This Week on teh Interwebs

Lunch phone rant


(post from phone, apologies for formatting) I have always had a strange relationship with my two languages. When I was younger, I always felt like my French wasn’t good enough, and my accent doesn’t help. Before, in cases where I could have easily done something in English, I have always forced myself to speak or write or
in French, just to prove a point. That is why I bristle when people say “Oh you’re from Louisiana, that’s why you speak French.” I’m not from Acadiana, I’m not from a French speaking family- my level of French has to do with a lot of hard work on my part and a few lucky breaks, and I feel like people who think I speak French because I am “from Louisiana” dismiss that. Over the last year, my feelings and insecurities over French have changed. Maybe it is because I am in my thirties, going on my sixth year in Switzerland, tenth year living in French-speaking countries and twentieth year of learning French, but now I feel like I have done my time and people who think my French isn’t good enough are the ones with the problem. I’m quite suspicious now of people who try to criticize my French- I wonder if it has more to do with their own insecurities, because I *know* my French is on lock.

My shifting feelings towards French have changed the way I relate to friends. Because speaking French was a point of pride for me, I always held English in a lesser regard in high school. In college, that changed. I was lucky enough to associate with writers and poets who helped me want to learn more about my mother tongue. So since then I have always been naturally drawn to people who spoke both French and English and were bilingual to a certain degree (here I could go into a side discussion on definitions of bilingualism but I won’t. I think there is a case to be made for what I call “functional bilingualism”, but that is another topic for another post). I feel like French is hardwired into my brain, and I enjoy being around people who can live in my two worlds. I love speaking Franglais, I love shifting between the two in the same conversation, I love using the “right word” in French or English when the same in the other language just won’t do. I can’t imagine living in a world where I didn’t speak French daily. I think it would make me unhappy. French is a language that comforts me- I feel like an outsider almost everywhere I go (the whole being a Muslim expat in a close-minded
redneck city thing), and I know that French isn’t “my language.” So having a high level of functionality in something that isn’t mine almost makes me feel like being out of place is almost ok- I can run in “their circles” and keep my weirdness private.

I started thinking of my relationship with French when I got married to someone who remains the most gifted linguist I have ever met. Over the past ten years our conversations were and are almost exclusively in English despite the fact that he is French mother tongue. I always thought it was his choice, but now I realize my role in our language interaction. Despite the fact that most of my entourage speaks both French and English, I (subconsciously) divide people into groups. People I want to keep at a distance get French. At work, I almost never speak in English (unless asked to translate or give a pitch) even though the vast majority of my colleagues speak English well. The people I want to be close to, the people I “let in” get English. But even when I am speaking English to someone, I still want that person to be able speak French; in fact, the people I consider my closest friends are highly bilingual French/English. So with close friends, even if 95% of the discussion is in English, I love the five seconds of switching that I sometimes do. The funny thing is that when I am not sure about someone new, it gets schizophrenic and the language divide gets closer to 50-50. I switch back and forth, I test the waters- I may write in French or call in English, or vice versa. If they pass, they get English; if they fail, they get French. My language use has somehow gone beyond the functional for me (even
though I appreciate the functional aspects) and turned into something much more personal whereby I put my social circle into little categories. What about y’all? Are any of you weird about languages?


Author: Nicole Cunningham

American Expat and convert to Islam living and working between Lausanne and Zurich, Switzerland.

7 thoughts on “Lunch phone rant

  1. I’ve always had a particular relationship with every language I speak. I am able to understand, think and even dream in English and Spanish almost as easily as in my mothertongue French – and therefore pretty well understand what you mean by saying you couldn’t spend one day without using one or the other.
    Each language is like a different facet of my personnality that needs to be expressed at some moment of the day so that I can feel complete! (and maybe that’s why I am so confused when switching languages with someone I’ve been used to talk to in one particular language only)

  2. Really interesting stuff, and I am jealous that your French has become “hardwired.” I took around 7 years of Spanish, so my comprehension is excellent, but to gain that next level of proficiency I think I would have to spend an extended level of time in a Spanish speaking country just so I am forced to speak it and can be more comfortable using it.
    I am bilingual in English and Urdu. My first language was Urdu, but I grew up in the US, so I learned English pretty quickly. If I am angry with someone, I will probably yell at them in Urdu just because it’s like my “emotional” language. It is also my religious language. I make du’a in Urdu and use Urdu concepts to talk about Islam, i.e. saying namaz instead of salaat, because that is how I was raised to view Islam. I am taking a class on linguistics and culture next semester, and a lot of these issues are probably going to come up haha.

  3. I’m sooo glad you’re back blogging… Anyway, my situation is more complicated and I’m all for the “functional bilingualism” as the traditional definition of bilingualism and biculturalism just don’t cut it in our TCK world. I never thought about my use of languages with people with whom I have more than 1 language in common, it’s an interesting point. I’ve lived in a franco-anglophone world for almost 10 years now. Neither French nor English is my mother tongue which influences my attitude, obviously. I guess my first approach would be the opposite to yours in a way – since French is our family language, I tend to warm up to French speakers faster. English is a “foreign language”, for 5 years it was a language of the “outside” to the point where I would be unintentionally rude and speak French to my husband in my mom’s presence. I just cannot speak English to him, it feels like talking to a stranger…

  4. asssalamu alaikum,

    when i was younger language learning was a hobby of mine. i taught myself spanish in my late teens and, at one point, even though i lived in a fairly parochial part of northern england, i would associate exclusively with spanish speakers and spend whole days speaking only in spanish with friends i made through language exchanges. i had had very few friends at school and was rather shy when speaking in english but found that i could express my feelings much more easily in spanish. i do still love the rhythms of the spanish language.

    over time,i’ve noticed a tendency towards disrespecting linguists on the basis that ability to converse in another language is neither a rare find nor is it uncommon to find people with qualifications in other areas also speaking good spanish, for example. however, i think that studying a language properly is very different to merely knowing how to converse in it.

  5. I understand so well what you mean! English is my second language after studying it for years and living for almost 5 years in England. I need t/readwrite/speak English everyday and I love when I can just drop English words ,”the right words” as you describe them, when talking with the very few friends I have that have a good level of English. Unfortunately, Spanish people don’t like to speak English much lol,so is hard for me to practice it unless I use the internet. To express emotions, I still prefer Spanish, I find it to be a much passionate and much more accurat when describing certain feelings than English.

    Oh and hey, I am probably going to enrol in a French course this year, so I can pactice with you hahaha

  6. Oh oui! Could I commenter on this post until les vaches come home… don’t you know le! Franglais should be recognised comme une deuxième langue au Canada – if we parler le ensemble, ça filler in les blanks et ça aide à s’exprimer, non? Ou, does it laisser notre relationship dans le limboland entre amies ou aquaintances? 😉

  7. lol…. that last comment cracked me up!!! Love it. I have to be boring here and say I only have one language to my name… English obviously.

    I taught myself a little Spanish when I was younger, took 5 years at school in French and 1 year in German.. I took a further 2 year course in French upon arriving in Canada 2004. I can understand things alot more but its generally on a written basis 🙂 I have a few friends I talk with in french on MSN but I would not say I am near functional bilingualism

    I think the whole Algerian community are amazing linguists.. the guy I was going to marry was fluent in five languages and was decent in another one.. that always astounded me. My husband is fluent in four (although he will say three of them are generally the same)

    Maybe my next move will be to a non English speaking country and I will be forced to speak something other than boring English. We have signed up for conversational Spanish lessons though 😉 and I still have your book.. so lets see how that all goes lol

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