Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Walden, Globalized, or, Life Paths in the World’s Language Woods

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I once created a word in French they had never heard, never used, and yet they understood me. I was speaking a language, quite my own, but not quite. My word had fit the situation in the phrases that needed to be said. They heard their language as their language, even though my voice was foreign. In learning French, like in learning any language through cultural contact and contextual experience, I have altered my mind in learning to speak, speaking to learn in a new language world or home.
This is the strangeness of life in the language world.

A bit over five years ago I was anti-learning-languages. I spoke only English and that seemed, pretentiously, good enough. I have since changed my mind—in the sense of this changed decision and in the sense that my ideas can now flow-out through a foreign tongue. I’m writing in French, here, even though the words are coming out in English. I hardly speak English. I’m all in French in reading, talking, feeling and processing the world. I’m writing in English in this moment even though my feelings come out worded in French. Four years ago, I started learning French, naively and stubbornly. A few months later, I went to Paris, France and started really learning English. I forced my English-languaged thoughts bluntly, like hammers to nails, through a French vocabulary.

After this first, few-month experience abroad where I had my first conversations and first friends all in Englishy French, I went home already nostalgic. I wanted to go back. I had to finish this voice. I had to make myself understood. I finished what had to be finished, and a year later, I was back in Europe and eventually France. My suitcases finally landed in Strasbourg, France—a city not quite French, yet completely; not at all Alsatian, but completely fiers d’être.

I slowly lost English-speaking friends and found myself communicating in English rather than speaking it. I started teaching English to french high school students, which entailed mostly trying to trick my students into participating in what I was proposing. The deck was loaded against me. They hardly learned anything from me. I learned a lot of French from their grumblings. In the process, my English had been changing. I was adjusting to the audience. My words were searching to meet their understanding. And even though all of my words were mostly in English, I was speaking English as if it was French.

This is the translating space of communication across half-languages—my half-way French and their no-way English. I learned enough French to stop really caring. If they didn’t want to speak English, we spoke in French. Or, when I was ambitious, I directed a completely orchestrated conversation. Through a well-directed tableau noir of vocabulary and questions, certain pictures, hint words, and an already dialogued context made a conversation possible, in French-English.

I’m still speaking English from time to time, but it often entails some version of this basic formulation of this Frenchified English. Calling home is strange. Being called home is even stranger.

I have taken a couple French classes since this adventure began, but mostly I read and read, read and read, have read and read—a strangely written word that only tells us its tense by a voiced context. In the beginning, the going was tough as the easiest of newspapers was still foreign. I had lived in a world of the known of my born language. Everything had been relatively clear, even in the English-language biggest pushers, a James Joyce, a Hemingway or a T.S. Eliot. French was rather opaque in the beginning as I held on to my old notions. I kept stumbling forward through books, administrative tasks, and situational conversations. I always moved onward, even when I couldn’t instantly clarify the opaque as such and had to continue forward in a guessed-up clarity or forced wording.

My French was admittedly rough. It’s understandable considering what I initially knew and understood was limited to a few hundred words, mal prononcés. I still made jokes—that’s a French mistake—told jokes. Do and make are killers for French learners who generally only have one word for English’s two. I probably had dozens of similar mistakes I never noticed, I probably couldn’t have noticed when I first started speaking French. I perhaps still make certain mistakes, and people are just too nice to speak up. I keep wanting to add “s’s” to my plural “certain’s.” But, I kept on repeating what I knew and adding words, like vinyl records, to my jukebox-like language games. I kept on repeating and mixing together anew. I spoke and spoke, but in the beginning, I couldn’t avoid staggering linguistically through situations like the drunken homeless.

I was homeless. I was homeless in a language that is now my home.

I now have two languages, two homes, from which I speak. Even though I’m not really bilingual, as other language learners might remark, I speak French better in some situations and some conversations than some French people. I can debate and challenge any French speaker and their ideas if the situation is comfortable enough for my voice to be shared and if the context is familiar enough. If I know the pathways, I can walk with any French through any conversation however uncharted. Through the nexus of my French language world, I make up words that are French even though they weren’t before. And my French interlocuteurs followed.

As soon as you feel these once foreign words expressing themselves and furnishing a certain language living room for yourself and others, that language has become a home for you and your feeling language community. The moment native speakers take your words as their own, that language world is equally their home too. French is, strangely, mine and our home.

