In Another Language

Do you speak more than one language fluently?

How are you different to yourself or to others, according to the language you are using? How does the difference in world view embodied in a language reveal a difference in its speakers? What depth of knowledge, of concept and perception of the world is lost when a language dies for want of speakers?

Once upon a time, when I was much younger, I was fully bilingual, speaking, thinking, dreaming in French as readily as I do in English. After forty years of living in the Southwest, with rare occasion to use French, and then only for a few hours at a time, I felt that I was losing more than the ability to speak French. I was losing aspects of my identity, personality, self.

Some traits are obvious – I use my hands much more when I speak French. These past thirty years have steadily diminished both my gestures and the mobility of my face (as evidenced by videos), with my communication limited to English. What else about myself is disappearing? Am I less flirtatious? More reserved? Living more through my mind and less through my emotions?

Or are those changes the result of growing older, of my life experiences, of my spiritual practice – and would exist irrespective of the language I speak?

In the way of events in my life now, once I’d framed up an inquiry, the means to explore the answer presented itself. I’ve been introduced to a Cameroonian who has been pursuing graduate studies at a nearby university. He is fluently bilingual, and offers me the opportunity to resurrect my French. I’ve been pleased to discover that my language skill still exists, relatively intact, beneath the surface of my daily life and that, as I use it regularly, my fluency is returning. My pronunciation, however, definitely needs practice.

What else is or needs changing as a result of using a second language? Can I separate shifts in attitude or emotion that originate within me based on language, from those resulting from the topics of discussion?  What is the effect of conversing with an African, rather than a Frenchman, or a bilingual American?

A good friend with whom I discussed the effects of language on perception, told me of how his relationship with an acquaintance changed as a result of a change in use of language. The interaction of the two men had been conducted in a mixture of fractured Thai and equally limited English. Despite the limitations, they had begun to build a friendship. Then the American was observed by the Thai, chatting easily with a group of other English speakers – and “the friendship was not the same afterwards. He saw me differently, and seemed not to be able to be comfortable with me in the same way as before.”

Do I see myself differently, when I speak French? I’ve been remembering events from my earlier life that I’ve not thought of in a long time. An evening at a club on the Left Bank in Paris, during my junior year of high school (American School of Paris) to which I was invited by the son of a friend of my mother’s. Hugh had just returned from a semester in the US, and ostensibly was introduced to me by our mothers, so that he could practice his English. He already had plans for the evening, and agreed to include me. On the way to the Sorbonne, by metro, he suddenly asked what part of the US I was from. When I said Washington DC his next question was, “Is that considered the South?”

He was subtly trying to determine if I’d have a problem spending the evening with his friends – African students at the Sorbonne. I did not. We collected his two French-speaking friends from Dahomey (now Benin), and went on to visit a Nigerian who has in hospital. There we acquired a fifth member of the group, a visitor who spoke virtually no French. As the only person fluent in both languages, I became the interpreter for the evening, which meant that I danced with one or the other of the men from Dahomey who argued for each African nation developing itself economically, then with the Nigerian visitor whose view was that a Pan African approach to growth was essential to the emergence of the continent as a presence in the world. About every third or fourth dance, Hugh would escort me and – in English – check to see if I was enjoying myself, and if I minded talking so much politics.

I mostly remember the oddity of being – with Hugh – virtually the only white face in the club, which was a hangout for all the Africans living in Paris. I remember enjoying the dancing, and the adventure associated with being out with “older” guys (they were in their mid-twenties) and experiencing an evening so distinctly different from the norm of my life.

My first “true love” happened in French. I dated Patrick throughout my senior year, left him behind when I graduated and returned to the US to attend college, but never really left him behind. He visited me in Boston seven years later – and fifteen years after that came with his family to the US, and a visit at my home near Santa Fe. We still exchange greetings although we haven’t written letters or talked in a long time, partially because I “lost” my French, partially because I’ve found it challenging to translate some of my US, and particularly my rural Southwest, experiences into a language I know primarily as a fast-paced, urban expression.

In college, for about a year, I dated an African Olympic soccer star, coincidentally also from Dahomey. We spoke French when alone, but English in company. He led the college team to the championships, and would usually make one goal that was spectacularly “pour toi” – a solo, elaborate-footwork trip down the field showing off his skills. The rest of the game he was the consummate team player. He was also sadly troubled and displaced, enough to not return from a summer visit home between our sophomore and junior years. In this instance also, French was associated with experiences out of the norm of my life – even though I was minoring in the subject. Studying French literature and practicing translation of texts felt like part of my general academic life. Dancing the High Life, cheering at a soccer match off campus, trying to help my friend overcome the culture shock that was dampening his spirit – those were new and different challenges.

So am I finding that I’m more adventurous in French? Perhaps…

I certainly seem to be more frank. Because I do not have the fluency to mask my thoughts and feelings? Perhaps…

I notice, in the recounting, that the significant experiences being brought to mind by my use of French are all about interactions with the opposite sex! Hmmmm…..

To be continued.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “In Another Language”

  1. Jane Foraker-Thompson Says:

    Interesting reflections Niki. I’ve never been that fluent in another language, but I have a son that I have observed that is a natural linguist. He knows French, GErman, and Spanish and has lived in both French-speaking and Spanish-speaking countries and gets along fluently. He has spent quite a bit of time in various African countries also, and can pick up their languages by himself enough to converse easily with them, even to the point of banter and joking, which they say is the highest form of communicating in another language. His personality is different when he is in Africa conversing with the women and men at the open market places. He is relaxed, gregarious, playful, and the Africans obviously are delighted that a white person has bothered to learn their language. At home, he is a more uptight personality, stiffer, more reserved. I was amazed when I observed him in the African markets and places where he worked as both a Peace Corps volunteer and as a private contractor with an NGO to help people develop businesses that were environmentally sustainable. I’ve mused on why the difference in personality in the different settings? I don’t know the answer, but it’s a real phenomenon, for sure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: