Educator Insights

Second Language Expression and Remaking Self

As I’ve begun paddling around in the wide seas of thought in the fields of language, peacebuilding and mission, I’ve come away with the realization that this stuff is at least half in the practice–theory can only get us so far. But that doesn’t stop me from philosophizing often, and this article, Born Again in a Second Language, took me a little into the metaphysical side of language learning and how it effects our selves and connects strongly back the other two fields we like to consider on this blog.

Author Costica Bradatan talks about the incredible shifting of self that happens when a writer changes languages, citing many well known authors who did so, such as Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov: “…to abandon your native tongue and to adopt another is to dismantle yourself, piece by piece, and then to put yourself together again, in a different form.”

Bradatan astutely sees this as both a positive opportunity for growth, but additionally as something that can potentially be traumatic. One becomes both completely out of control, and also very much in control. No thoughts in a new language so easily ‘rise to the service’ without deliberation. There is a needed intentionality that is both precious and at the same time frustrating.

Becoming a writer in a language that is not yours by birth, though, goes against nature; there is nothing organic in this process, only artifice. There are no linguistic “instincts” to guide you on the path and the language’s guardian angels rarely whisper into your ear; you are truly on your own. Says Cioran: ‘When I wrote in Romanian, words were not independent of me. As soon as I began to write in French I consciously chose each word. I had them before me, outside of me, each in its place. And I chose them: now I’ll take you, then you.‘”

It is that element of artifice that I think can be most frustrating to second language learners who long to be authentic but find that their authentic selves are different in a different language. It’s a frustration I think that can keep our students and even ourselves from pursuing another language fully–there is a jumping into something kind of unknown, and a surrendering of some perception of reality to another that isn’t familiar, and we perhaps fear might not be as good.

That feeling seems pretty familiar when I think about it, because we find it also in the two other fields I mentioned above. At the heart of both missions and peacebuilding there is also an element of deep change: a new type of relationship with God and people; a change in perspective on violence and justice. The same surrendering of perspective is necessary, and it’s a vulnerable place. Let’s be aware of that, and treat ourselves and other learners in all three of these areas with kindness and understanding and encouragement. Remaking self is an undertaking that requires a lot of patience and many companions for the journey.

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  1. Pingback: Are We Different People in Different Languages? | Language for Peace Forum - February 11, 2016

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Contributing Author

Abigail Long is a 2012 graduate of Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and a member of Fairview Ave Brethren in Christ Church in Waynesboro, PA. She spent 14 months teaching English in South Korea at the Connexus Language Institute and is deeply interested in the connections between language learning, teaching and peacebuilding.

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