Linguists on foot #3 – Knulp

Yesterday and the day before I´ve been writing about people who used languages for trade. Today it is the turn of Knulp, who used language for friendship. Strictly speaking, you couldn’t describe him as a linguist. In some ways he was just a tramp, a homeless wanderer, the fictional creation of Hermann Hesse, Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1946.

Bronze statue of Knulp, by Friedhelm Zilly, in Calw, Hermann Hesse´s birthplace in South Germany.
So, what is the point of giving Knulp honorary linguist status?

When you learn a new language, and reach the point where you start speaking to people in their own tongue, you need a talent for bridging the gap of cultural differences. To think that excellent language skills, a profound knowledge of grammar and a wide vocabulary are the bridge seems mistaken to me. Instead I believe that it is more a case of being able to imagine yourself into the shoes of the other person, and this is a gift which Knulp had.

Here is what Damien Kelleher said about Hesse´s Book in his Literary Reviews and Essays, 5.3.2010:

“Knulp is the type of fellow who has a friend wherever he goes, and if he doesn’t, then he soon will. He can talk to anyone about what interests them; he knows just enough about every profession or interest to coax his interlocutor into revealing their thoughts and emotions. “

How do you manage to acquire such a facility in your target language?

First idea: you prepare for a conversation with a person by looking up a few of the key words surrounding the things that might interest them, even if it is just this week´s news items.
Second idea: you spend a disproportionate amount of time learning to ask questions, then mostly listen while the other person talks. After all, it is often possible to understand more than you would have been able to say in the language. Also, once your foreign companion has used certain phrases in talking to you, you can then use them yourself in a simplified form, to check your understanding.

Several studies on communication have suggested that over 50 per cent of communication is non-verbal. The person you are talking to can sense when your interest is genuine, even if your questions are ungrammatical and lacking in finesse.


About Fun with languages

Blogging about learning languages, making it fun Hobbies: paragliding, cycling, reading, BBC radio 4.
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