The Language of Foreignness



“I could not live in India: I don’t know the language.” Foreign language is for many the first thing to which foreignness is synonymous. Being a foreigner would mean not just living in a foreign country, but more immediately, more stressfully, living in a different and foreign linguistic environment. According to this doxa, language would be the first obstacle of intercultural dialogue, especially for one of its radical approaches, the exile of a soon-to-be foreigner. Packing her suitcase, the traveler wonders how she will manage in the first days, with no help, no mastery over the language. The language gap appears as the first – and in some cases final – hurdle that would force the foreigner to remain, at best, at the very edge of her new society. She will be, initially, perplexed by the first interlocutors willfully switching to a local language to exchange information without her knowing, and ultimately, for what shall remain, even after many efforts, a medium of expression and understanding necessarily less comfortable that her native language, used extensively for several decades before. A foreigner would be foreigner first with regards to language.

Is it so? Truly, number of things from a culture transpires from its language, from the simplest interactions of everyday life to its most well-kept traditional secrets. But a culture may appear foreign also from other angles. Certain gestures, social practices or beliefs may be understood in terms of their language-based explanations, but remain strange to the foreign. What exactly is the role of language in the event of foreignness? Is the contact with a foreign language the main sign of foreignness? Is it its most representative example? Or is it only one sign of the foreign, among many others? Are interactions with a foreign language the most puzzling experiences of someone living away from her native country? If so, why? How central is language in the experience of foreignness? How much of the philosophical experience of foreignness is contained, or concealed, in language?

Such are the questions that this essay will address, directly or indirectly, but often elusively. This is a first-person account of the experience of foreignness, and such an account cannot be reduced to neat, well-established theoretical positions, not to mention, conclusions. As we will see, the very concept of foreignness resides on a new way to consider spaces, and in particular, spaces of belongingness. The discussion of foreignness can only be made more satisfactory if its language, its method, is also somehow nomadic, hoping to see emerging the just expression of one’s experience between the settled lines of stable language and arguments. One could hardly do an aporetic treatise of foreignness, à la Aristotle. A dialectic approach would be certainly more relevant, with, as the actual participants to the discussion, a few thinkers, and the interactive exchange of several lived experiences. This dialectic method would also be more subtle and progressive, therefore imitating the development of the experience of foreignness as such. No fixed conclusion, therefore, but nonetheless an intellectual journey, a philosophical travel with a beginning and an end. As thinking tools, as garments, we will fill-up our suitcase with philosophical companions. An initial conceptual Swiss-knife, laying the ground for the rest of our reflection: Greg Madison’s definition of the experience of foreignness as existential migration. The theoretical toolkit will be completed by three major thinkers of the last century: Heidegger and the unheimlich, Merleau-Ponty and his understanding of language, between pensée and parole, and finally, the concept of supplement by Derrida. Once arrived, we will see how these influences can be used to ‘make sense,’ to analyze what constitutes foreignness, and in particular, the role of language in the experience of foreignness. Our first stop will take place around the humor of a foreigner. Merleau-Ponty’s insights will turn out to be useful to conceptualize this matter. Our second halt will be animated by discussions on one’s writing in a foreign language. We will see how Jacques Derrida can help us frame this second question. But, now accustomed to the foreign, things are starting to change. Third stop: what happens when the foreign becomes familiar? Heidegger will give us some clue as to how to deal with it. By then inspired and comfortably foreign, we will be able to address the ultimate question: what about the ethics of not understanding? But I can hear the boarding call. Bon voyage!

Image courtesy: Cosmopolita Scotland