How learning German taught me the link between maths and poetry | Harry Baker | TEDxVienna

How learning German taught me the link between maths and poetry | Harry Baker | TEDxVienna

December 3, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Translator: Nadine Hennig
Reviewer: Robert Tucker I applied to university to study medicine but switched courses to do maths so that I would have
more time to write poetry. (Laughter) Thank you for laughing at my life choices. (Laughter) (Applause) And, apart from one
of the first poems I wrote, being a love poem about prime numbers, I told myself that the two
weren’t really that linked. I liked maths because there was
always a definite right answer, and I liked poetry because
there wasn’t a definite wrong one. But for me, when I switched
courses to do maths, I was given the option
of doing maths with a year abroad, and I thought that would be
a fun way to live in another country and experience another culture. So for a year I lived and studied
maths in Germany, and I thought it would be a good idea
to try and learn German because I’d heard
it was really popular there. (Laughter) When I arrived in Germany, my level of language speaking
was approximately: “Hallo, mein Name ist Harry. Ich bin English. Sprechen Sie English?” (Laughter) “Nein.”
– “Scheiße.” (Laughter) Thankfully, as the year went on,
my language skills improved slightly, and I’d like to share a couple of things
that I learnt along the way. Now, I am aware that I am talking
about learning German in a German speaking country, whilst relying on everybody
to understand my English, but don’t worry, “Mein English
ist unfassbar gut.” (Laughter) What struck me
about learning a second language is that whilst everybody has
that same destination in mind of hopefully becoming fluent, the journeys that we go on
are very different. And measuring your progress
on that journey using verb tables and grammar exams, whilst helpful for some, for me didn’t fully capture the excitement
of what it was to learn another language. So I began to set up my own milestones for when I knew
that I was making progress. The first was that once
those basic building blocks are in place, being able to trust your instincts. I remember explaining
a story to a friend where everything had worked out
in the end, and come together nicely, and I found myself using the words,
“Alles hat geklappt.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard
that word before, but as I said it,
it kind of made sense to me, because if you clap, that’s a very literal
coming together of your hands. But also if you make a plan
and it works out, sometimes you feel like
giving yourself a mini-round of applause. The difference was
that when I said these words, I knew that it was the right word
to use in that context because it felt natural. Up until that point, if I didn’t know
what a word was in German, I was just trying to say
the English word with a German accent, and try and get away with it. But more often than not
that left me looking like “ein Idiot”. (Laughter) The second stage for me was when you first begin
to dream in another language. A lot of people talk about this, as for all of your external efforts, this is the point when you know
it’s finally started to sink in. And the first dream that I had in German, I dreamt that I was in a German classroom
learning some new vocabulary, which meant that not only had
my subconscious taken in enough German that I could understand
so that I could dream about it, it had also taken in some German
I couldn’t yet understand and was trying to teach it
to me in my sleep. (Laughter) Now, whilst I don’t think this is the most foolproof method
of learning a language, it was quite exciting at the time. But the third stage for me, and the moment when I really knew
everything would be OK, is when you were able to either understand
or make jokes in another language. I absolutely love puns, and whenever any of my non-English friends
are able to make puns in English, I’m always really impressed. So, a moment came when I was speaking
to my German friend who was a poet, and he was talking
about how, when he has ideas, they begin to snowball into each other
into a kind of ideas avalanche. And he told me that the German word
for “avalanche” was “Lawine”. Without skipping a beat, I said to him, “Hey, if there was a lot of snow
between the months of March and May, would that be called an ‘Avril Lawine’?” (Laughter) And he said, “That’s hilarious.” (Laughter) “You should definitely
put that in your TEDTalk. They’ll all laugh lots.” (Laughter) I think being able to play
with another language is a very exciting thing, and it’s not something
you always get an opportunity to do, in particular, [in] grammar exams – well, they don’t give you
bonus marks for puns, anyway. What I was experiencing was something
that I had experienced before – something that at school, me and
my bitter maths rival / best friend Luke had called “the nerd rush”. This is the feeling you got when you first wrapped your head
around a concept, or were able to solve a problem
in a particularly neat way. This is a feeling I later experienced
