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.

16 thoughts on “Language landscape

  1. My French was certainly better 40-odd years ago when I was living in Gap and working hard to learn to speak, read and even write. But I know my writing and even my speaking are not up to the mark, though the speaking improves after a few days in a francophone environment. The guys I admire are the young Africans who speak and write their mother tongue, plus one or two European language and then add another African language or even Arabic. Keep up the bilingualism! They may never thank you for it … WT

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  2. De tout cela je n’ai aucune expérience. Une très grande admiration seulement pour ceux qui savent bien écrire et bien parler en plusieurs langues, et qui ainsi su acquérir tout ce à quoi cela ouvre.

    Je ne peux pas juger ton anglais mais que ton français est beau quand tu l’écris, Grenouille.

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  3. Je serais bien incapable d’écrire comme vous deux langues différentes … et je n’ai jamais pensé qu’en français ! Ce n’est pas faute d’avoir essayé d’apprendre l’anglais, l’italien et même le japonais mais mon niveau est resté bien mauvais …

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  4. J’ai lu et relu votre texte. Mon anglais est fort lointain et n’a jamais été très au point. Mais je suis un peu dans la même situation de bilinguisme : je vis en Espagne depuis bien longtemps, mari espagnol, enfants bilingues, je suis en constante interrogation.
    On dit que c’est enrichissant d’être bilingue….j’ai des doutes : je crois que ces deux systèmes qui m’habitent me jouent des tours assez souvent. Au lieu de vivre en harmonie, ils se phagocytent.
    Je ne me résous pas à mettre un article en espagnol sur mon blog…trop peur de produire des phrases à syntaxe suspecte…..Mais il m’arrive aussi de me lancer dans une discussion en français et de chercher mes mots, voire d’en inventer.
    Non, tout n’est pas rose dans la vie des bilingues.
    Félicitation pour vos articles (surtout en français !) et photos.

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    1. Merci de votre lecture et de votre commentaire ! Il est rare d’entendre des personnes bilingues exprimer autre chose que de la satisfaction. Je reste persuadée que c’est enrichissant, mais je vous rejoins sur le fait que ce n’est pas sans contrepartie. Il y a certainement un prix à payer, du moins pour nous (puisque je partage votre expérience des heurts qui peuvent survenir entre les deux univers). Je me dis que c’est le manque de sommeil chronique, que c’est la jeunesse qui s’éloigne, que c’est la fatigue, mais peut-être que non. On entend parler de ces gens qui, contraints par les circonstances, parlent aisément quatre langues… Mais je ne sais s’il est possible, sauf exception, de les maîtriser également.
      Merci de vos compliments ; je viens de découvrir votre blog que je suivrai avec intérêt. 🙂


  5. English poetry often baffles native English speakers too! I always wonder how effectively Shakespeare can be translated – or any great author. I don’t know any other language well enough to think in it, but I have puzzled over several languages via translations enough to suspect that different languages have different atmospheres. For example, French seems to be more lyrical, and Japanese more allusive.

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    1. Yes, translation is that impossible and wonderful task, a work of creation in its own right within the tight boundaries. I wonder what adjectives could be used to describe English, the way you describe French or Japanese. Thank you for reading and commenting !


  6. You write beautifully in English. It is my loss that I can’t read your blog in French. As someone who grew up in Russian and loved it (and was rather good at it) but who then spent nearly 20 years working and living life in English (and loving it too), I deeply relate to this post. I hardly ever write in Russian these days, except my morning diary, a very private affair. And even there, English creeps in. I fight this linguistic laziness and try to translate as I go but sometimes I just can’t. And English has become the language of my dreams. Even closer to my heart now that I am living in Holland. I think it is comparable to a mild form of split personality, perhaps, yes. There are some topics that are completely out of reach for me now if I approach them in Russian. The world of investments, where I have worked, and now the world of plants and gardening too. Yes, there are some words that are so rich, so evocative, so in possession of this golden vapour you write about, that conjure a moment, a place, a smell from my childhood so compellingly, in a way that an equivalent word in English never could. Those are indeed friends I grew up with – comfortable, intimate. But then, like with friendships in life, there are those I have come to know in my more mature years, chosen knowingly (knowing myself and the world so much better), words which I felt a connection with and which I have come to respect and appreciate consciously. That does not make them worse or shallower friends. And with some, I have now spent more than half my life. Of course, the Russian word for a snowdrop will bring back memories of looking for the tiny fragile heads under heaps of snow, in freezing temperatures, white on white, and the first glimpse of green for months. It is not how I think about snowdrops in English. But aconites (which I love)? I would have to look it up. Anyway. I have also been pondering what it means to write in your second language so much more comfortably on subjects that are now so close to one’s heart. I wonder, how did Nabokov feel about it? Writing his great works in Russian, French, English. I do worry about developing my (trilingual) daughters’ Russian to a level that goes at least somewhat beyond household speak. What language, of the three that they are growing up with, will they write about snowdrops, if ever?

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    1. Thank you for sharing your experience in this beautiful, thoughtful commentary. I find it very enriching, and more interesting than my own post. I was merely doubting I could ever carry the same depth in a second language, whereas your experience is more complex. I gather your situation, compared to mine, is one of further distance from your first language. France is nearer than Russia, in many ways. So your relationship to Russian is probably more emotionally coloured by longing, and linked, as you describe it, to a landscape, a climate, another cultural dimension… Whereas I only have to look accross the Channel, and stumble on French words all the time in English…
      You are right to point out that one can make friends, if in another manner, outside the realm of childhood, and that those later friendships are precious too. I suppose there is a propensity to hopeless nostalgia in me. 🙂
      About gardening – I love how you mention Russian snowdrops and English aconites, a wonderful way to express that link between things, their names and our perception of them. I never had a garden in France, so plants and nature come to me through English. And yet, they are such an important part of my life now. So, yes, what does it mean ?
      With the children, I am intent on fending off the “anglicisation” of their French. Given the omnipresence of English, not only in England but everywhere, I am shamelessly trying to make as much space as possible for French. But I know snowdrops will stay nearer their heart than perce-neige, not the least because I garden in English. 🙂


  7. Ah, yes, the issue of languages and cultures, split personalities and split identities… I love your response. We could both probably write endlessly about this 🙂 I won’t even start, for fear of never stopping. A whole new blog, or a book perhaps! …And I also garden in English, I was a hopelessly urban child. So, a word for pruning in Russian?…(A much deeper question – does the fabled Russian soul even allow for the concept?!)

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