If you speak English, Berlin’s a good city to find yourself in. A high proportion of Berliners can speak English, and most enjoy using it. No surprise that it’s a popular destination for British tourists. However, I spent the last year there and discovered that beyond customer service and railway announcements, there was a strange, mysterious language people were speaking… called German.
Customer service aside, conversation is conducted in German. Outside of ‘The Ring’, the railway line which encircles the inner districts, it’s unusual to hear any conversations in English at all. The Berlin accent is considered quite strong and comes across as a slightly gruff mumble. It’s been described as the equivalent of a Glaswegian or Liverpool accent, but I personally didn’t find it too different to the Hockdeutsch I’d learnt before I moved to Berlin.
Moving to Berlin with only an intermediate understanding of German had a dislocating effect, but at a time when I was happily unemployed (reflecting on 11 years of being unhappily employed), the number of bonuses outweighed the number of issues. The subtleties of advertising campaigns were lost on me. Mild insults that may (or may not) have been directed at me, washed over me. Not being able to understand complex sentences or to deal with more than one conversation at a time influenced the way I saw the city and the way I interacted with society as a whole. This lack of detail made every walk or train ride a fantastic people-watching experience.
“Es tut mir leid, aber Ich kann nicht verstehen Sie.”
Most public conversation never registered with me, my emotions were less swayed by those around me. I learnt less about other people’s petty squabbles and the ‘he said, she said’. I saw people arguing, but understood that I’d never know what they were arguing about. One argument between a bus-driver and a passenger, evidently about something that had just happened, appeared to be over nothing significant at all. What struck me at the time was that the argument was probably not worth having.
The biggest benefit was the removal of what I’ve termed ‘compound distraction’, this is the ‘national conversation’ of pop culture and gossip over sporting contests, politics, scandals, TV or celebrity lives. These compound distractions become harder to ignore with every passing iteration and have a way of completely invading your consciousness. Absence of these distractions had a really positive affect on my concentration. During the last year, I’ve read the books I’d wanted to read for years and had the ‘brain space’ to mull over the finer points as I ambled around… I had a much less cluttered mind, empty of the chatter of other people’s day to day grumbles. There had been odd occasions in the past where I felt overloaded by conversations in crowded rooms, but I never once realised the effect it could have on concentration.
I returned to UK the day before the Olympic torch toured the city, which was also the day before the Jubilee weekend. I doubt I could’ve timed it any worse. I walked along Liverpool’s dock road an hour before the torch was scheduled to pass and found myself wading against a tide of chattering, excited people. I don’t know if the part of my brain that filters out background chatter had shrunk like an unused muscle, but I felt like I’d lost the ability to block it all out. This experience has left me wondering how much is worth knowing. How valuable is the five minutes of chit chat between contestant and quiz show host?
A new surveillance technique is under development based on global speech recognition. The technology would employ supercomputers and artificial intelligence, coupled with face recognition technology, to identify individuals in crowded spaces such as stadiums or busy railway stations. Analysis of the data collected would allow conversations to be reconstructed, essentially making any individual conservation transcribable. Much of it sounds like crazed paranoia of conspiracy theorists, but there appears to be a whole industry working on it. Apparently we want to give the machines Artificial Intelligence so they can be as bored as we are. If we want the machines to remain compliant and not turn our nuclear weapons on us (or on themselves) through abject despair, perhaps we need to start talking about more interesting things.
After my experience in Germany, I wonder if there’s much to gain from having access to all this information. All my friends know how much I love conversation, but to use a cliché, it’s quality, not quantity that matters.