Phenomenology of Inclusion, Belonging, and Language
More than 230 million people, 20% of them young children, live in countries in which they were not born. When children migrate, a sudden change occurs in their lifeworlds that is not of their making; instead, the experience “befalls [them], strikes [them], comes over [them], overwhelms and transforms [them]” (Heidegger 1982, p. 57). This essay explores the phenomena of belonging, language, and inclusion in the lived experiences of young children whose childhood has been interrupted by migration. The phenomenological inquiry is based on Heidegger’s (1982) notion of language as the “house of Being.” It is guided by the following questions: What is the lived experience of a child whose life is interrupted by migration and whose home is replaced by a space in which to live, where a new language is spoken that does not serve as a guide to the world? What is it like to live in-between languages and cultures? How does a child experience school as a stranger in a world of others? Can the experience of loss of words serve as a means to attain new understandings?
The essay begins by considering the possibilities opened by the phenomenological method – and, in particular, van Manen’s (1994) “fundamental existentials” – to understand children’s lived experiences. It explores how immigrant children experience these existentials in relation to the objects and people at home, to their unfolding sense of self and the meaning of belonging to a place, and to the changes in their lived space brought about by the process of migration. Following Heidegger’s (1982) notion of language as the “house of Being,” it then reflects on the meaning of “being in the Other’s house” as explored through immigrant children’s experiences of school, their loneliness and isolation from their peers, and their inability to make themselves understood through language. Play as a shared experience in childhood is investigated in relation to young children’s ability to engage with the world and others linguistically and nonlinguistically. Play as an experience of being with others allows young immigrant children to live between languages as well as to develop their relation to the language of home and the home of language.
The Structure of Human Experiences
Phenomenological research of children’s experiences aims to clarify, describe, and interpret children’s unique ways of attending to the world. As a human science research methodology, phenomenology provides a particularly suitable paradigm for studying the phenomena of belonging, language, and inclusion in immigrant children’s lives because it is concerned with questions of meaning with the goal of understanding the significance of a given human experience.
According to van Manen (1994), the structure of any human experience can be revealed by reflecting on that experience while guided by four existentials by which human beings experience the world: lived space, lived body, lived time, and lived other. In a general sense, lived space refers to the physical environment or landscape in which we find ourselves. Lived body acknowledges that we are always physically in the world, and our bodies reveal some aspects of ourselves in a particular situation. Lived time is subjective time as opposed to objective or clock time. Time is experienced differently depending on the context in which we experience it. The lived other is the relationship we have with others in the interpersonal space we share with them.
The exploration of the ways in which these existentials are experienced by immigrant children allows for an understanding of the phenomena of belonging, language, inclusion, and the pedagogical possibilities such an understanding offers (Kirova 2007).
Home, Self, and the House of Being
Home is intimately tied with one’s sense of self; it is where our own being finds its genesis and belonging. As Steinbock (1995) asserts, “the homeworld is not just any world, but selectively appropriated with the density of a tradition. It is not the world we experience, but the world from which we experience” (Steinbock 1995, p. 222, original emphasis). The walls of the home form a boundary between inner and outer, private and public, space. One rarely thinks of a home in terms of its walls, however. Rather, the objects inside the house create a feeling of at-homeness because the use of the everyday objects in the home is habitual. Children do not question the presence of these objects: they are taken for granted.
The first and most noticeable change in an immigrant child’s lifeworld is the change in their physical surroundings brought by the loss of the familiar world of home (Kirova 2007). For many children, migration means losing the familiar objects inside their home. Yet familiar objects alone do not create a sense of at-homeness; the same objects may be experienced differently in a new space. In order for an object to become part of our home, our bodies need to “know” it in relation to other objects as we inhabit the space at home. Only then does home become a place where our own being finds its genesis and belonging.
A child’s sense of at-homeness is also connected to the people who share the space at home. These people, usually the child’s parents, siblings, and other members of the family, are those who have shown the child what the objects in the home are and how they are used and cared for. Thus one’s identity is shaped at home by the way in which the objects in the home are presented and understood. A child understands that “something is only where the appropriate and therefore competent word names a thing as being, and so establishes the given being as a being” (Heidegger 1982, p. 63). Home, then, is where language gives being to the things in the world.
