A Mind @ Play

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Sir Humphrey Appleby: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last 500 years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well?

James Hacker: That’s all ancient history, surely.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes, and current policy. We had to break the whole thing up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it’s just like old times.

James Hacker: Surely we’re all committed to the European ideal.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Really, Minister.

[laughs]

James Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, for the same reason. It’s just like the United Nations, in fact. The more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up. The more futile and impotent it becomes.

James Hacker: What appalling cynicism.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes. We call it diplomacy, Minister.

Yes, Minister: The Writing on the Wall (1980)

When learning foreign in earnest for the first time, I noticed that whilst making progress in the language itself, my brain also found ways of hemming in my thoughts. It was as if my mind’s vocabulary was labelled and categorised, such that I often instinctively knew before opening my mouth whether I knew how to say what I wanted to ‘in foreign’. Knowing the word for tree bark was as important as knowing that I know the word for tree bark. Interestingly, this made trying to use languages from school more difficult: when travelling in France, a language I’ve barely used in the past decade or so, I often found myself trying to say things my mind believed me capable of saying. It would have me starting sentences, confident in the knowledge that I knew the word or phrase ‘in foreign’, only which foreign wasn’t mentioned. It seems actually knowing what to say plays second fiddle to knowing what one is able to say.

Now with the intention of learning a second foreign properly, I find my mind building a new ring fence around what can and can’t be said in the new foreign. I wonder what effect this might have on the old foreign–will my brain try to corral it into the smaller space, or might the fencing be removed altogether and treated like my native tongue? Will I find myself stumbling over my own thoughts as in French, or will I need to battle over my brains’ self-imposed hurdles to express myself?

Hmm… it’s been some time since I posted with any regularity here. In fact, it was something of a resolution of mine for 2012 that went rather pear-shaped, but better late than never.