Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

The Experience of Studying in a Foreign Language


Lee, Keun-ho


At present I find myself in a somewhat strange and alienating situation. Labeled as “international student,” I can no longer use my Korean language as the medium of my study. I have to use English to formulate thoughts, I hear myself trying to think in English when I speak, and I have to write reflective papers and converse with others in a linguistic space that is not my own. If Heidegger is right that language is “the Home of Being,” then this language is not my home, not my own “home.” Does this change my experience of study? Yes, that is my experience. What, then, is the nature of that experience of studying in a foreign language? How is this experience uniquely different from studying in one’s own native tongue? Does the experience of studying in a foreign language have certain commonalities for students from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds?


But before I proceed to investigate these questions I have to think what the English word “study” means. Where does it originate? The etymological dictionary explains that the word “study” stems from the Latin word “studium,” which means “eagerness,” “affection,” and “painstaking application” (Cassell, 1999). According to this etymological root, we can find at least two dimensions of the word, “study.” First, the meaning of “study” is closely related with “some-thing” that is the object of the study. We can ask, “eagerness to what?” “Affection for what?” “Application to what?” Thus, the meaning of study depends on the very “whatness,” the thing itself as the object of the study. In other words, study is an effort to reach the very “thing” and to see or reveal its meaning and significance. Second, in order to reach the “thing,” we need to have something that can mediate between the person who is engaging in study and the thing itself. What mediates between the person and the thing? – language does. And language has a special relation to thinking. I have to use a foreign language, English, in order to “study” what it means to study in a foreign language.


So, this general reflection on the meaning of “study” makes me wonder. If language is so central to the enterprise of human understanding, what then is it like to study something in a foreign language? Even when I was studying in my homeland, Korea, I often had to read English articles and books. However, this was just a supplementary activity of my study. I had never thought about the experience of actually studying in a foreign language. At that time I became vaguely aware of something that now preoccupies me: the close relationship between language and study.


Study means “painstaking application” and language opens up the paths to approach the thing itself–study. Of course, language doesn’t do this without limitations. We frequently experience how language falls short of describing or explaining what we really seek to understand. Especially the experiences and awarenesses that belong to our inner life often seem quite beyond words (van Manen, 1997, pp. xii-xiii). Nevertheless, language is the primary access to the studium. There is no other way to make it intelligible. It is only through language that we can reflect on the world in which we live, no matter how incomplete our linguistic efforts. In this sense, the human being lives in language: Language is not just one of many abilities at our disposal. We dwell in language (Otto, 1972. p.170).


Perceptive Changes of Reality

In her biography Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman eloquently describes her alienation and problems with the English language, which is not her mother tongue:

The problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified. The words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. “River” in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. “River” in English is cold–a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke. (1989, p. 106)

What is human reality? We may readily say that we experience our world as real. We cannot believe that our existence is just an illusion or a sham. The things surrounding us and the world in which we live are real. In spite of movies such as The Matrix, we cannot accept that we are now living in the spell of a mirage or a fantasy. And yet, how can we affirm the validity of our reality? How do we come to know ourselves and things in the world as real? Such an affirmation of reality is possible only through our experience. In other words, we can “find out” our reality by actually living through it, by living as ourselves and by living with those things in the world. In a sense, our life itself is a constant process of affirming what is real to us.


What we affirm as real is expressed through language. We give names to the things, and assign certain meanings to the words. We try to illuminate and capture the truth in our reality and give an expression to it. Someone might object and ask: “Why do we need to express through language what we find out of ourselves and the things in the world?” This may be an answer: “Language bids us to do so.” Language is not just an instrument of human communication, it is also a way of being in the world. We are languaging beings. We possess language, and at the same time, we are also possessed by language. Not only are we speaking language. Language also speaks through us. Language shows us our reality and we give utterance to it.


Words and names (language) are not identical with things. Rather they indicate or point to the things. Therefore, we cannot equate language itself with our reality, and yet we can identify and affirm the reality that language brings forward through our experience. It is experience that makes us connect the words and names with the things of our reality. Through experience, and through our history of living with those things, words stand for things and they evoke the reality we are in.