when I started writing poetry, whether it was when the words
just seemed to fall into place, or whether it’s coming up
with a particularly satisfying rhyme, or maybe even just thinking
of a ridiculous pun. For me, the difference was now that I was getting this
in day-to-day conversations. Whether it was the thrill of being
understood by the person in front of me, or just having a kind of slight idea
about what they were talking about, piecing together simple sentences became like mini-equations
to be solved there and then. It involved the pattern recognition
and attention to detail that I love from maths, and it combined it with the creativity and
the ability to think outside of the box that I really enjoyed about poetry. It combined the two in a way
that I had not previously thought about. And in many ways, German is quite
a logical and mathematical language. I remember asking my housemates
what the German word for a kettle was. And I said to them, “How do you call
the thing that cooks the water?” And they said, “Das ist ein Wasserkocher.” (Laughter) And for me, it just made perfect sense, and there were
all of these moments where – (Laughter) I would be really excited. I remember when I found out, I came home and I said to them that
the German word for glove is “Handschuh” – because it’s like a little shoe
you put on your hands. (Laughter) And I thought, that’s incredible. And they said, (Laughter) “Why are you so excited about gloves?” (Laughter) But I came up with this whole list
of my favourite words. My absolute favourite: I learnt that the German word
for “turtle” is “Schildkröte”, which is like a kind of “shield toad”. And when I found that out, I immediately looked up what a snail was, because I hoped that it would be
a kind of “shield worm”. (Laughter) It turns out that the German word
for “snail” is “Schnecke”, but the German word for “slug”
is “Nacktschnecke”, (Laughter) because it’s like a naked snail. (Laughter) And I thought that was fantastic. (Laughter) And my housemate said,
“Why have you brought snails home?” (Laughter) But in a way, this sticking together
of words could be quite poetic. I remember learning that the German word
for “iris” is “Regenbogenhaut”, which translates as “rainbow skin”, which I think is kind of quite beautiful and still has
that weird sort of logic to it. Similarly, I found out the German word
for “nipple” is “Brustwarze”, (Laughter) which means breast wart, which, whilst less beautiful, (Laughter) (Applause) has still got
that weird kind of logic to it. So I thought it would be fun
to try and invent my own words. And where I lived, in Hannover,
there’s quite a large Turkish population. So there’s a lot of places that sell
kebab and döner and also falafel. I was really happy to find out the German
word for “falafel” is “Falafel”. (Laughter) But the German word
for “spoon” is “Löffel”. If you had a specific spoon
that you only ever ate falafel with, you could call it a “Falafellöffel”. (Laughter) So I’ve written a poem
called “Falafellöffel”, and it’s about a guy called Phil. You might be able to see
where this is going. It does involve
some kind of call and response, which is entirely in German, but I think you guys
will be slightly better at that than they are back in England. “Phil ist voll. Die Nacht ist gut verlaufen. Phil sieht ein Geschäft
und er fragt, was sie verkaufen. “Falafellöffel. Für Löffel
voll Falafel.” – which means Falafal spoons,
for spoonfuls of Falafel – “Was?” “Falafellöffel. Für Löffel
voll Falafel.” “Wie?” “Falafellöffel. Für Löffel
voll Falafel.” Phil doesn’t speak German,
so he’s left a little baffled. See there’s this fella Phil,
and Phil loved falafel. In a falafel raffle he would
snaffle all the tickets. He always answers in affirmative
to offers of falafel; even if he’s awfully full,
he’d feel awful if he didn’t. (Laughter) And for us it might feel effortless to live a life falafelless. (Laughter) But Phil effervesces
unless he gets his falafel fix. So if Phil was ever
to be offered Löffel of Falafel he’d say “yes” despite not knowing
what the F a Löffel is! For Phil a life of love and laughter
will have a falafel after. (Laughter) So it’s “yes” despite not knowing
what the F a Löffel is. If a falafel fell off a Löffel,
Phil’d feel awful, (Laughter) so it’s “yes” despite not knowing
what the F a Löffel is. A fluffy falafel is often iffy
if he’s honest, but it’s “yes” despite not knowing
what the F a Löffel is. If half a Löffel of filthy falafel
is overly lethal, even as we leave Phil
he’d still have a message for his kids, saying “yes” despite not knowing
what the F a Löffel is, always “yes” despite not knowing
what the F a Löffel is. So when I say: “Wie viel Falafel
ist zu viel Falafel?” – which of course means: How much falafel
is too much falafel? – could you reply in unison, as one: “Vier Löffel voll Falafel
ist zu viel Falafel.” – (Laughter) which of course means: Four spoonfuls
of falafel is too much falafel! – If anyone doesn’t speak German, I can talk
you through it, if you repeat after me: “Vier”
– Audience: Vier Harry Baker: Löffel voll
– Audience: Löffel voll HB: Falafel
Audience: Falafel HB: ist zu viel
Audience: ist zu viel HB: Falafel.
