Breathing in Two Languages

Last week I stumbled onto a French writing competition.

Perhaps because my last post brought back the fact that the first words I read and wrote were in French, perhaps because a few French readers of my blog have asked me if I had considered writing fiction in French too, I decided to participate to this contest.

Not after an internal dilemma, though.

Can you still write in French? A blog is one thing. A short fiction story is another.

This dilemma triggered memories of another.

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My oldest daughter was eleven months old when we left Paris.

Her three American-born younger siblings benefited from her linguistic experience in their own signature way.

Her sister, who is a year younger, drew exclusively from her and was already familiar with English when she started preschool. While her sister had been cautious and waited to speak either French or English until she could master both, she mixed French and English liberally, announcing that she spoke English, French and Franglais.

My youngest daughter adopted yet another tactic: unlike her sisters, she spoke at an early age and switched between French and English with ease that I envied.

My son had to endure the constant chatter of his sisters and their many friends. Our bookshelves became his hideout. He and I spent a lot of time together in the car, either dropping the girls off at dance class or picking them up after gymnastics or a piano lesson. We spoke a lot, always in French.

“I’ve never met a croque-mort,” he told me one day. “Have you?”

“What!” I instinctively exclaimed. He was only four years old and I wondered where, of all words, he could have heard the French slang for pallbearer. I searched for his face through the front mirror. “Where did you hear that word?”

“Lucky Luke,” he answered.

At night I told my husband that our son had found his French comics and taught himself how to read them.

“Good for him,” my husband said.

Due to the cost of shipping, we had been hesitant to pack his bandes dessinées when we left Paris.

You just never know how your child will learn your mother language, I thought that night.

While my son mostly spoke French with me, my daughters, now in school all day, not only spoke English together, but also addressed me in English. When I insisted on having our conversations in French they developed their own language: a strange mix of English and French. Our house was a blend of two languages, none of them perfect.

It can’t last, I often thought.

I imagined a time when only my husband and I would speak French together.

Regularly, I attempted to teach my children the basics of the French grammar.

“It’s funny to have you as a teacher,” said my oldest.

“Yeah,” her sister agreed. “You don’t look like a teacher.”

“I like Maman as a teacher,” my youngest daughter said.

“Can I read Asterix instead?” asked my son.

I asked my father-in-law, a former French high school teacher, for advice. He mailed me several books, including grammar books. Since their grandfather had sent them, the children agreed to meet for French lessons.

Soon they all complained, “It was soooo hard.” My son had the last word when he reached for another French comic book.

In the end, I stopped struggling to teach a language that my children would mostly speak with their dad, their grandparents, and me. The four of them studied French in high school, mostly I know, to make me happy. But they had also seen me writing in English, a language I had mostly learned from scratch in the States. They knew they had an advantage in comparison. They realized that fluency in a language comes from serious studying and assiduous practice. I helped them with their French assignments and in turn never hesitated to ask them for advice when I wrote in English.

More than ever, the house breathed in two languages.

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Last week before I started writing in French, I selected the French language option on my computer, so I could write without worrying about the accents, for example. My speller checker did a decent job and caught words I had written in… English. I also searched occasionally for the French equivalent of a word that came instinctively to my mind in English. On the other hand, as soon as I was immersed in the story and knew where I was going, dialogues flew in a liberating way, something that I do more cautiously in English.

Today, I finished the first draft and read the story out loud. I always find this habit helpful when I write in English. If I stumble on a word I might consider another. If I have used a word too many times, I will catch it when I read aloud.

Today as I read my French story the familiar music of my native language brought me lots of emotions. Of course reading in French is effortless for me. The rhythm is natural and very enjoyable.

When I was finished I realized that I had typed the title in English. It made me smile and I changed it to French.

Funny, I thought, it sounded better in English.

This week, as I did for many years while raising my children, I breathed again in two languages.

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And you, in which language do you breathe?

Others writers and bloggers live, like me, away from their native land. I’m curious to know how they feel about either writing in the language of their new home or their native language? This one is for the Claires, Kimberlys, Sisyphuses, Uncle Spikes out there… and for anyone I forgot or haven’t met yet.

