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.
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.
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.
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?