Our Mother Tongue

May 1985 – I had been in Ireland for over two months and decided that I liked the country well enough to stay for good. I also thought that I could have a go at my job as a graphic designer/photographer so I ventured one day into a camera shop to buy all the material needed to set up a dark room.

My English being quite limited, I proceeded to explain to the shop assistant, by gestures and sketches, what I needed. After a while I worried that the man would get frustrated by the amount of time it took to get through my list but he assured me that he was in fact having a great time trying to guess what I wanted. When eventually I left the shop I had everything I needed.

Over the following months, whenever words failed, I would communicate with gestures but, to my amazement, the Irish did not understand what I meant when I would hold my hand up in a typical Italian gesture. I soon realised that our mother tongue is a unique language whose alphabet is made up of sounds, gestures and visual references that are typical of the place where we are born. This blueprint we carry with us wherever we go as we gradually absorb new riches that nourish and sustain us in our personal journey.

This is why learning a new language is a great adventure I would recommend to anyone. When I moved to Ireland a whole new world opened up and my vocabulary expanded immensely forming a whole new landscape. After many years this personal landscape has become accustomed to accommodate images, sounds, gestures and words that go together hand in hand often with no need for translation. And this is what I love about the arts, that each art form is an independent language that speaks to us in its unique way bringing balance to our busy lives: music, dance, drama, poetry and the visual arts. We need to engage with all of them either as a maker or as an audience, or both.

One of my favourite paintings is ‘Snow Storm at Sea’ by William Turner. When I first stood in front of it in the Tate Gallery in London, the range of emotions I felt were so overwhelming that I could not fully describe them with words and yet I can still remember how I felt.

When I worked with a group of children who did not communicate verbally I had to learn first to do away with words, to be silent, and then to converse with pictures, coloured lights and movement. That’s when I started to fully appreciate each art form and to work across them.

Once I took part in a workshop for teachers where the facilitator made a presentation on ‘visual language’ by analysing picture books for children. By dissecting the book picture by picture, she explained how artists work so that, in turn, the teachers could ‘explain’ it to the children, except that the way she explained it gave the impression that artists think and work in a linear process while the opposite is often the case. Should not the story and images speak by themselves and let the child respond in her/his personal way?

I fear that there is an increasing tendency in insisting that everything must be explained through the mind and translated intellectually even to very young children, thus preventing them from appreciating what each art form offers.

If we trained ourselves and our children to open up to and maintain access to each art form’s specific language we would be able to fully activate each one of our senses. By working across art forms, we would enhance our capacity to communicate in new meaningful ways even when words fail.

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