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On Existing in Two Languages (or: This Post Is Not A Humblebrag)

Posted on Tuesday, March 18, 2014

When we were younger, I remember traveling to Quebec with my parents and sisters for a vacation. I think I was around thirteen at the time, and it was a wonderful holiday, but there is one memory in particular that stays with me even today and that I revisit frequently (in addition to the memory of chocolately beaver tails, that is). Standing in line to check in at the Hotel Frontenac with my parents, I realized that the group in front of us were speaking French. I knew that my dad spoke French, so I asked him what they were saying - sure he wouldn't be able to tell me. To my surprise my dad listened carefully for a few minutes, then explained their conversation to me... which was ultimately something totally boring, but that is not the point.

I always remember this moment as formative, in its own funny little way. It was the first time I really thought about language in a real and practical way, the first time I realized that maybe speaking something other than English was useful, interesting, worthwhile (and of course, Dad, I realized your impressive French skills... Even when faced with those quebecois accents!).

As I started high school and picked French as my language of choice, I thought back to this moment frequently. I'll admit that there was some level of "if Dad can do it, I can do it too" involved in my resolve to "get good" at French. There was more to it than that, though. I couldn't get enough! I made lists of vocabulary, combed through my French textbooks for words I didn't understand. I made word associations, created bizarre links in my head to understand, invented mind tricks to remember some tricky lessons. I worked hard, but enjoyed it all the while. While I couldn't understand the first thing about how many whatevers were in a noble gas (sorry, Mr. I...), and never fully mastered Ms. Conway's infamously difficult word problems, I managed to find ways to understand most things that were contained in the French books.

Now, all these years later, I've certainly come a long way. All this being said, the word BILINGUAL is a big one, and not something that I'm ready to claim - in fact, I'm wary of most people who learned a language after the age of two and claim to be bilingual. One of the first things that people ask me upon learning that I live in Paris is whether or not I'm bilingual. But the truth is, language isn't easy. Becoming bilingual is a living process, not one that is accomplished in six weeks or months or not even in six years. I'm more than comfortable in French, it comes to me in dreams and in under-my-breath curse words and as the first instinct almost all the time. But I'm still learning.

Living life in two languages is so interesting. Because language has always been my "thing," though, this new experience brings to light so many fascinating questions (fascinating to me, at least) that I'd never thought of before. The most interesting of these is the most obvious: am I the same person in French and English? It's difficult to say.

As an expressive, talkative (read: loud) person, the initial struggle of not being able to express myself in French was second to none. The idea that I was unable to get a point across was an unwelcome one. These days, thankfully, I can express almost any point in French with decent rapidity and an accent that won't make a Parisian's ear bleed (and now, I'll confess that I'm getting anxious that this entire post is beginning to sound like a humble brag, but it's really not my intention - questions of language and identity are constantly swimming around in my head, and this post is an attempt to sort some of them out. I really am sorry if it comes across in another fashion!). However, though I have the right words now, and I know I'm being understood in terms of word comprehension, there comes a greater question of "Are they really understanding me?" I sometimes get the impression that my French self and my normal self are not the same. I speak in a different range, I use completely different expressions and gestures, even the facial expressions related to French and English can be surprisingly different. The French are notorious for using non-verbal audible communication, and those loud exhales and disapproving pursed lips can be difficult to shake once acquired as a habit.

This is a part of living in France that I didn't expect when I moved here. I never thought beyond the "get good at French" goal, and so never considered what came with linguistic comfort.  I hadn't realized the divide fully until I spent a weekend in Dublin with a close French friend. I happily spent several moments of the weekend translating between my aunt and uncle and my friend, but it became so apparent to me that the way I expressed myself in French and in English were completely different.

Working in an office that employs both French and American interns, too, has also been cause for reflection about this point. While I speak in French with the French girls, it feels strange to speak in French with the Americans - both because, well, there's a certain pretension to it, I feel, but also because I can't communicate the social cues and indicators that I'm used to indicating to an American peer. When I speak in French with the Americans, it genuinely can feel as if we're communicating from behind masks, which is funny because I feel confident I'm using the right words, but I'm still not sure that they're understanding me like they would if we spoke in English. 

Ultimately, there's no conclusion to make here; no "and so" that will satisfyingly round up my ramblings into a concise realization - and if the conclusion exists, it certainly won't be found on a Tuesday night after typing out one blog post. Though it raises many questions and demands many difficult answers, the dichotomy of self that comes with language acquisition is fascinating, but not life-altering. I'm not having an existential crisis and worrying that no one knows my "true self," nor am I worried that I'm being misunderstood as someone I'm not. I just think that reflecting on things like this is an important part of living abroad and so I've come to this space to do so. Though next time, I'll try to find a lighter topic... 
xx

2 Comments

Discussion

Mary Grace M said...

Niamh, I feel exactly the same as you do -- except about Italian! I was constantly struggling with questions of self-expression in two languages and translation issues. When people ask me if I'm fluent, I always hesitate even though I understand 90% of spoken Italian and literature because there is so much one can never know as a non-native speaker. Thank you for your post!

NC said...

Thanks for reading, Mary Grace! Nice to know my experience is a shared one.