape-changer, before my interlocutors’ ears (so to speak) from male to female and back.

I speak Chinese with a strong Taiwanese accent; when I was traveling in Mainland China and calling ahead to reserve a room, I sometimes heard the clerks speaking to each other: “some Taiwanese guy’s on the line”. You should not mistake this for a sign of my great expertise in Chinese: Taiwanese, like most Chinese, speak Chinese badly.

My two Germanic languages give me the greatest sense of order: I find something immensely satisfying about the German sentence structure, with all its genders and cases, and its rigid sentence order. English, which has a similarly orderly sentence structure, I find to be the best medium in which to organize my thoughts; but I might perhaps be using German, if I only commanded it better. That I do not, no doubt, has a lot to do with the fact that I find practically everything Germans say uncongenial. Not wishing to hear their nonsense, I have limited my exposure to German, and hence, any prospect of real fluency in their language. It never ceases to amaze me that it is possible to use such a perfect language to express such stupid thoughts. On the other hand, it only amuses me to think that I use as my principal working and thinking medium the language of a people whom I find, as a rule, immensely dull – the Anglo-Saxons.

The hardest language I have ever studied was Thai. This must not be my finding alone: the number of westerners who speak Thai fluently can still be counted on the fingers of two hands; the reverse – Thais speaking good idiomatic English – is somewhat more common, but still none the less very rare. It isn’t so much a matter of grammar – I found much Thai grammar intuitively similar to Chinese – but phonetics: the combination of 18 vowels – 9 long and 9 short – and 5 tones creates a phonetic nightmare almost impossible to penetrate for a virgin adult mind. It didn’t help that I made an attempt to study Thai at the age of 43: our brains begin to cannibalize our language-acquisition apparatus around the time of puberty and the process leaves us with precious little by the time we’re in our forties. Which shows you that those who say that aging is all in the mind are right, only not in the way in which they imagine.

The two languages I would like to study, but know will never master in this lifetime, are Persian and Arabic. Persian, I think, is indisputably beautiful; listening to it gives me – almost – the same pleasure that listening to Turkish does. Many people might object to my characterization of Arabic as pretty, though I find its sound pleasing; but the main attraction of it for me is its fascinating grammar; there is also an autobiographical element to the pleasure: when I was 23, I resolved to learn a non-Indo-European language perfectly and, knowing that, given my age, and the time it takes to learn a language, I only had time for one, I hesitated between two languages with ancient literary traditions – Arabic and Chinese. At length, I chose Chinese, realizing fully that this meant giving up any hope of ever acquiring native-like fluency in Arabic. Though having learned Chinese has enriched me immensely, I often think wistfully of the language I had to sacrifice for its sake.

Unlike Chinese or Japanese, which cost me a lot of work to acquire, both my Italian and Portuguese came to me practically by osmosis: I arrived and started speaking. What I was speaking was at first, of course, Spanish, but as I went on I acquired vocabulary and, somehow, the Italian became Italian-like and the Portuguese Portuguese-like, all within a few months. Don’t tell the Portuguese this, but to my ears the European Portuguese is the least pleasing of my languages: I find its sound positively nasty and am always surprised how beautiful Portuguese can be whenever I overhear some Brazilians practically singing it.

Incidentally, I never planned to learn Portuguese. Having quickly figured out that I would never make any friends there, I have decided on the B strategy for the country: to be a respected (and respectful) guest, a tolerated stranger, without attachments or obligations there. Good morning, may I have a cup of coffee, what a nice day, eh, thank you very much, see you tomorrow is a safe conversation: it never leads to a debate; nor does not encourage anyone to borrow money. The language rubbed on me unawares; and I now find myself having to lie. Fala Portugues? They ask me. “No”, I say firmly, in English and — smile.

One of the more striking things one learns as one acquires languages – and therefore spends inordinate amount of time communicating in one or another language one has not yet acquired – is how much of the language is really not necessary at all. So much of what is spoken can be understood from the context, the gesture, the grimace, the eyes, the tone of voice: there really are just a limited number of possible inquiries individuals can address to each other – and an even more limited number of possible responses. In such situations, words are little more than a pretty soundtrack. Think also of all the words which would have been better left unspoken both in your own life – and throughout history, beginning with the 66 books of the Bible; and all the books which really did not need to be written; and all the blog entries – including this one.

Rudolph’s Raptures

The then Venetian ambassador to Vienna (which, of course, actually meant Prague), Girolamo Lovencito, reported that Emperor Ruholph II spent two and a half hours absorbed in a pair of paintings representing a fruit market and a fish market which he’d had received from the Duke of Savoy.  The paintings were set up on a easel and His Imperial and Royal Highness sat in front of them totally motionless.


This anecdote is a delightful morsel, but there is a lesson here somewhere, too: there are people who spend two and half hours in front of paintings.  Paecht, Baxandall and Cahill have all from time to time written pieces of extraordinary penetrating observation on paintings which surely testified to the great length (and intensity) of their looking.  And while long looking alone does not guarantee insightful seeing, nor will the latter lead to interesting verbalization if the looker lacks the necessary verbal skills, yet, presumably what such long-lookers know about paintings is more worth knowing than what those who have never spent more than five minutes looking at one, know.

Now, aesthetics is a strange science:  it’s concern appears to be the study of the effect of sensual impressions upon human emotions; but putting things this way, leads to defeat:  what to do when the same sensual impression has different — sometimes contrary — effects on two different minds?  “I like St. Peter’s and you like St Paul’s and that’s all there’s to it” is the famous Russelian phrase.  Russel concluded that aesthetics was pointless.

But then, one suspects, that Russell has never spent two and half hours in front of a painting — which is to say, he did not know first hand how important, moving, and transforming such an experience can be.  And how compelling it makes the fundamental question of aesthetics:  what on earth is happening to me?

The way out of Russell’s problem is to tweak methodology. The methodology of aesthetics must assume comparing like and like — oranges and oranges, apples and apples.  Making progress in aesthetics therefore must involve a kind of narrowing down of subject matter:  the systematic exclusion of those whose minds are so different from ours that their opinions do not matter to us.

Note the qualifier:  us.  Rejecting someone for the purposes of aesthetic discussion does not mean declaring that they are an unworthy fool in every other way. It just means that we set aside their opinion as irrelevant as far as our topic of interest is concerned — The Well Tempered Clavier, say.

You see, I can tell you at great length about my impressions of a painting but it only matters to you if my impressions to some extent coincide with yours; if you can make sense out of what I am saying and relate it to your own experience; and then, ideally, respond in kind.  Such a conversation probably requires a kind of similarity of brains:  not merely similar temperamental inclination (to sit before a painting for two hours is a very special kind of temperamental inclination) but also a similarity of training (since each time we look at a painting our brain is transformed in a subtle way).  Which is what makes being familiar with a particular artistic tradition so important.

In short, my hunch is that good conversations on aesthetics can happen, but they must be conversations among like-qualified individuals; we generally fail to have good conversations on aesthetics because — whether out of generosity of spirit or sympathy or some other reason — we engage wrong people.  (I.e. wrong people for us).

(Which is, of course, another reason why people should be taught art-appreciation in school:  this would create a larger body of educated brains, and therefore increase our chances of meeting a similarly structured brain with which to exchange ideas, and therefore increase the general level of happiness in the society.  QED).