On Being Foreign by Uri Eytan, Israel

Thoughts About Language

On my first night in France, I dreamt about my childhood. It was a lively, tangible dream, intimately related to the deepest aspects of my personal identity. The details had all but faded away by now, but I can still remember sunrays shimmering in the fresh Jerusalem air, the feeling of another person’s skin against my own, my name being called. When I woke up I was still entangled in the webs my mind had weaved. I washed them off and began another foreign day – staying in a foreign country, living in a foreign language.

I traveled to France this summer for an intensive French course, hoping to habituate myself to the local language by living and breathing it. This setting confronted me for the first time to the deeply unsettling experience of being trapped inside my own head, unable to express what is constantly waiting at the tip of my tongue.

My tongue, my teeth, and my jaw were awarded some unusual attention during the stay, as I felt on my body the meaning of a Hebrew expression that refers to “breaking one’s teeth” when struggling to express oneself. On a day to day basis, my jaw muscles were literally in pain following lessons. From the strenuous activity, as well as from the stress.

We all live inside our language, and when it is taken away from us, our connection with the outside world is severed. The result is an ongoing sense of insecurity, in daily activities such as finding our way or doing the laundry, as well as in interactions with fellow human beings. When the course ended I got the chance to spend some time with a group of French speakers in the countryside. We drove to a nice spot next to a waterfall, but before taking the short hike towards it, we sat down for a healthy meal immediately upon exiting the car. I wasn’t hungry and didn’t really want to eat, but I did so anyway because I wasn’t sure when I would have another chance. All throughout the day, the conversation was being held above my head. I didn’t know what was going to happen next, when we were planning to go and where. I retreated into my own personal bubble and felt very much alone.

As this seems to show, the chasm that is being breached by the lack of a common language causes not only depletion of human relationships but an actual contraction of our own personality. I am not the same person when I speak in French, but a much lesser version of myself, limited to the most basic words and concepts. It seems at this point worth mentioning that the same applies to English, just to a lesser extent. In fact, it’s hard to escape the irony of writing in a foreign language about the limitations that communicating in a foreign language imposes.

In any case, when every simple task becomes a mountain to surmount when even the most basic interaction is a challenge that requires considerable resources, your mind grasps whatever it can to escape this claustrophobic feeling. So you dream about your childhood, you listen to music in your own language and you socialize in your free time with others that can speak it. In this light, segregated communities of immigrants appear to be not only natural but necessary for the psychological well-being of their members (alongside the obvious social and economic benefits). 

At the end of the day, I was living in a foreign language just for one month, but for others, it is a permanent state. This applies not only to immigrants, whether they are African refugees in Israel or young Israelis in Berlin but also to native minority communities, such as the Arab citizens of Israel, which are forced to adopt the majority’s language in day to day conduct. For them, the public sphere can never be a place in which they feel completely at home.

The implications of this understanding are numerous, and there’s no doubt that a lot can be done in the fields of education and public policy to alleviate the situation. After all, the disconnectedness created by the lack of language is an extreme manifestation of a gap that is actually always there. A gap between one person and another, as well as between our verbalized thoughts and concepts and the vibrating matter of our inner world. Although some of us are more privileged than others, fortunate to spend the majority of our time in our own language, we can all appreciate in a basic sense the experience of being foreign.

The exact content of my childhood dream is now well beyond my reach, lost in the mist of memory and unconscious mind. When I opened my eyes that morning and saw the gentle summer light pouring through the window, there was no French and no Hebrew. For a fleeting moment, I felt at home.

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