For an immigrant child, everything inside the new home is because it has been appropriately and competently named in the child’s mother tongue. However, in the world outside the new home, things remain nameless because other people’s words are not understood. What is the child’s experience of a world where language no longer shows the essential being of things? How is reality conceived in a new language?
Being at School Is Being in the Other’s “House”
Immigrant children no longer belong to the world they left behind, nor do they yet belong to the new world. School is where children encounter the world outside of home. And, while going to school is only a fraction of immigrant children’s new existence, it plays a central role in their understanding of the world. At school, children are asked to relate to each other and the adults in a particular rule-governed manner that is fundamentally different from their experiences at home. In contrast to the home, in school a child is asked to become one of a type: a student who is expected to have the same kind of relationship with each teacher based on designated school rules. These rules are abstractions sustained by the school/classroom community and the requirement that students relate to the world in another way, that is, by mastering symbolic forms (e.g., the alphabet, numbers, musical notes) that represent their knowledge and relationship to the self, others, and the world around them. Thus school not only necessitates an ontological change in children, it also imposes a particular (scientific) epistemological construction of their knowledge of and about the world understood through symbols, among which language plays a prominent role.
If the being of anything that exists resides in the word that names it and if language, as a result, is the house of Being, as Heidegger (1982) suggests, then immigrant children’s inability to name things in the new world of school is more than an inconvenience. Words achieve their meaning not just from the things they refer to but from associations created in the mind. The lack of these associations and of a common language creates a real barrier between immigrant children and the rest of the people in the school. With no friends and no way of making themselves understood through language, a child feels lonely (Kirova-Petrova 2000). The feelings of loneliness and isolation that immigrant children experience also affect how they experience time while they are at school. Time is experienced as being stretched out (Kirova 2001). As an observer rather than a participant in the life of school, an immigrant child finds school days long and boring. Not being at ease in the new language means, for immigrant children, among many other things, being unable to share humor with their peers. Sharing humor creates a sense of we-ness only if a joke is understood. A meeting ground for we-ness to happen is rooted in both experience and language and thus is inaccessible to an immigrant child. Laughter becomes a performance for immigrant children, a way to show others that they too are part of the group. However, this brings little satisfaction. For many children, gaining a feeling of belonging to a peer group is a long and sometimes painful process during which they may become victims of stigmatization and public humiliation that leave them “empty of happiness” (Kirova-Petrova 2000, p. 108).
Curiously enough, when we cannot find the right word for something that concerns us, carries us away, oppresses or encourages us. Then we leave unspoken what we have in mind and, without rightly giving it a thought, undergo moments in which language itself has distantly and fleetingly touched us with its essential being. (p. 59)
Heidegger suggests that an experience we have with language draws our attention to our relation to language so that we may then remember this relation. Thus immigrant children can ask, “In what relation do I live to the language I speak?” In speaking their mother tongue, children, like adults, talk about many topics, facts, occurrences, questions, and matters of concern. There is an “essential self-forgetfulness” (Gadamer 1976, p. 64) to language. However, this self-forgetfulness does not apply to those who are learning to speak another language. In trying to choose the right word and to think how to say it, immigrant children only occasionally feel successful. To think in one language and have to translate this thought into another language in speech means that a different mode of thinking is activated. In one’s own language, thought is accompanied by the unfolding of speech. The way of thinking is different when that thought is not accompanied by an unfolding of speech. This disconnect can change some new language learners’ mode of thinking, with results that may be interpreted by others, and by the immigrant children themselves, as indications that they are stupid (Kirova 2007).
In contrast, native speakers rarely have to concentrate much on what to say. When we are at home in a language, the words seem to choose us. In a self-forgetful mode of thinking and speaking, the interaction is truly conversational or dialogic. In contrast, the mode for using a new language requires reflective thinking rather than a prereflective living with language (Kirova 2007). This way of speaking, of choosing the right words, implies a reflective approach to language: an approach that involves suspension from an immediate stance and results in greater self-consciousness.
