How Language Helps us Connect with our Inner Belonging



Yesterday as I was driving my daughter to ballet, I put on some Francis Cabrel, which I hadn’t heard in a while. The lyrics in French, the inflection, the flow of the phrases and the cadence of the words wove through me, lifting me up out of the car of suburbia and away from tantrum child.

Charlemagne said ”to have a second language is to have a second soul” and this French moment was an acute reminder of how language can channel us to inner belonging amid external chaos. How language, like fragrance, can take us back to the exquisite emotion of fullness contained in a specific moment.  How the sounds of certain words can change the geography in our minds. How one word in a particular language can describe something that other languages cannot.


I can’t remember what it’s like to speak only one language. In fact, I want to learn more languages because each one adds a new layer, a new dimension. Languages not only teach us to see the world differently but because they are structured in various ways, they actually shape our thoughts and perceptions.

In Indonesian the verb alone does not mark tense. You need to insert another word to indicate whether the action happened in the past or will happen in the future. In Turkish you need to include how you acquired the information in the verb:  the form of the verb changes depending on whether you saw the action or read about it.

English speakers organise time — and many other things in our practical lives — from left to right.  Hebrew speakers arrange time from right to left. In Mandarin the past can be above and the future below while in Aymara, a language in South America, the past is in front and the future behind.


Indeed having another language not only gives us a second soul and an inner belonging  but it opens up connections.

So when I asked trilingual poet Merlinda Bobis at the Sydney Writers’ Festival  how much language affects her sense of belonging I could relate to her eloquent answer. Bobis, who was raised in the Philippines and now teaches creative writing at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, is also a performing artist whose voice transcends the limitations of words.

”It’s where my body goes.  I feel that when I speak and write in my original tongue my body changes, everything changes, it’s sensory, even my posture changes and I feel that its still nice to go back to that.

”For all my books in English my body decides in my first heart. Many of us can relate to that because there are many sensations, many feelings that can never be translated to that second language.”

(Merlinda Bobis’s latest novel is Fish-Hair Woman, Spinifex Press and Anvil Publishing)


Reflections: Let’s Make Belonging Contagious

”Our survival depends on our collective abilities, not on our individual might.” John Cacioppo, TEDxDesMoines

A woman from a US ad agency approached me this week to discuss belonging. It ended up being quite an insightful email conversation. One of the questions was about barriers to belonging.  What are the barriers to belonging? Well, as it turns out our findings were similar. 

The biggest barrier to belonging is not place but people. 

Since I started The Belonging Blog in January and my own search for belonging in Australia, my fourth country, I’ve gone up and down. It’s working. It’s not working. 

I had expected to learn lots of things about Australia. What I didn’t expect was to learn a lot about humanity, loneliness, vulnerability, love and the deep deep issues of belonging itself. 

I thought I would be on a journey alone. But as it turns out I’m not. It’s a slow process but I’m starting to connect with like-minded people through my writing. By reaching out and meeting new people I may actually be making my own belonging. As I make my own belonging, I feel implicated in the country I’m living in and I want to help others. 

The sad thing is that the more I ask people about belonging, the more I understand that I am not in the minority. Many do not feel a sense of belonging. 

This has me worried: is belonging becoming an endangered species?


What’s the opposite of belonging?

I’d say it’s exclusion. It’s marginalization. It’s to be ostracized. It’s loneliness. 

The problem is that loneliness is on the rise. More people are living alone than ever before in western countries. More people, like me, live overseas and away from the support of extended family or friends made alone the way. More people feel isolated. Even children. A UK charity reported that it’s seen a ”dramatic increase” in the number of phone calls from children saying they feel lonely. 

You could say this doesn’t apply to you. You could say this doesn’t apply to Brisbane or Sydney or Australia. But it does. A study by David Baker at The Australia Institute found that there was an increased proportion of people experiencing loneliness, which points to a growing social problem. Other studies have found that one in three Australians are lonely. 

If we apply research by University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, all this loneliness is very dangerous. It’s a warning system that alerts us to social damage, he says in a TEDx talk.  Cacioppo found that living with obesity increases your odds of an early death by 20 percent. However, living with loneliness increases your odds of an early death by 45 percent.

A study done by Cacioppo and scholars at University of California-San Diego and Harvard Medical School also found that lonely people ”infected” the people around them and spread loneliness to their social groups. 

Yes. Loneliness is contagious. Loneliness also decreases the brain’s capacity to feel empathy. 


The big problem here is that people people who feel lonely are unlikely to say anything because it’s stigmatized. I know myself that when I’m feeling a bit down, I’ll cancel engagements, I’ll stay at home. Yet, this is when I most need to reach out. 

What do we do to combat loneliness? Canadian humanitarian Jean Vanier has been talking about the effects of isolation and the importance of belonging for years. Now we have scientific studies proving he was right. 

It’s up to the people who have established social networks to reach out to others less fortunate — to the immigrants, to the elderly, to the homeless, to the marginalized — and introduce them or bring them back into community. Yet, my experience over the past 12 years in Australia has been the opposite. People are ”too busy’’.  People with established social networks have actually told immigrants they don’t need new friends.  

Look at recent tragedies and tell me whether you’re seeing life differently now. 

Take a step. Walk with me. Reach out to someone you don’t know. 

Make belonging contagious.