In our mother language, we hardly question the relationship between words and the things that they stand for, since we have affirmed the reality that the words bring forward by our experience. Therefore, when we use a certain word, this is not only because that word is what we are mostly familiar with, but also because we think or feel the word is most proper in the context to express what is real to us. Words connote the way we stand in the world and the way we perceive our reality.


Such sense of reality cannot help but be affected when we are in another language. “Being in a different language” means that we are now in a different reality. Moreover, the words we learn anew in a foreign language have no ground in our past experience. Language has its own historicity and the words we have in our mother language are the result from our previous affirmations of what we experience as real and meaningful. The new words that we learn in a foreign language have no history with us. They have no accumulated associations for us. Hence, in a foreign language, we are forced to re-establish the relation between words and world from the beginning. For foreign students, nothing can be taken-for-granted as it was in their mother tongue. Their experience of studying in a different language setting contains this kind of fundamental changes of perception of the reality, and thus, such experience itself becomes a significant “event” that they desperately want to figure out and to make sense of. How does this experience change my life? My reality? And my sense of self? Not all foreign students overtly ask such questions or make them themes for their study. However, they cannot always avoid such questions, because they have to deal with a changed world in which they reside. How do foreign students experience their world? How do they perceive the new reality in a different language? How do they cope with such a new way of living?



“Tell me about your experience of study in English. Would you? What is it like for you?”


“Why are you asking such an odd question? You are an international student too. Are you asking this question, because you really don’t know that?”


“Of course, I share that kind of experience, too. But I don’t quite understand what makes it so difficult or different. Besides, I can’t explain such an experience in my own words. So please help me. Can you share your experience with me?”


“Sure, why not? It’s simple and clear. Look at yourself! You said you could not explain that experience in your own words. I think you meant in your native language by saying ‘my own words.’ Is this right? Then, think about this: now you are trying to explain something in a foreign language, even though you cannot explain it in your native language. How absurd this is! I think that absurdity is the core of such experience.”


“I cannot buy what you just said. Then, why are you studying here in Canada? Why are you doing such an absurd thing?”


“Well, I don’t know. Maybe I should have chosen to study in my own country.”


“OK. That’s enough. But I think this is not the answer that I wanted to hear. I didn’t want to get your ‘opinion’ about this matter. Instead, I want to hear your description of what you experience while studying in English. Please keep this in mind, and could you respond to my question in a different way? By giving me your actual experiences.”


“Well, I’m not sure whether I can give you what you want. But, anyway, I’ll try it again. I think it is a somewhat painful experience for foreign students to study something in English. Yeah, it’s quite true except for students whose major is English. If my major were English, I might not feel such pain at all. However, my study interest is Biology, not English. To me, English is just an instrument to study Biology. How could I spend my time studying English? I don’t even have enough time to study Biology. It’s a really an absurd situation. But I have to engage exactly in that kind of absurdity. I have to split my energy into doing two things at the same time; on the one hand studying Biology and on the other hand studying English. How can I match the native English students who don’t have to split their energy? This makes me feel nervous, stressed and makes me feel I am retarded.”


“All right. Could you give me some more details of your description, ‘painful?’ I think ‘pain’ usually refers to something related with our body. But you described a thoroughly mental thing. What do you mean by pain?”


“I’ll give you another example. I would say it is painful not only in a mental sense, but also in a physical sense. After finishing class, I usually feel like all my energy is entirely drained. I really become exhausted and burned out. I have to take deep breaths repeatedly. Just sigh and sigh and sigh, as if I have talked too much. (Even though I actually did not say a word!) My neck is stiffened and my eyelids turn into hundreds of tons. Sometimes I feel as if I have a headache. I smell something stinky in my throat. I do not know why. I have to concentrate all my energy on listening and following the class in English, which is not my native language. Maybe a three hour session is not that long for Canadians, but to me, it is much too long. After spending three hours in the class, I feel like I have gone through a whole day’s hard work. You know what? I hate people who whisper when they talk. I hate people who talk too fast as if they are in an emergency situation. I hate people who frequently interrupt others, even though they are not finished.”

