Foreign Languages and Trauma

Foreign Languages and Trauma

           I’m passionate about learning languages, not only to access the cultural baggage they contain and for the communicative aspect, not only to improve my travelling experiences and to open my mind to new ways of thinking — I could go on and on about the neurological benefits of learning languages — but also, I learn languages as a coping mechanism, as a healing tool.

          The benefits of self-expression, communication, and artistic creation in the process of healing from trauma are no longer to be proven and can hardly be understated, and writing comes to mind first. A great number of writers (all writers?) have the urgent, irrepressible need to communicate something in their soul, in their mind, to grab something in there and put it out there. It is very therapeutic. Like extracting a tumour. As such, language becomes a tool for healing. Not so much a medicine per se, as simply using language in any manner is not sufficient in itself. It is more like a scalpel, which needs to be used well and carefully to heal. Language can also backfire and entrap in trauma, as I argue is the case with Nelly Arcan, a writer whose language became her only way out, but ultimately made her go around in circles infinitely, creating a prison out of her literary space. However, I’ve written on this quite a lot already, so for now I would like to raise a tangential idea and push my metaphor further: if (a) language is a tool for healing (say, a scalpel), is learning additional languages giving oneself more tools for healing (say, anesthetics and stitches)?

       This may stem from my own introspective thinking, as it is one of my coping mechanisms, and I’ve sometimes found writing in a foreign language particularly therapeutic. French is indeed linked to all my emotions and basic thoughts (I feel in French), while my knowledge of English and German stems from thousands of hours of intellectual work. I don’t feel traurig or hoffnungslos or terrified or aloof. I’ve learned, memorized these words. I’ve thought them through, which means I know precisely the weight each word I use has, which is not always the case in French, where my use is more spontaneous and informed by a certain naïveté. I never actively and consciously learned French. My learning of French (in strictly communicative terms, I have indeed spent a lot of time to improve my mastery of it, but never had to learn it from scratch) did not implicate any choice, any agency.

           It can of course be very cathartic to express oneself naturally, without the additional constraints of the intellectual work that comes with using a foreign language, and I often do write in French, don’t get me wrong. But writing in English or in German allows a certain distanciation from the written words. It is not so much a mirror that reflects the state of your soul back at you, but more a product of reflection, not only of content but also of the structure, grammar, and words themselves. This mirror is often that which entraps you in your own trauma, as you keep seeing yourself in the traumatic words that you write. Trauma takes the bigger piece of your literary identity, which, for a writer, is gigantic. On the other hand, writing in a foreign language may help by getting it out there, but leaving it on its own. It is still the productive result of your work and creativity, but there is more distance that allows for a more objective or external look at it. The writing process is also altogether different, involving different parts of your brain, which may or may not be a better healing tool for you. Indeed, just like a scalpel is inappropriate if you have the flu, different tools work at different times for different people, and so I would argue that it never hurts to have more tools at your disposition.

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