A Word about Language

Since arriving in France, a question has been floating in the back of my mind. Am I the same person in French? Sounds like a funny question, doesn’t it? Of course I’m the same person! I didn’t change because I changed languages, did I?


Well, in my literature class last week, we examined this very question of identity and language. I find multilingual questions like this to be particularly interesting because a large portion of the world speaks more than one language (sorry USA, you’re a little behind). Nearly everyone I’ve met abroad speaks their native language, English (everyone speaks English), and another language, if not three or four more! It’s actually gotten to the point where I was talking with another student in French and mentioned that I speak English. She laughed at me and told me that, “That doesn’t count! Everyone speaks English!


But that’s the problem. I speak English, but English isn’t just a language for me. English is the language I use to express the shared history of the United States, it’s the language I laugh in, it’s the language I use to explore… As Nancy Huston writes in Nord Perdu, “Le problème, voyez-vous, c’est que les langues ne sont pas seulement des langues.” *


And that’s true. Languages aren’t just languages. They’re a way of expressing ourselves, of imagining, of connecting with other human beings, of seeing the world. English is my native language, my langue maternelle. If such a large portion of my identity is English, then where does that leave my French? Am I the same person when I speak French?


This is a question I don’t think I can solve, at least not right now. Maybe years down the road, may never. Here’s why. To answer this question, I have to first define identity, then identify my identity (and then there’s the question of multiple identities and performed identities…people have written dissertations and books on this stuff)…It’s very intricate and confusing.


But I think one thing is sure. I think I have a stable core identity. I have morals and beliefs that are tried and tested in English and in French and in many situations. I’m a confident person and I am very confident in my identity so that remains regardless. However, I do feel like there is a difference in the expression of my identity. It is directly tied with my ability to speak French.


Since I don’t have the full vocabulary to express myself in French, I feel as if I am blocked. It can be very frustrating sometimes because I know my identity is not being expressed properly. Instead of intelligently discussing the political differences between countries, I find myself struggling to communicate complex ideas with simple words. I want the same level of fluency that I have in English, but that’s not possible, so sometimes I’m left with the meager, “Uh…c’est compliqué.” **


Also, I don’t feel as if I’m as social as when I am speaking English. I am often more reserved and willing to listen. I can understand French much better than I can speak it, which leads to my number one frustration in France. Yes, I understand what you’re saying, but I can’t respond as eloquently as you asked me. I know it seems like I don’t understand because I answered you basically, but I assure you that I do understand.


However, one of my classmates in my literature class suggested that when we pick up another language, we also pick up aspects of that culture. For the most part, I’ve noticed that French people are usually quiet and reserved (usually, there are differences as with any culture). She suggested that we are reflecting that reservation subconsciously to mirror the culture we are surrounded by. Perhaps.


While I may feel as if I am slightly less social, I have to remember that I’m known for laughing the most in a group – whether it is in the USA or in France. I’m extremely active in both the United States and in France. In fact, my life is almost identically mirrored in both countries. You think I’m kidding? I’m not. On Tuesday nights in the United States, I went to the French table at 7 pm. On Tuesday nights in France, I go to the English table at 8:30 pm. I play Quidditch in the United States. I play Quidditch in France. I don’t like fish in the United States. I don’t like fish in France.


Am I really that different? Hmm…maybe I’ve answered my own question. I don’t think I’m that different. Although, I admit, it’s easier to be “me” in English than in French. I think this why many international students tend to hang out among their own people. I’ve seen this phenomenon with American students, but also with other groups of international students. It’s just easier to make friends in your own language. It’s easier to tell stories, to judge a person’s character and humor. That being said, I do have French friends…it’s just tougher.