Do you find your writing better, more evocative, simply different, when you write in the language of your childhood?

Or do you think that after many years abroad you have lost the fluency in your native language?

And if you write in your native language, do you imagine writing in another?

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Comments

  1. Asterix and Obelisk huh? I believe there’s a french version of the comics out there, If I remember correctly the series was also written by herge 🙂 Here at home, we speak in Mandarin and English right now but back in Chile. It was spanish mandarin and taiwanese whenever my grandmother visited. Bit of everything lol 🙂

    • Thank you, Andy. You’re quite the polyglot here. Goscinny wrote Astérix et Obelix while Uderzo illustrated. Hergé did Tintin. I’m sure that you can find them in Canada. Thank you for stopping by.

  2. I enjoyed this very much. You’re description makes your situation quite easy to imagine. I don’t write in two languages, but I sometimes feel like I do. I write a lot for business and it’s very different. It has taken me quite some time to get comfortable with my non-technical, non-professional voice.

    • I understand what you mean, Dan. My husband’s technical English was flawless when we came to the US while his non-technical one was so-so. I tell him that he’s a polyglot because I include computer programs languages in the category. I don’t know any of them so they sound like foreign languages as well. Thank you for your visit.

  3. Uncle Spike says:

    Easy choice for me Evelyne… my Turkish may be verbally passable among local farmers and in shops, but beyond that, folk are probably quite happy I DON’T write in Turkish 🙂

    • You’re funny! I assumed so because one of my friends married a guy from Turkey and when he speaks with his visiting mother, I’m really lost in translation.
      All of you English speakers have it easy since this is still the most universal language.

      • I know 😀

        Turkish is extremely difficult I find. I get by though… but never understood more than 20 words my father-in-law has ever uttered!

  4. Beautiful post, Evelyne (and thanks for tne mention!) So glad to see you’re writing in French (in your ‘second soul’, to borrow from a far greater mind). I love writing in other languages – it’s so freeing somehow to write in languages not your own and to recognize points the native speakers might not. But still, it’s wonderful to write in your own language, the language you grew up in. But I love seeing my children switching freely between the two (as it sounds like yours do), playing with syntax, switching to the expression that’s ‘ better’ in one language than another. Can’t wait to read what you’re writing in French!

    • Thank you so much, Kimberly. I can easily imagine how your children switch from one language to another. It’s fascinating to observe.
      I love the mention of the ‘second soul,’ which says in a beautiful way what it is with the language we first heard.
      See you soon on your blog.

  5. Nice post! I was wondering whether you think in English or French. I think in Greek when I speak it, but English the rest of the time. No way I could write in Greek, though!

    • I forgot that you wrote once about your Greek origins! Like you, when I am in France I think in French. Here, always in English. But in my early years I thought in French much more often and my dreams were in French too. Someone told me once that when we start dreaming in the language of the new country, we are fluent. Not so sure! Thank you, Stella for stopping by.

  6. This was really interesting for me Evelyne – English is my first language and I’m not fluent in any of the other languages I’ve learned, so I don’t have your experience. I find it intriguing that some words come naturally to you in English as I would have imagined that you always think more naturally in your first language. I think your two languages, as well as your two nations must make your experiences so much richer – and your children are also lucky to have had those experiences.

    • Thank you, Andrea. Regularly I wonder what would have happened to my writing projects had I stayed in France. It surely slowed me down to learn English. But you’re right about the richness of the experience. My children who are growing up (too fast) realize now the advantage they have had. Their French isn’t flawless but very decent to go by when we are in France. Also living with born-abroad parents who speak with an accent has opened their mind at a very young age and they are tolerant beyond expectation.

  7. I love this – it captures growing up bilingually perfectly! I was a little older when we moved to France, but even so would shock my parents (and teachers at an English-speaking school) by coming out with ‘street French’ I’d picked up from neighbourhood kids without even noticing – I now envy children that ability! It becomes really fun and games when you add a third language – I’ve spent the last three years immersing myself in Swedish, the other day tried to speak to a little French girl in French – and my mind went blank! A trip to Paris is called for, I think…

    • Thank you, Claire, for stopping by. Three years in Sweden are probably not enough to write fiction or anything creative in Swedish, right?
      At least for me, it took much more time to do so in English.
      As for French, you were lucky to learn at a young age. It is indeed much easier.
      And a thir language is my goal too: Spanish would be a great idea especially here in California. But I will stick to French and English for my blog!

