The Existentialist Language Learner
The article was written by our English guest Oli. Oli studied French and philosophy. Today's insight into learning Swiss German is a little bit diffrent and we hope it will encourage you to have a fresh perspective on learing languages.
To be or not to be…?
That is the question encountered by language learners on a daily basis. What is the point of this? Why am I trying so hard to learn Swiss German when in just a few short years worms will be feasting on the tongue I use to speak with? Why are we here at all if it is just to suffer and die? Would it not have been better to never have been born at all? The link between such existential questions and the process of learning a language is an under-studied one. But who has not found themselves pondering these issues whilst a sweat and tear soaked grammar book lies open before them?
The unique sense of despair that language learning produces creates fertile ground for philosophical reflection. It is perhaps unsurprising that the French Existentialists, who are associated perhaps more than any other philosophical tradition with dreary reflections on death and meaning, should provide the insights which most naturally correspond to those encountered by the masochistic individual who embarks on the journey of language learning. This article takes a look at a couple of the similarities between existentialism and language learning, so that next time your thoughts turn dark after a failed attempt to speak to a local you will know you are not alone.
Hell is other people
The most famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play Huis clos is, without a doubt, ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’: hell is other people. The play revolves around three individuals who find themselves in hell, that is, each other’s company. There are no devils and horrific tortures in Sartre’s version of hell, only the unrelenting gaze (‘regard’) of one’s fellow sinners. This reveals something central about the existentialist conception of human existence: our sense of who we are is fundamentally tied to how we are perceived by others. The social world does not just impose pressures on our actions, it determines our very identity. To be, for Sartre, is to be perceived.
Similarly, for the language learner trying to function in a foreign country, to be is to be perceived as a floundering imitation of a local. Just by opening our mouths we reveal our uncertainty about the correct usage of the language’s most basic rules. We are condemned to squirm under the judgemental gaze of ‘the other’. Living in a foreign country, we are desperately trying to create a new identity for ourselves as a fully integrated member of the culture, but our efforts are continuously rebutted by those we are trying to impress. Even when we use the correct vocabulary, and employ the right structures, we cannot get away from the fact that our voice betrays our foreignness; pronunciation is often the most impenetrable barrier to becoming ‘one’ with the locals.
This is the struggle, then, of the language learner: to have an identity - ‘the foreigner’ - continuously imposed upon us by others, in spite of all our efforts to become something else. It can feel constricting, and if we are not careful may lead to a loss of hope and the abandoning of the project altogether. After all, if I cannot avoid the fact that my identity will forever be that of an outsider, then why bother trying in the first place?
An answer Sartre might give is that it is up to us to decide how to respond to the suffocating gaze of others. A key existentialist idea is that, because life has no pre-ordained meaning, we are free to make of our lives whatever we choose. “Existence,” as Sartre says, “precedes essence.” There may be certain characteristics of our lives that we do not choose, but it is up to us to decide how we will respond to them. Indeed, in order to live ‘authentically’, Sartre would say that we must learn to interpret these features of life creatively, not relying on what others tell us. So yes, your identity may forever be defined as someone who is trying unsuccessfully to speak like a native, who does not entirely fit in, but it is up to you to decide what to make of this. You can give up, or you can learn to laugh at yourself and not get too caught up in lofty ideals of perfection. I know which I would prefer.
The trials of Sisyphus
Published just two years before Huis Clos was Albert Camus’ philosophical treatise, The Myth of Sisyphus. The text begins with one of the most well-known lines from the entire history of philosophy:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.
Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
Camus goes on to offer a picture of human life as being characterized by a fundamental ‘absurdity’: we are desperately searching for a meaning to our lives, constantly asking the universe for a sign that could justify our existence, but the universe remains obstinately mute. We may create some sense of meaning for ourselves through our work and projects, but when we are really honest with ourselves we see that the fact of our finitude nullifies the meaning that such activities claim to offer.
Camus uses the image of Sisyphus in the Greek myth to capture our predicament, and to offer a suggestion of how we might best respond. Condemned by the Gods to push a boulder up a mountain which will then roll back down again, and to repeat this for eternity, the character of Sisyphus encapsulates the absurdity of human life. Sisyphyus’ task is futile: all his efforts to push the boulder up the mountain are rendered obsolete by what will occur when he reaches the top. Similarly, all of the efforts we humans make to give meaning to our lives are made a mockery of by our inevitable demise. But it is not all doom and gloom because, for Camus, this fate can be transformed by a lucid perception of the truth of our predicament and an acceptance of the need to continue pushing the ‘boulder’ of our fate, in spite of the failure that awaits us. We must imagine Sisyphus happy, Camus tells us, not because he is hiding behind illusions but because he has fully accepted his predicament.
The idea of pushing a boulder up a mountain just to have it roll back down again may sound painfully familiar to those who have experienced the frustrations of trying to learn a new language. You spend countless hours practising, learning new vocabulary, and studying the language, and really believe you are making progress. The boulder is getting tantalizingly close to the top of the mountain… But then disaster occurs: you have to speak to a native. You forget the vocabulary you had spent time learning, you jumble up your structures, and you watch helplessly as the boulder of your confidence rolls back to the bottom of the slope. In that moment the task that lies before you really seems insurmountable, and you wonder whether it would not be better to just give up now.
There is one important difference between the situation of Sisyphus and that of the discouraged language learner, however. Whilst Sisyphus really has no hope at all, being trapped in the cycle of striving and failure forever, the language learner can hold on to a glimmer of hope. You have met others who have achieved the mysterious goal of ‘fluency’, so you know that it is in fact possible. Yes, you will feel like you are taking two steps forwards and one step back, but you are going forwards… The boulder may roll back down, but each time it grinds to a halt a little bit closer to the top. So get yourself back down to where the boulder lies, and start pushing again. But try to remember Camus’ advice, and smile while you are doing it.
A hopeful conclusion?
What I hope this brief exploration of a couple of aspects of Existentialist philosophy reveals is that, although their starting premises may appear fairly bleak to say the least (the inevitability of death, the absence of intrinsic meaning to life, the fact that we exist only in relation to how others perceive us), Sartre and Camus can offer us insight into how we might transform our experience of learning a language. With a bit of reflection we can see how the significance of language learning goes far beyond a project whose goal is to allow us to successfully communicate in a foreign tongue; in reality, it is a process which acts as a condensed image of the struggles which lie at the heart of life. It is not only when learning a language that the gaze of ‘the other’ conditions our sense of who we are, and it is not only in learning a language that futility feels like an inescapable part of life. Language learning is so worthwhile because it brings these aspects of our lives into a clear focus.
Having made us aware of these truths, language learning also provides us with an opportunity to practice how best to respond to these defining features of our existence. The desire to turn to excuses when learning a language is often very strong. It is always easier to say ‘I am not good enough and I am making no progress’ as a means of justifying our giving up. But now we can see that appealing to the futility of our efforts in this way is analogous to Sisyphus giving in to despair. It is ‘inauthentic’ as it ignores the fact that it is we who impose this interpretation on the situation, therefore denying our essential freedom.
In order to fully embrace not just the language learning process but the whole of life, we must learn to continue trying in spite of the odds being stacked against us, and to do so with a smile on our face. As Sartre puts it, “Life begins on the other side of despair”: we must pass through the inevitable period of hopelessness, where the goal of fluency seems far out of reach, in order to fall in love with the process itself without concern for the end result.