I realised this morning (or was it late last night) that English may have become my easier oral language. I have now reached a point where I find more natural to explore a number of common topics of conversations, such as the news, politics and other ideas, in English. It may have a lot to do with the fact that my main, almost my only, interlocutor is my English husband. Still, it is a strange state of affairs (for me), and a problematic one in a household where we endeavour to maintain bilinguism in the children.
French remains and will most certainly remain my better and favoured written language. Living where I live, I am sometimes encouraged to think it would make sense to try and write in English. Not just the gardening trivia or occasional reflexions I post here, but the very things that push and tug at the roots of my need to write. Many writers, after all, have ended up adopting as their main language one which wasn’t their mother tongue. Strictly speaking, I could claim to have done that, as my first language was Vietnamese – I was rather surprised to hear that French conjugation still somewhat eluded me when I first started school. But really, that claim would be a lie. I have mostly lost that mother tongue long ago.
Describing my language landscape, I would hazard that I can probably reason in English as well as in French, that is, handle satisfactorily the more conscious and superficial layer of thought and expression. Improving on that should not be absolutely impossible : reading would be the first step, and then try, fail, learn, stumble, progress. Slowly. However, what I really want to write, what I am pushed to write, what French allows me to do, seems quite out of reach in English. Writing, I am looking to conjure the song behind the sound, the vibration carried by a word long and far travelled through the realms of literature. Am I an expert linguist, an avid etymologist, do I command a vast culture ? Absolutely not. For someone who received my education, I am rather lacking. Yet I know enough – in French – to be able to perceive and draw, as golden vapour from a summer meadow, the richness of words, that aura around them, to try and strike the secret bell that will chime, if I am doing well – if grace makes me more a channel than an obstacle. The joy of recognition, the complex emotion of the beauty of truth come from the way words’ overtones harmonise. Could I, with practise, capture the light, the weight, the breath, the warmth, the dread as well as in French ? I am not sure. After all, more often than not, English poetry baffles me, proof that a good deal of what words convey in English escapes me. What is missing is familiarity : that quality of friendship, of complicity, that comes with time, with an incompressible shared duration. Dealings with a childhood friend draw their flavour and depth from a treasure of unspoken, often even unconscious shared knowledge. Thus, French is more than my instrument, it is my kin, my flesh. In French I grew up, in French I am made. The spring feeding the roots of the deep wood sings in French.
Meanwhile, I would be interested to know how multilingual writers feel and operate. If all topics can be treated in all languages, I don’t believe the same thing can be said in different languages. Do they have two completely distinct language landscapes ? How do they navigate from one to the other ? Is it comparable to a mild form of split personality ? Or is it possible for different springs to feed the same wood ? Alternatively ? At the same time ? Please let me know of your experience, if you write in several languages.