The murmuring mass of an unknown language constitutes a delicious protection, envelops the foreigner (provided the country is not hostile to him) in an auditory film which halts at his ears all the alienations of the mother tongue: the regional and social origins of whoever is speaking, his degree of culture, of intelligence, of taste, the image by which he constitutes himself as a person and which he asks you to recognize. Hence, in foreign countries, what a respite! Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, worldliness, nationality, normality. The unknown language, of which I nonetheless grasp the respiration, the emotive aeration, in a word the pure significance, forms around me, as I move, a faint vertigo, sweeping me into its artificial emptiness, which is consummated only for me: I live in the interstice, delivered from any fulfilled meaning. (Barthes 9)
I am fascinated, on the one hand, by the degree to which this captures my experiences abroad: caught in the swirl of chatter in another language, which I hear only as raw communication, without any sense whatsoever of what’s being communicated. All such overheard conversations give the sense of being about matters most serious, when no doubt some percentage of them are just as idiotic as those overheard in your local Starbucks.
On the other hand, I’m also fascinated by the transition out of this mode of existence in the midst of another, unknown language. I had a moment the other day of overhearing a conversation that I wasn’t paying attention to — just that level of background chatter to which one is not party, and not really meant to understand — when I suddenly recognized that I’d followed the entire thing without being aware of it. I think that’s the first time that’s happened to me — that I’ve understood something said in French without my having consciously decided to do so. It’s a different kind of vertigo than that to which Barthes refers, and perhaps more literally disorienting, as the “foreignness” of the language seems to evaporate, like the morning fog.