In Walden, or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau recounts his two years living and studying living in a semi-isolated cabin. In relation to his isolating reflections about life in his solitary space and about life in the “Village,” Thoreau writes:

*Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs. As I walked in the woods to see the birds and squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men and boys; instead of the wind among the pines I heard the carts rattle. **In one direction from my house there was a colony of muskrats in the river meadows; under the grove of elms and buttonwoods in the other horizon was a village of busy men, as curious to me as if they had been prairie-dogs, each sitting at the mouth of its burrow, or running over to a neighbor’s to gossip. I went there frequently to observe their habits. *

Thoreau wanders about the woods in order to better understand what it means to wander about in any world, civilized or otherwise. He is calmly confused in the village and the circulating paths of its gossip. He describes some vagabondish folk waiting about who were “the coarsest mills, in which all gossip is first rudely digested or cracked up before it is emptied into finer and more delicate hoppers within doors.” Whatever the nature of his visits to the village, Thoreau inevitably returned to his forest haven next to the pond, even in the most difficult of circumstances:

*It was very pleasant, when I stayed late in town, to launch myself into the night, especially if it was dark and tempestuous, and set sail from some bright village parlor or lecture room, with a bag of rye or Indian meal upon my shoulder, for my snug harbor in the woods, having made all tight without and withdrawn under hatches with a merry crew of thoughts, leaving only my outer man at the helm, or even tying up the helm when it was plain sailing. I had many a genial thought by the cabin fire “as I sailed.” I was never cast away nor distressed in any weather, though I encountered some severe storms. It is darker in the woods, even in common nights, than most suppose. I frequently had to look up at the opening between the trees above the path in order to learn my route, and, where there was no cart-path, to feel with my feet the faint track which I had worn, or steer by the known relation of particular trees which I felt with my hands, passing between two pines for instance, not more than eighteen inches apart, in the midst of the woods, invariably, in the darkest night. Sometimes, after coming home thus late in a dark and muggy night, when my feet felt the path which my eyes could not see, dreaming and absent-minded all the way, until I was aroused by having to raise my hand to lift the latch, I have not been able to recall a single step of my walk, and I have thought that perhaps my body would find its way home if its master should forsake it, as the hand finds its way to the mouth without assistance.** *

Thoreau traced a path through the unknown by a bodily force and knowledge he was hardly conscious of in the walking.

These literal paths back and forth, to and from town and his remote enclave portray the metaphorical bridge or pathway between all differing worlds, between country and town languages and behaviors, between one language-home and another and their habitual mnotions.

For Thoreau, as it is for us, being lost is at the heart of these sometimes barely traceable paths:

*It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time. Often in a snow-storm, even by day, one will come out upon a well-known road and yet find it impossible to tell which way leads to the village. Though he knows that he has travelled it a thousand times, he cannot recognize a feature in it, but it is as strange to him as if it were a road in Siberia. By night, of course, the perplexity is infinitely greater. In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round- for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost- do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature.** Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as be awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. *

Thoreau’s profound lesson is that:

Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

Being lost is a nasty experience, Thoreau knows this; we know this as language learners and as world travelers. Sometimes we do lose the world in the same way that we lose a word. But this state of being lost in place and in language is a necessary experience all the same for all of us, because the lostness makes us return to something once traced though we had forgotten its markings; it makes us accept certain limits that are unavoidably there in our languaged, perceptual experience and description of the world. We cannot know beyond our positioning in location and in words, in situating in relation to another place, familiar or otherwise, and to another word, felt, foreign or otherwise.

Wittgenstein’s “The limits of language are the limits of my world” is strangely true and not quite totally true. Our world is not terribly limited by language, perhaps not at all, because these desiring words can go so far, so much farther than their simply presence on a page or in a speech. We speak and write out the unexpected, the inattendu through words. Yet we can only see as far as our eyes and our data, we can only write, speak and describe in terms and in language already there in our language community well before our personal language-speaking birth. If Chomsky is right, then these secondary languages are still filtered through our native language and the universal grammar. Chomsky can admit one’s being lost in a foreign tongue, but for him, we would never be lost in our own native language nor would we be able to say something unsayable in our native speech as well as some word or phrasing yet unsaid before in our new language-home. We do these things when we speak through foreign tongues and when we live through strangely habitual language-homes.

At home and abroad, in our native and our foreign tongues, we are always trying to trace out, as our own, the always already traced. We often do say things never before said, yet this newness doesn’t change its commonness. Across communities and borders, language-homes are inhabited, unihabited and reinhabited by the former, the present, and the to come. The French language is mine, is ours, and yet it was already, once before, theirs and, in the same way, it will some day be some else’s—to speak, hear and read through an intertwining linguistic nexus.

Though often lost and always searching, we trace paths. These finding and losing paths are at the heart of our being. When we are at home, we hardly notice them; when we are abroad, we are continually trying to formulate them; and when we are lost as these goings and comings go, we are repeatedly searching the shadows for a fixable trace and the still turning stars for a reliable compass.

We all speak languages strangely all our own. ****