This conversational interview shows some difficulties of describing language-experiences. The fact that we are experiencing something with language does not guarantee that we can capture it in language, not even in our own language. The interviewee was asked to describe his experience of studying in a foreign language. But he mostly talked about his frustrations and about the fatigue that accompanies the task of having to remain attentive in a different language than one’s own. Only in the last part of the interview does he mention particular aspects of his experience: the problem of not being able to understand people who talk too inaudibly in seminars or the difficulty of following people who speak too rapidly.


I face similar problems when I discuss the topic with other international students, including Chinese and Japanese. Their descriptions do not show clearly enough what the experience of studying in a foreign language is like. However, I find certain commonalities in their descriptions. Just as in the above interview, many international students describe their experience at first as “painful.” So, I cannot help but wonder in what sense is this experience painful? Is it the pain of heavy work? Does studying in a foreign language require more work than studying in a native language? Is it the pain of exhaustion? Does studying in a foreign language take much more time? Is it the pain of failing? Do foreign language students feel that they are at a disadvantage and can never surpass Canadian students?


Again, the etymology of “studium” shows us that study is a sort of “painstaking application.” This implies that, to some degree, the experience of pain is always immanent in every kind of “study.” “Study” is painful, because we must fully apply our eagerness and affection toward the object of the study, until we can thoroughly understand and reveal its true nature. We all know this is a very difficult task in terms of our experience. The “thing” or phenomenon we study does not present itself in a manner for us to easily grasp or understand. It needs patience on our part. Thus people experience much suffering and frustration during their study. Study is also painful, because it has to be mediated by language. Language is the only way to access the studium, but never perfect at all.


It seems that pain exists not only in studying through a foreign language but also in studying through one’s own language. Even Canadian students feel pain to keep up with their studies. I even felt pain, when I was studying education in my native language in Korea. This means that pain is not unique at all to the experience of studying in a foreign language. Of course, I do not intend to deny that there is a certain amount of pain in such experience. One must take much more time to study. One must spend more energy to study something in a foreign language. However, this does not make studying in a foreign language uniquely different, because the limitation of language always happens both in studying in a foreign language and studying in one’s native language.


The question of this paper now becomes more complex: Is there still a certain kind of pain that students who study in a foreign language experience that is different from studying in one’s own language? It is possible but not quite clear yet. So I must press on with my question: what is unique about studying in a language other than one’s own?


Being on the Margin

I am here, sitting in a classroom surrounded by foreigners. No, that’s not true. In this class, I am a foreigner, a stranger who has a different color, different nationality, different culture, and especially, a different language. They (my classmates) are constantly talking, asking, joking, and chatting about something. They are engaging in a conversation, which means “everything” in this class. For this is a philosophy course that is supposed to deal with “human lived experience.” I have to listen carefully to what they are talking about in order to understand their lived experience. I have to express my own lived experience to them so as to broaden their horizons of understanding. This course is supposed to run through this kind of mutual exchanges of lived experience. But I cannot do it. I cannot put myself into the stream of such mutual exchanges, because I have a different language and I am not yet proficient enough in English. Sometimes, I can hardly follow the pace of their speaking. This makes me miss many details of their stories. At the same time, I can’t organize what I’m thinking in their language with the appropriate grammar and proper words. This also makes me omit many details of my stories. I am afraid that I may be misunderstood by them and I am afraid that I may misunderstand them.

We usually think everything only in terms of our own perspective. Even though we acknowledge that no human being is perfect, and thus our own judgment may have some defects, we still have a tendency to think, judge and measure everything and everyone by only our own standards, without seriously and constantly considering others. At least that is how it seems to me. Consciously or unconsciously, we all seem to have a tendency to think ourselves as the center of the “world.” We may call this tendency “ego-centrism.” Perhaps because of my language predicament I am more aware of this ego-centric perspective than the English speakers around me: I constantly do not feel understood.


Ego-centrism works very well in the context of “sameness.” If you are surrounded by the same people as you are, the same language as you use, the same culture as you belong to, it may be more difficult for you to see that there are many different standards from yours and that difference has meanings–we do see only what we can see, we hear only what we can hear.