As in the experience of turning a house into a home, the experience of learning to use another language brings feelings of not belonging. Unlike learning one’s native language, learning a new language is a conscious, purposeful activity. Language becomes homework; it is hard work to learn a new vocabulary. Language is something “out there” that immigrant children need to grasp, a skill yet to be acquired. To come to dwell in the language is to come to a different level of experience. Like dwelling in a new space, dwelling in a new language requires more than memorizing the meaning or the position of the words in a sentence to know how to use them. Learning a new language does not mean learning a corresponding system of signs for what one already knows. This aspect is only part of the story. Rather, language comes into being as language through dialogue and therefore comes to be understood through “a life process in which a community of life is lived out” (Gadamer 1989, p. 446).
How does this life process look to an immigrant child? What “community of life” must children live out in the new world for the new language to come to being through genuine dialogue?
Play Is Being with “Others”
For young immigrant children, it is play that allows them to engage in dialogue with other members of the community in the world around them. The world of children’s play is shared (Kirova 2007). It requires and creates a sense of togetherness, which does not mean only doing things together or behaving playfully. Rather, the true meaning of play comes to life only if the players intentionally let themselves be absorbed into the spirit of play. In the world of play, the sense of togetherness represents itself, not only through the boundaries of shared space but through the boundaries of shared meanings of objects used in play that are created and communicated through language and gesture. Thus possibilities open for genuine dialogue between native and nonnative speakers.
Although play experience is here and now, the players are not limited to the immediate setting: play creates openness where things can be anything. Unlike the adults’ world of fixed meanings, for children, things are not yet clearly defined and structured, particularly in the world of play. In the open sense making of play, a pencil suddenly becomes a spoon, a horse, or a soldier. The complete openness of possibilities in play allows changes and newness to emerge in the play world. The power of openness extends an invitation to children to enter life, which allows them in turn to experience the endlessly evolving ways of seeing and feeling the world around them.
Yet even in play, language limits one’s opportunity to create meaning in new ways: the openness of play is closed off by naming. In play, often a child is looking for something in particular, and when this something is found, a word calls it into being. To name is to bring forth an object into the context of the mind. Thus to name it is to bring it into being. Naming gives rise to an image, creating concreteness in children’s landscapes of images, and giving enormous creative possibilities. Yet once something is named, it is, and it is the same for everyone involved in the naming. Thus a shared meaning is created. As Heidegger (1982) explains, “the word itself is the relation, by holding everything forth into being, and there upholding it. If the word did not have this bearing, the whole of things, the ‘world,’ would sink into obscurity” (p. 73).
What play allows is acquisition of the new language to be experienced as dialogic, as a process that is on the border between the self and the other. Holland et al. (1998) explain that “the self is a position from which meaning is made, a position that is ‘addressed’ by and ‘answers’ others and the world” (p. 173). Thus it is possible in play to reauthor the self in a dialogue, and doing so closes the distance one feels when using the new language. Children’s unique ability to engage in activities in which, as in play, meaning is created rather than imposed shows our human capacity to construct new relatedness to the world and to others.
The investigation of the phenomena of belonging, language, and inclusion in the lived experiences of young immigrant children based on Heidegger’s notion of language as the house of Being allows uncovering the creative and active relation-making processes that immigrant children engage in as they perceive and create new childhoods among scattered and conflicting events and experiences. This investigation shows that for young children these processes are not limited to language. Rather, young children’s ability to engage with the world linguistically and nonlinguistically, as in play, allows them not only to live between languages but also to develop their relation to the language of home and the home of language.
Furthermore, Heidegger’s notion that breaking up what is taken for granted is “the true step back on the way of thinking” (1982, p. 108) allows us to explore how language helps immigrant children experience themselves in the two worlds they live in – home and school – as well as in-between these worlds. Whether the new way of understanding the world is adopted or rejected, there is a chance to reflect on one’s basic way of living. Through encounters where one breaks out of unquestioned frameworks and meets the other in face-to-face situations, there is an opportunity to understand the other better. Such encounters help immigrant children to understand themselves better in terms of where and how they come to be as they are, and what and how they will be when they are at home in the new world.
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