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Foreign languages are nice, when you don’t understand them.

I once asked the great J.V. Jensen how he succeeded in bringing Asia so close to us, in his Exotic Novellas for example, and whether he had spent a long time learning Chinese.

‘I love travelling in China,’ Jensen said, ‘because the people don’t bother me with their language. I don’t understand a word.’ He’s not wrong.

Foreign languages are nice when you don’t understand them. At that moment when a whirlwind of wild syllables comes flying at us, God alone (along with the person who’s uttered them) has any idea what’s going on. How soothing it is not to know what people want!

‘You’ll get far in this world,’ said the wisest man of the century, ‘if you listen to what people are


In foreign countries you can afford to listen, it doesn’t cost anything. With a polite tilt of the head you can listen as the other fellow pours out his heart – such a rare thing in this world! And then when he has let it all out, you can say with a vague wave of the hand: ‘Me? Unfortunately… deaf and dumb… not a word of what you’re saying…’

That’s a nifty little trick, an excellent tonic for one’s health.

Now, it happens that in every part of the world, people raise their voices nice and loud when they think you don’t understand. They believe that cranking up the volume of the old vox humana will make up for any deficit in vocabulary on the other person’s part, and if you’re smart you’ll let them shout.

It’s so nice to travel in a foreign country and to be able to say – in your best foreignish – things like ‘please,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘registered-package.’ Generally the only word you know is a word you’ll never get a chance to use during your trip.

I’ve long ago given up on that whole business of trying to use a dictionary or a phrase book. If you do utter one of those ready-made phrases to a foreigner, it’s as if you punctured them with a needle: the stream of foreign speech just starts bubbling right out of them, and good luck trying to find any of that in your phrase-book.

But how lovely it is when you don’t understand a word!

What ever could they be trying to tell me? What ever could they have to say?

You don’t hear, for example, that those two men over there have some very important things to say concerning the takeover of the share-holding majority of the Matchstick trust; and then something about a dodgy real estate deal followed by a (very old) dirty joke; then something good about a woman that neither of them want, followed by bad things about a woman they couldn’t get - you don't need to listen to any of that.

The diminutive vendor in the train station calls something out, which probably even the locals don't understand; the fact that he is selling second-rate vegetables you can see for yourself. You're enveloped by gentle reveries – what could these wild, agglutinated, rapidly gobbled, half-swallowed sounds possibly mean?

They must have different voice boxes, different noses, different vocal cords. It's like in a fairy tale where everything you’ve learned in school does not apply, because the others have clearly not learned the same things as you, or learned them wrong. And it's not pleasant to walk around like a soft-headed half-wit...

‘Please! Pardon me, but when I am travelling I like to know exactly what's going on; as an educated person you should at the very least understand something!’ It takes all sorts…

Lurching about in the labyrinth of language is not such a bad thing: ‘sheeeu sheh sey reh!' shout the French; let them shout! ‘Tuh how vee paack’ gurgle the English; let them gurgle! But it makes me wonder, what do foreigners in Germany hear, with their foreign ears, when our train station porters, security guards or hotel staff say something to them in German?

It's a little bit unsettling to talk to people without really talking to them. That's when you realise how speech can be a force for pacifism. When it fails, our inner caveman comes out, the wild man who slumbers in all of us, a light cloud of fear passes by, fear with a hint of hatred: what kind of a person is that anyway? A foreigner? What does he want here? And even if he does have legitimate reasons to be here, how can I make some money out of him? And particularly on the streets, faced with those who have not had commercial dealings with foreigners, you feel a bit like a wolf who's turned up in the primeval forests, howling under the tall trees, while the wanderer clutches his walking stick ever tighter… only if all goes well do they flail their arms.

Otherwise, it's nice to wander through a world that doesn't understand us, that we don't understand, a world in which words only penetrate our ears in the form of: ‘Yousana-wo-bi-räbidäbi-dé.’ Misunderstandings are impossible because the common bridge is missing. It’s a tidy, thoroughly honest situation. After all, how do people generally communicate?

Over each other's heads.


Translated by Daniel Kennedy

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