The Babel Project was conceived as a folly. For those of you who are not of an 18th century turn of mind, the original “follies” were crumbling fake Roman or Greek temples constructed in the grounds of British noblemen. (Never noblewomen – therein lies another tale.)
The follies were memorials to a classics education, a Grand Tour around France, Rome and other centres of European learning. Then, once our British Lord returned to his manor and his hundreds of green acres, he would commission an architect to erect something that resembled what he had seen on the 7 hills of Rome, or on the Parthenon.
The Earl of Duke could wake from his bed, look out of his window and see a (manufactured) piece of history. He could connect with something bigger than himself, even if it had been built on conquest and slavery (post-Modernism wasn’t very big in Berkshire in the 1700’s.)
The Babel Project has been my attempt at a low-impact mid-life crisis. Low impact, because frankly, I shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the word “crisis.” I have it pretty good on almost every level. But, like the English nobleman, I want that sense of connection, with both the wider sense of history, but also my own personal history.
Like him, I went on a modern equivalent of a Grand Tour, spent multiple years travelling (also mostly in Europe) and have many fond memories. The greatest personal sense of accomplishment that I still have many years on, is being able to wake, walk and work in a land whose daily language was not my own.
And so, at the beginning of 2012, I attempted to turn the clock back, ever so slightly. To immerse myself as much as practicable (which isn’t very much) into other languages and cultures; to attempt multiple new languages, each with its own approach to see what would happen. Perhaps I might even get to visit those lands and see whether I could still develop the skills necessary to survive without English.
Ten months in, my folly is rising up just beyond my bedroom window. I still haven’t decided if the crumbling is pretend or real. The one thing that I have learned is how supportive other viewers of my folly can be. The support exists at two levels: those who just see the effort of the construction have been very kind about my (really quite) limited progress in the chosen languages. This gives me the impetus to keep going, to try to live up to those compliments.
But also the handful of people who take a step back and recognise my construction for what it is – an intentional, intricate folly; they have called me a fool, but at least they are willing to admit that I am trying to be the best darn fool that I can be.