  8. Sisyphus47 says:

    😉 Écrire en français: c’est une grande détente, comme un court séjour à Paris… J’ai aussi redécouvert des auteurs presque oubliés… Être bilingue, ou trilingue, est une grande richesse, pour la lectrice comme pour l’écrivain! 🙂

    • Merci, Sisyphus. Vous illustrez le parfait exemple, puisque vous alternez entre le français et l’anglais sur vos blogs. Je suis d’accord sur la liberté que l’on ressent lorsque l’on écrit dans sa langue natale. Et aussi sur le fait que maitriser une ou plusieurs autres langues soit d’une grande richesse. C’est la raison pour laquelle j’ai insisté pour que mes enfants puissent lire le francais. Avec des résultats un peu mitigés…Mais Astérix et Tintin ne comptent pas pour du beurre.

  9. Another excellent post Evelyne which has given me great pause for thought. Although as a Brit moving to America I didn’t have the language barrier but even today I use certain expressions and words that catch people out here. I don’t know what’s American or British any more!

    My eldest son was 3 when we moved to CA and he sounded very English until he started Kindergarten when he was 6. But even then, as a teenager he told me that his friends could pick up certain expressions and words that were very British. To us, it just seemed normal. I didn’t really pick up an accent which surprised everyone but apparently I still sound ‘American’ when I speak to my friend on Skype. I’m not aware of it though! All three of my children still sound softly American according to others but to me they sound as they always have!

    Interestingly, their father comes from Hispanic and Spanish ancestry. His parents, while speaking English to us, spoke Spanish to each other. He was raised in a home where his grandmother spoke Spanish to him and his brother but they always answered in English (American!). So they understood it but never spoke it. I always found this so fascinating but what a shame that they weren’t bilingual and he didn’t see the need to teach his children Spanish. In CA!! What a waste! Ironically, my eldest son studied Spanish for many years and has friends there who he visits fairly regularly so his Spanish comes in very handy!

    Love this post, thanks again for sharing how your personal experiences with the language barrier, for want of a better word, have played out within your own family. Also, I used to love the Asterix and Obelisk stories 🙂

    • Hi Sherri. I thought of people I know who come from the UK or Australia and live now in the US. Although, like you say, the language barrier is not as important as it is for non English speakers, expressions and accents make for interesting situations too.
      As for your children, I can easily imagine how they could switch from one accent to another and also how people could notice it when you, as a mom, didn’t. I realized that my kids had an American accent when they spoke French during our first trip there.
      Asterix and Obelix taught my son how to read in French and some history as well. Not bad for comic books. Thank you for stopping by.

      • It is very interesting this isn’t it? How fascinating that you didn’t notice the American accent until your children spoke French during your first trip back.That must have been quite something!

        Yes, that is not too shabby at all. They were wonderful stories 🙂

  10. Nice post – I only speak and write in English, was never very good in my first and only French class. I admire everyone that has the ability to speak more than one language and to write as well – you’ll do quite well.

  11. This post made me smile and nod my head in a déja-vu kind of way. My children are tri-lingual (French/English/Luxembourgish) with a fourth, German ,to make things interesting, although they claim to hate the latter. I have lived outside of my native Michigan for over 25 years and notice that my English syntax gets a bit dodgy at times.
    No wonder when we speak at least three languages interchangeably. over the years, it has turned into a homogenous brew-speak. I love to read about other families who live within more than one language. How wonderful the human brain is to be able to keep up to speed!

  12. So nice to meet you, Yvonne. I can relate to your experience and will certainly visit you as well. Thanks you for stopping by and sharing your feelings about the challenges and benefits of speaking several languages. You beat me on that one!

  13. An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a coworker who had been doing a little research on this.

    And he actually bought me breakfast due to the fact that I stumbled upon it for him…
    lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending time to talk about this matter here on your
    website.

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