Dec 28

Alienation in a Second Language

Nabaz Samad

We were all born with a specific culture, society, family, language, and etc. We have received all our culture, beliefs, ideas and countless other things through our native language.  We live in that language and grow with it; it shapes our ideas and our life as a whole. Our native language relates to our being, to our very existence. Therefore, it has a certain ontological dimension. As Heidegger states: ”language is the home of being”, but I think this statement is only true for one’s native tongue. The second language cannot be the home of our being in the same way as our mother tongue can. This ontological dimension merely exists in our native language. Because we were born in it, lived with it, and grow up with it, our whole life is formed by it. We were armed with knowledge in our native language, we are powerful in our language. As Francis Bacon says: ”Knowledge is power” but I would add that this power manifests itself through language, and more specifically, our native language.

When you are in exile, either physically or self-exiled at home, your old world turns upside down overnight. You will, first of all, be confronted with a radical change from your own culture, beliefs, self, and your very existence in language. In your second language, you feel estranged and alienated because now you are in a new world, a new place where everything looks different from your old one. Your old self is at stake and your new one has not arrived yet. You have to rebuild yourself from scratch at the expense of your old self, casting it aside, and at the same time you have to track your new self-down. Your new self is in its infancy, now you are a work in progress. From within, you are confronted with your old self and the new one; your native language, and your second one are in confrontation with each other. On the one hand, you embark upon finding your new self through your new language; nothing ventured, nothing gained, and on the other hand your old self clings to you in your native tongue. Now, you are hanging over the abyss between them.

If you are physically exiled, you are in a totally new world and have left your old one behind. You are physically in a place, your body is there in the new world, but your mind has not arrived yet, and when you are still at home. You still live and dwell in your own native language, you still think in your own language, this is because your memories and your past are rooted in your native language. When you want to communicate with your new world, you should do it mostly through its language. But when you speak with people in a new language, you must first think in your native language in your mind what to say, then translate it to the new one. It is a very difficult process and a tricky situation. Because you cannot express your feelings, your ideas, or indeed yourself easily in the new language, problems inevitably present themselves for the newcomer. Thus, you feel estranged and alienated – but your identity and personality are at stake. You feel weak and vulnerable because you haven’t got a weapon of language with which to defend yourself,  you have not received the new language completely, you do not have sufficient knowledge of the second language and as a result you have no power. After what can seem like forever in confrontation with the second language, it finally receives and you learn it; you are reborn in it. You have learned the second language through a process of education, taking courses and having interaction with native speakers. Therefore, it has an epistemological dimension.

After all, you might be reborn in a second language, but it never replaces the native one, which is natural, and ontological. Because, you can say something, and express yourself in your mother-tongue you will never do the same with the second language. For instance, you may have memorised some poems, you have sayings and proverbs, jokes, stories, fairy tales, and curses in your native language, and the likelihood is you will never manage to do that in the new language. Since you have deep roots in your native tongue that dates back to your day of birth, speaking a second language will never quite be the same as speaking your mother tongue, but that does not mean it’s not worth the effort to master it.