language, n. (and int.)
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈlaŋɡwɪdʒ/ , U.S. /ˈlæŋɡwɪdʒ/
2. a. The form of words in which something is communicated; manner or style of expression.
Language is complex; we all know that. When I set out to “explore” language, I neither knew nor had personally defined what that meant. I did know that it was more than just a sound, and could be expressed in more than one way; my goal was to attempt to document those myriad ways.
Most people don’t think of language as a visual concept, but I do. The characteristics of our first language affect personality, speaking habits, and mannerisms to a great extent. I first realized this when my friend Lily told me that there is no sarcasm in Vietnamese. Think about how ingrained sarcasm is in English, and English speakers. Sarcastic speech alone can affect the tone, the body language, and the intent of the language. It’s all about how you say something.
The environment I was living in at the start of this project – a university with heavy international ties and influence – was highly conducive to exploring language. I was surrounded by international students of all sorts, and based on just people I knew, I was compiled a list of about 20 people who spoke another language natively. I limited myself to native speakers or dual learners. Another category of speakers would eventually emerge: the mother tongue speakers who don’t consider themselves fluent, but are very familiar with the language of their family and culture. Based on these three categories, I chose to divide my book into sections. I ended up interviewing 18 people; I photographed, videoed, and recorded each of these people. The resulting 70+ page book was more than I had intended, but there could have been so much more. I barely feel like I scratched the surface of language as a visual concept.
Since completing this project, I have moved to New York City, a shockingly different environment where—in utterly different ways—I am still able to explore language in a rich environment. Living and working in New York has brought me into contact with everyone and everything from Chinese burger makers to the subculture of Manhattan doormen. The words, the languages, the questions have changed—I hear more people ordering takeout or shouting directions than debating policy or deconstructing Foucault—but the desire to explore remains.
In this excerpt from my book, you’ll first be confronted with audio recordings of each interviewee speaking their native language. Each chapter is set up in the same way. Each section is titled based on the language it presents, rather than each person who speaks. First, you hear the language spoken – a simple audio clip with no visual accompaniment. Then you hear the speaker discuss what their native language means to them. Finally, you’ll see a video of the speaker, which will allow you, the reader, to see how the speaker moves and presents him or herself.
I wanted to excerpt this book because I think the ideas behind it and the experiences of the interviewees are still relevant and interesting. When thinking about which interviews to use, I thought about two things: elucidating a new perspective or confirming a common experience. Felix, the Swedish speaker, debates the idea of self-expression within languages, and many of these international college students categorize English as either only for academic study or as only for use with friends – both recurring but oppositional viewpoints. For me, this project is endlessly fascinating and there is endlessly abundant material, but since I haven’t yet been able to collect the world’s languages, let’s start with the nine below.
This is a group of language learners defined by the ethnic and cultural impact of their non-English language, and is defined by each person’s relationship with the other language. This includes people who at one time spoke their language fluently but feel more comfortable with English now. Examples include: Arabic and Kannada.
This is a group of language learners defined by the duality of their relationship with language. These are people who learned English simultaneously with their second language, and speak both (or at least two) languages fluently. Examples include: Swahili/Sheng/Kikuyu, Icelandic, and Korean.
This is a group of language learners defined by their overall status as English-as-a-second-language speakers. The people in this group were raised speaking a non-English language, and usually began learning English in late childhood. Examples include: Vietnamese, Swedish, Farsi, and Chinese.
I would like to say thank you to each of the people who took time to talk to me about themselves: Ahmad Jitan, Kushal Seetharam, Marquise Eloi, Nafeesa Jafferjee, Anna Hevia, John Gitau, Lance Co Ting Keh, Tatianna Birgisson, Wanda Jin, Lily Pham, Andrea Patiño, Christine (Hye Jin) Ko, Felix Wibergh, Germain Choffart, Nazanin Amini, Uliana Dubrovina, Yavuz Acikalin, and Haoxiaohan Helen Cai. I would also like to thank Mark Olson, for being a supportive and incredibly understanding adviser, no matter how many things went wrong. And a thank you to my other friends who contributed to the production of this book, and without whom I could not have completed it: Shreya Chilukuri and Erik Chamberlin.
Kristin Oakley is editor at large for visual media at The Brooklyn Quarterly. She is currently pursuing her masters degree in digital journalism through Studio 20 at New York University. To learn more about her and see her work, visit kristinoakley.com.