When things really matter you can’t say it all in words

When I was 18, I decided to try England for a year, that year has never ended, it’s somehow rolled into a lifetime of fifty-four years and hopefully many more.

Sometimes people ask if, after all this time, I think or even dream in English, but I don’t dream in any language, my dreams are visual, wordless sequences of unrelated events.

Do I think in English? I did years of it when learning the language at school, but there was no poke, no swing, no tempo, no momentum in my school English; it felt like pedalling on a static bike.

You can think of language as a ‘vehicle’ for communication. To pass my ‘driving test’, I had to stay focused until I was unconsciously doing it, speaking, listening, reading, writing, and then it came together, things just happened, virtually overnight, or so it seemed.

I didn’t have to ‘think’ in English any more! The words came freely out of my German mouth. They knew the game and played it well. I still have the certificate, under my name the words that meant I was ‘unconsciously competent’. The thrill it gave me.

I had mastered English and this certificate was the proof. I could relax, and relax I did. My friends, the words, did all the talking; they oozed with my charm or exploded with my anger, whenever necessary, I couldn’t have done without them.

Watching TV or reading the papers was like being served meals on wheels. Every meal a feast, a feast of words, English words dancing in my German ears, English words jumping off the pages into my German eyes, my English loved it and my German felt put out.

When I got a rash around my eyes and a burning sensation in my ears, I had to ask myself if these ‘meals on wheels’ were such a good idea after all. It looked as if the way the ingredients were put together didn’t agree with me.

It became so bad I had to see a specialist. Not to worry, he said, you’ve moved from being ‘unconsciously incompetent’ to being ‘consciously incompetent’, it’s a shock to the system. I was shocked too and my English was at a loss for words. Did I have to start all over again?

You know the old learning circle idea, unconsciously incompetent, you don’t know what you don’t know; consciously incompetent, oh no, you know what you don’t know; consciously competent, I can drive very well but no one can speak to me in the car! Till you reach unconsciously competent, the place where you can do it without realising it.

I took the certificate with me to the next appointment. I’ve moved up from ‘consciously competent’ to ‘unconsciously competent’. The specialist smiled. You may be ‘unconsciously competent’ in English, because you use the English language like an Englishman, without thinking. But your itchy rash tells another story. Ah…

Another story, nothing to do with my English… The specialist laughed. It was my last session with him. Thought about those ‘meals on wheels’ a bit more? There’s something in the food that upsets my stomach, something I can do without if I have a choice. Wise words, but consider: it’s not about your English this time, it’s about the words of others.

Ah, the words of others: their meaning, their purpose, their punch, the TV, the papers, shaping my experience? English words, tumbling off my German tongue, my English words or maybe the words of others, the words of the specialist, spinning in my head. How can I be sure? What am I to do?

You’ve got to love us all, including the words of others. There’s nothing else you can do, you have no choice. After all, it was into the words of others that you were born. If it weren’t for us, there would be no TV, no papers, you could never have become fluent in English and this page would be empty.

You’re trilingual: you’ve got three tongues, your mother tongue, our tongue and the tongue in your mouth. Without us nothing moves. My English words again, filling the page in front of me: so many words encoded in my brain, ready on call, to tell the world I’m fluent in English. How technical they sound, how reassuring, how safe!

Maybe language is a vehicle we use to get about in the world. But what does the specialist mean: it’s not about your English this time, it’s about the words of others? Who are the others? The specialist, parents, teachers, TV, the papers? Where does it begin? Where does it end?

Wake up from the words of others: from your forgetfulness of being! The specialist again, in my head, using my English words and the tongue in my mouth. How can I wake up from the words of others? Does it mean I’m asleep?

Could it be that as ‘my’ English words pour out their meaning on this page, my brain is crashing out in wordy unconsciousness, that I’m actually in a dream, a word dream, believing I’m awake?

If this means I ‘dream in English’ after all, it’s with my eyes wide open, the words of others on my tongue and wondering how I can become fluent in shedding ‘my forgetfulness of being’.

Question is: is it as straightforward as learning a foreign language? Probably not, if Plato’s observation is anything to go by…

‘Language and word strive for the expression of pure being; but they never attain to it, because in them the designation of something other, of an accidental “attribute” of the object, is mixed with the designation of this pure being. Accordingly, what constitutes the characteristic power of language is also its characteristic weakness that makes it incapable of representing the supreme, truly philosophical content of cognition.’ (Seventh Epistle, 342c – 343a)

In: Cassirer E. (1955) The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms Vol. 1, ‘Language in the History of Philosophy’, p. 126, Yale University Press