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Separation from language

Updated: Oct 1

As term begins again, many international students find themselves in a monolingual context for the first time. Stressed emails whisper feelings of isolation as these students doubt their ability to advance in a language they struggle to comprehend. I thought it might be useful therefore to begin the term with words and images from others who have been separated from their language or forced to look at their culture from afar.


I began with the Korean writer Han Kang and shared some of her words from her book The White Book. This is a collection of one-page mini essays or meditations on all things white. In beautifully written prose, the book conveys thoughts on a spectrum of topics, one of which is language. In the chapter Fog, she writes:


"Why do old memories constantly drift to the surface, here in this unfamiliar city? When I go out into the streets, the scraps of conversation which pull into focus when the speaker brushes past me, the words stamped on street and shop signs, are almost all incomprehensible" (Kang 2016, p.21).


We explored the meanings of unfamiliar and incomprehensible. Both adjectives reflect the students' current learning state. After clarifying the meaning of the verb scrap and its accompanying preposition, we looked at other uses of this word combination such as: scraps of material, scraps of food, scraps of paper and discussed how scraps of conversation is an apt description for how language is heard on the street.


I then moved to the Korean-American writer Michelle Zauner and offered snippets of writing from her book Crying in H Mart. Zauner introduces us to her family and food and how these aspects of her life are so intimately tied to her identity. In the introductory chapter she writes:


"Within five years, I lost both my aunt and my mother to cancer. So, when I go to H Mart, I’m not on the hunt for cuttlefish and three bunches of scallions for a buck; I’m searching for memories" (Zauner 2021, p.11).


Language is more than just words and sounds. It centres our familial history and moulds an identity that we carry with us through life. Zauner's Korean-American heritage produced an ambiguous relationship with language, one I thought would resonate with my students, particularly those straddling a mixed identity. In the introductory chapter she writes:


"I can hardly speak Korean, but when in H Mart it feels like I’m fluent. I fondle the produce and say words aloud – chamoe, melon, danmuji" (Zauner 2021, p. 4).


These texts prompted discussions about feelings of home that emanate from local supermarkets and how the smell of the food can trigger homesickness. This conversation prepared students for a 15-minute independent writing task about being separated from language. This evolved into an appropriate diagnostic assessment.


In a British academic setting the written word is prized above all else, yet it is a form many art and design students struggle with. In recognition of this conflict, I laid down my pen and picked up a paintbrush and introduced the work of the Armenian-Lebanese painter Paul Guiragossian and his thoughts about language. He writes:


"When I was a child, people around me were talking in different languages. I was wondering then: who am I? And in what language should I express myself: in Armenian, Arabic or French? Finally, I understood that my first language is painting; and I should only talk through painting and nothing else.


The lesson ended on this parting thought.



















Paul Guiragossian, Human Misery, 1984



Reference list

Kang, H. (2016). The white book. Granta: London

Zauner, M. (2021). Crying in H Mart. Picador: London

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