‘Would you like to hear the talk?’ She said.
‘Yes, why not’, I nodded.
‘But you won’t understand anything’, said her friend. ‘How can you sit and listen for an hour to language that makes no sense. Surely you want a translator’.
‘Not at all’, I said. ‘I’d rather just listen and watch.
I was in Bulgaria, having completed a road trip from Sofia to the Black Sea Coast. The talk in question was about one of Bulgaria’s greatest women writers, and it was to take place at the town hall of Dobrich, a little inland from Balchik, the seaside palace of a former princess.
So what is it like to listen to a language one does not ‘understand’ in the conventional sense? Obviously, language involves so much beyond the ostensible content. Yet, so fixated are we on the content of the message that we miss all that goes on. Language training has as its aim the ability to ‘communicate’, to be understood and to understand, in written and spoken form. But it thereby misses the richness of language. Often I prefer not to be distracted so, released from the shackles of content. That way you can pay attention to all the other dimensions, such as the intonation, the type and mix of sounds, the movements of tongues, faces and bodies.
Let me give three examples. The subtle lilt of Bulgarian demands little if any movement of body and face. Eyes, nose, facial muscles remain largely still. The head barely moves and the body is kept still. Everything relies on the voice, its loudness or softness, its pauses and rushes, its consonantal conjunctions. By contrast, Russians throw their whole body into a talk. To make a point, a Russian pushes her whole body forward, projecting the words into the midst of the listeners. Her face runs through a gamut of expressions, whether defiance, disdain, charm, sensuousness, seriousness, or a lighter touch. The arms assist in the process, while not drawing attention to themselves. And the Russian sibilants, the breathed consonants, give a weighty feel to what is said – only to be lightened by the ever-present ‘y’ that precedes so many vowels.
What about the Chinese? Once, I attended a group discussion for over two hours, of younger men and women. The men embody in subtle ways the demeanour of the ancient scholar: the goatee being grown, both elbows on the table, which keep the shoulders up. The body is in constant low-level movement, and the hands, holding a pen or perhaps a page, lean over the text. Rarely do they put a hand on the face – to lean, scratch, stroke or pick (hygiene!).
The women have no such ancient model to be absorbed quietly and subconsciously over many years. Still both elbows are on the table, pages and arms move, and they too lean forward. Occasionally one leans back, but the head is held at a tilt.
A speaker is actually quite animated, although rarely does anyone look directly at the speaker. Thin-fingered hands touch, fold and unfold, hold a page, make a note, rub, straighten and curl. Now the elbows move back and lift a little. The head moves minimally and continually, tilting and turning. The eyes are quite expressive, darting about. Eyelids lift and fall, while eyebrows draw together and then part. All while the Chinese tones rush out in a fast-play musical score. As for the sounds, all one need do is rapidly move from curling the tongue slightly back, to pushing its tip up against the upper teeth, to pulling the lips back, to rounding them momentarily… Soft gutturals emerge, myriad vowel-diphthongs, ringing syllables – all produced effortlessly. As for me, I continue to ponder the strange places my tongue would have to find to make such sounds.