Audience: Falafel. HB: Wunderbar! (Laughter) Wie viel Falafel ist zu viel Falafel? Vier Löffel voll Falafel
ist zu viel Falafel. Wie viel Falafel ist zu viel Falafel? Audience: Vier Löffel – HB: Lauter! Wie viel Falafel
ist zu viel Falafel? Audience: Vier Löffel – HB: Schneller! Wie viel Falafel
ist zu viel Falafel? Audience: Vier Löffel – Vier Löffel voll Falafel
ist zu viel Falafel if it left him on his deathbed
with a message for his kids saying “yes” despite not knowing
what the F a Löffel is. always “yes” despite not knowing
what the F a Löffel is. Phil war voll. (Laughter) Die Nacht war gut verlaufen. (Laughter) Phil sah ein Geschäft
und er fragte, was sie verkaufen. “Falafellöffel. Für Löffel voll Falafel.” “Falafellöffel! Für Löffel voll Falafel!?” “Ja – Falafellöffel!
Für Löffel voll Falafel!” You’ve got to make an effort
when you travel! (Applause) One of my favourite poets in the UK,
called Disraeli, once said to me that learning another language is like learning
to think in another colour. And I’ve spoken to other people
who say they feel like they have different personalities
in different languages. And I learnt quite early on
whilst learning German that when I express an opinion in English,
I would often say things such as: “I think, maybe, if you want,
we could possibly do this.” Or: “I feel like, you know,
if it’s not too much trouble, possibly we could do that.” And whilst in English that just makes me
sound very unsure of myself, in German, it rapidly affects
the sentence structure, and then I didn’t know
where to put the verbs. (Laughter) The result of this
was that the German Harry became a lot more decisive and direct
about what he wanted to say than English Harry, purely because I lacked
the language skills to be able to doubt myself in that way – (Laughter) which was an incredible thing. Another side effect
was that whilst in English I think I’m slightly more comfortable
talking to a thousand strangers than one-on-one kind of small talk, in German, because I was so excited
about learning the language, small talk with strangers
became like homework. I was really excited to ask questions and learn quite simple facts
about other people’s lives because that was the sort of vocabulary
that I could understand. Similarly, I was really excited
to talk about myself because I needed to practise. And so whilst German taught me
a link between maths and poetry that I hadn’t previously
been able to imagine, it also taught me things about
my own personality that I hadn’t expected. And I realized that these milestones
I’d given myself in German, and learning a language, were things that I’ve seen before. When it came to maths, whilst it might be difficult at first to get your head around
the basic building blocks, once they’re in place, I think then you can begin to have fun
with it and jump between them and trust your instincts
whilst doing that. When it comes to writing, if you can immerse yourself enough
in the world of a poem or a story, then it becomes possible for these ideas
to seemingly come from nowhere. I’ve often gone to bed,
or just fallen asleep in the daytime, whilst writing a poem, and when I wake up,
there’ll be a new idea there, that’s almost as if I’ve tried
to teach it to myself in my dreams. And the final thing
was with these two things, as with learning German,
as with many other aspects of my life, I realized that once you put the work in, you can get comfortable enough with
something, and be willing to take risks, but also have fun with it. That’s when you can really start
to put yourself out there. After I finished my year abroad, I came back to my final year
at university in Bristol, and I was moved up from the beginners German class
to the advanced German class. And, whilst at the end of the year I did quite well in
my listening and speaking exams, I still managed to fail
my final grammar exam. I did, however, pass my maths degree, and since then I’ve been able
to do the poetry full time, and travel around the world
doing what I love doing. So in a way it’s been
quite a unique and weird journey but everything has “geklappt”. Thank you. (Applause)