Here’s why it’s tough. I can talk to old ladies all day. They talk slowly and mostly talk about me finding a French boyfriend. It’s very easy to understand. But talking to groups of young French people? That’s one of my worst nightmares. First, young people talk so fast. They talk like they will never have a chance to say these words again, as if the very next second may never come and as if what they have to say is the most important thing to have ever happened. Then, they use all sorts of slang that I simply can’t understand.*** In class, we’re taught to speak French properly. **** They don’t teach us the real French we’ll hear in the streets. For a non-native speaker like me, it’s sometimes virtually impossible for me to follow the conversation of students my own age! That being said, I’ve picked up a few words to follow some basic conversations, but most of the slang words and idiomatic expressions remain a mystery. ***** However, this confusion usually just occurs when I’m talking with large groups of French students. They tend to let the conversation carry them away and they don’t always check to see if I’m following with them. Luckily, if I’m with one French student, I can ask them to explain their informal speech and suddenly things start to make sense.


Tough, though, has never meant anything to me in any language. Just because something is “tough” doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try. Even though I have difficulties expressing myself (and I worry that my identity isn’t clearly conveyed), I keep trying. I keep trying to be involved. I keep trying to better myself for my club, my community, my country and my world (that last bit is part of the 4-H pledge. I couldn’t help myself. It fit so well). I keep trying to learn, because there is always something new to learn. As a wise girl in sixth grade once wrote in response to the writing prompt, “When does education stop?”… “You could be 10,000 years old and never know everything there is to know. […] I love to learn and I really want to keep learning until the day I die.” Well, Kellene from sixth grade, you’re twenty now and you still REALLY want to keep learning.


Maybe some things in our identity transcend language, culture and time. Maybe that is our identity. Or maybe our identity is fluid and can be influenced by language, culture and time. If so, then wouldn’t having knowledge of many languages, many world views, wouldn’t that be a benefit? As Nancy Huston writes, “Et, si je disposais d’une troisième langue – le chinois par exemple – cela impliquerait-il un troisième imaginaire, un troisième style, une troisième façon de rêver?”******


Ah…so go the questions of multilingualism, identity and other big scholarly ideas. I think I’m going to go eat a cookie now. (Did you know that in French they also say “cookie”? That brings me to the topic of language contact, when there is a mélange of words, grammars… The world mélange comes from French and… Okay. I give up. Time for a cookie now. Seriously.)




* “The problem, you see, is that languages aren’t just languages.” -Rough translation by yours truly.

** “Uh…it’s complicated.”

*** Slang. Slang doesn’t necessarily mean bad words. I’m talking about regular, informal speech. For example, in English, when address a group of your friends, you can say, “Hey, you guys!” All of that is slang. Easy for you to understand, right? Well, you’re a native speaker. But a non-native speaker might not have been taught this expression and to them it can just sound like a bunch of sounds.

****In this paragraph, I talk about the problems about not knowing slang because we’re taught proper language. But we can also have the opposite problem. We can be too scholarly, too well-educated. For example, I speaking with French people on Tuesday and I used a word. They looked at me like I was crazy. I repeated it like seven times. They understand what I was saying and they even repeated the word. They said it sounded like a French word, but they didn’t know it. I went home and checked. It was a French word, but apparently it is a very scholarly word and no one uses it in every day conversation. Likewise, a girl in my class went to a party where she used the verb, “méduser” (which means to be dumbfounded, coming from Medusa, a mythical woman who turned people to stone if she looked at them). Apparently, no one knew what this word meant. I wonder what we sound like to French people. We probably sound like old professors. Eh, I’m okay with that. I’d rather be an old professor than an improper hooligan.

***** Idiomatic expressions : These are things like, “It’s raining cats and dogs” or “a little bird told me.” Luckily, I learned some proverbs in high school that have served me well in my time since being here. They really help to make it sound like you know what you’re talking about. You drop an idiomatic expression and the French people are like, “Wow. Now, you’re speaking our language!”

****** “And, if I have a third language – Chinese for example – does that imply a third imagination, a third style, a third way of dreaming?” – Rough translation by me. It sounds better in French.