However, the experience of being a foreigner in a class shatters such ego-centered tendency. The experience forces a certain realization, the realization of “difference.” I am different from them in terms of almost everything. We have more differences, than we share sameness. Does this mean that we belong to the different worlds? They are the center of their worlds just as I am the center of my world? Then, where am I now? I feel at the margin.


When I am in seminars I experience that I am in their world, instead of being in my own world. Despite of my physical presence, this world is not for me, but for them. It seems to me that I am just standing at the periphery of their world. This realization makes me sad because I cannot give up thinking that in order to study in this seminar, I should also be at the center of this world. This predicament makes me feel insecure and even angry because I want them to be adjusted in terms of the way I am doing, instead of always adjusting myself to their way. But such naïve ego-centeredness makes me solicitous, because I know exactly that I am a foreigner and I must adjust myself to this particular situation.


Deprived Self or Self-discovery?

When I was in Korea, people often admired me as an eloquent speaker and I was really proud of that. In all classes that I had taken, I was an excellent student. I was fully confident of expressing my opinion in front of others. I enjoyed discussion with others and preferred taking charge in conversation. Even without any preparation, I could do an improvisational presentation in class. Everything turned into a wonderful argument once I put it in my words, even though it was based on weak ground. I had a talent that everyone envied. As a matter of fact, I was good!

However, things changed. Now I am feeling that I have become an idiot and a really, really dumb person. Instead of taking initiative during class, all I can do is just sit and listen and try and follow what others are saying. Sometimes, I do not say a word. No, actually I cannot say a word. Even though I can hide myself behind others on the pretense that now I’m using a foreign language, not my native language, yet I cannot hide myself from my deprived sense of self. I am the same person that I was. Certainly this is me, but at the same time, this is not the me that I have ever known before. Then, who am I?

When do we think of our-selves? When things are going well and thus we do not experience any kind of rupture in our sense of self, we usually do not think of our-selves. In some sense, we live in the middle of “taken-for-grantedness.” In this “taken-for-grantedness” we hardly question of our-selves, even less than others. However, the experience of studying in a foreign language contains a sort of rupture, which is painful and put the foreign speaker at the margin. This marginalization breaks down the “taken-it-for-grantedness” of our everyday existence, and makes us wonder who we really are. “Like standing in front of a mirror, one notices a lot of things of oneself which one did not see before. A recognition of ‘me’ occurs. This ‘me’ is not the ‘self’ one is familiar with. I am not only a stranger to others, but also becoming a stranger to myself” (Zhou Wu,


Certainly, I have to face a different “me” that has not been known to me before the experience of studying in a foreign language. And this is not at all a pleasant discovery of myself. It is the deprivation of a proud memory. It is the confrontation with personal vulnerability. This deprivation creates negative feelings and this vulnerability creates a sense of being a loser. The foreign language student perceives him- or herself not only as a different version of the same self, but also a weak, dark and inferior side of the self. It’s like one finds something that one never wants to find. Here lies agony and one cannot hide oneself anywhere from such a fundamental realization of vulnerability.


Being a Child Again?

It looks like I became a child again. Just like a child, I am stammering, stuttering every time, everywhere. Something wrong slips out of my mouth, but there is no way for me to get it under control. Just like a child, I am helpless. I am living with fear of being punished for not being able to speak correctly, just like a child. However, I am an adult and I don’t like this. Sometimes, I wish I could be just a child.

Some language scholars recommend to me that I should investigate the child’s experience of learning a language in order to find a modality of the experience of studying in a foreign language. They explain to me that there are a lot of similarities between those two in terms of “language learning theory.” Yes, the scholars may be right. Not only do I often feel like I became a child again. As a matter of fact, I am treated as if I am a child. When others talk to me, their voices are getting higher than usual. They bend their bodies toward me as much as possible. They try to slow down the pace of speaking, frequently asking me whether I can or cannot understand what they are talking about. Then, when it is my turn to speak, and I say something, people try to pretend to understand what I talk about, even though I can see that they do not understand at all what I said. They are afraid of hurting my feelings, just like they are afraid of hurting a vulnerable child’s feelings. So when I contribute some thoughts out loud in class, they give me somewhat exaggerated compliments, just like one does to a child who is cheered on for making a good effort. Why do they treat me like this? In what ways do they perceive a child in me?


