A recent visit to the Tate Modern’s Gauguin exhibit (recommended, if you can make it—it’s on until January 11, 2011) gave me the opportunity to learn a little more about the global traveller and painter that was Paul Gauguin, and it got me thinking about foreign languages and how they can seem to the non-native speaker. Gauguin could be called a Romantic painter, too, and he seemed to fall in love more with an idea of how he wanted things to be than with what actually was. Travelling to Tahiti and nearby islands, he sought to escape Western Civilisation. Gauguin was so bitterly disappointed to find it already there that he not only painted what wasn’t there, he made new idols to old gods with his own hands—just so he could paint the “heathen natives” he went to live amongst, but had not found.
In 10 rooms of pieces of art from around the globe that chart this singular artist’s life and works, a little description helpfully provided by the nice people at Tate Modern got me thinking:
When he chose Tahitian titles for his paintings, their ability to conjure a remote, exotic world for western ears seems to have been as important to him as their specific meaning. His own grasp of the Tahitian language was patchy, but he was entranced by the barely comprehended snatches of speech around him, and often noted down phrases that turned out to be quite prosaic when translated.
Prosaic means, really, a thing that is straightforward or dull (or worse—since we’re talking about an internationally famous artist—lacking in imagination). But, are titles like Where are you going? really so prosaic? I don’t think so. I think questions like that are what drive us all, especially those of us learning languages. Prosaic questions make up the fabric of life. For all that Gauguin travelled the world in search of what he didn’t and couldn’t find, at least he tried. If you remember that the “barely comprehended” snatches of speech could entrance Gauguin, helping and adding to his fascination with Tahiti and its people and culture, then I believe you’re that much closer to gaining for yourself a real appreciation of all that learning a new language opens up for you. Not just little things, but whole worlds of culture, people, ways of seeing things, and so much more!
Learn more about Mike Hayes’s adventures in language learning.