Here is the full transcript of poet Harry Baker’s TEDx Talk on How Learning German Taught Me the Link Between Maths and Poetry at TEDxVienna conference.
I applied to university to study medicine but switched courses to do maths so that I would have more time to write poetry. Thank you for laughing at my life choices.
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. When I arrived in Germany, my level of language speaking was approximately: “Hallo, mein Name ist Harry. Ich bin English Sprechen Sie English?” “Nein” – “Scheiße”. 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.” 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”.
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.
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’?” And he said, “That’s hilarious. You should definitely put that in your TEDTalk. They’ll all laugh lots.”
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.