When children are learning a language they may experience frustration. They cannot always construct perfect sentences. They cannot always find the proper word. Sometimes the wrong word slips out of their mouths. Even though children know certain meanings of a word, they do not always know that such meanings can be presented with somewhat different nuances according to the context. These experiences are similar to the experiences that a person has who is studying in a foreign language.


However, there is a fact that foreign students cannot deny, we are adults, not children. It is not just a matter of how others treat you. You cannot deceive yourself by pretending that you have become a child again. You know very well that you are an adult, and this realization brings you toward a series of complex responses. Sometimes, I thank people who talk with me (but make me feel like a child) for their kindness of talking with me. Sometimes, I am angry because I think they are rude. I know I will gain many more benefits, if I continue to pretend I am a child. But there arises easily a resistance in me to do that. Vulnerability is a virtue in children, but it may be a weakness, defect and shameful confession to an adult. Yes, this is especially true in Korean culture, whether it is good or bad–but anyway that’s the way it is for me.


Rediscovery of Self: Gaining Confidence Again.

“Your writing is terrific and at a very high level. I like your writing style.”


I love the person who says this, even though I do not thoroughly believe the compliments. We have been together for one and a half years for this writing workshop. The instructors have much experience in teaching English to ESL students. They are helping us, international students in our studies, to write correctly in English. But this is not all of that they are doing. The instructors have developed certain relationships, “good” relationships with the ESL students. They are trying to understand us. They are constantly cheering us up. They have to put up with our childlike English. They know our low ability in English from the beginning, and now they are encouraging us by telling that our English has improved very much.


One instructor says about my writing, “This is a beautiful sentence that native speakers cannot make, because they are obsessed with a certain format or an idiomatic expression.” Even though this is just flattery, how sweet it is! I can make wonderful sentences, because I am a non-native speaker and I am different from them. What a wonderful discovery this is!

Researching Lived ExperienceWhen we study something in a foreign language, being different from native speakers becomes a source of pain, self-deprivation and the fountain of one’s inferiority. We experience a sort of wandering around our-selves: “Who really am I?” “Where am I now?” We cannot help but doubt the authenticity of this world in which we are living now. “This is not my world at all.” We are wondering when this painful journey may end.


However, something unexpected is happening. Suddenly we realize that we have gradually arrived in a more comfortable and cozy state than in the past. I am feeling much better than last year, last month and yesterday. Is it because time soothes my pain as it always does to all kinds of human sufferings? Or is it because I am starting to learn how to adjust myself to live on the margin of this unfamiliar world? Or is it because I gain some familiarity with that strange world? Is this foreign language becoming a second mother tongue?


I still experience many problems in speaking listening and writing in English. I still feel pain when I use English as the medium of my study. I am still wandering in an ambiguous space that has been formed by such an unavoidable realization that I am no longer the center of the world in which I must dwell. However, increasingly, I find myself as a different being and a unique person. I begin to realize that my difference and vulnerability does not necessarily signify inferiority. The difference that I experience can contribute to make this world richer and more diverse. How wonderful a discovery that is! Can I say that making this world rich and diverse is a sort of commitment I have toward this world? If I feel any kind of commitment to this world, does this mean that this world already now become my own, not just a strange world of others? Well, I don’t know. One thing is for sure: I am still living in an ambiguous space of studying in a foreign language.




Hoffman, Eva. (1989). Lost in Translation: A life in a new language. N.Y.: E. P. Dutton.
Poggeler, Otto. (1972). Heidegger’s Topology of Being. In Joseph J. Kockelmans (ed.) On Heidegger and Language. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
The Cassell Dictionary of Word Histories. (1999). London: Cassell
Van Manen, Max. (1997). Researching Lived Experience. London, Ontario: The Althouse Press.
Zhou, Wu. The Experience of Being a Foreigner.