I’ve come to the conclusion that being bilingual is not just about speaking and thinking in two different languages. It’s about having two distinct personalities.
When I first moved to France, despite my twelve or so years of French lessons at school, culminating in a university degree in French and German, I found it horribly difficult to express myself in French. I could get my point across, make conversation and understand what was being said around me, but I struggled to translate my actual personality. French people I met thought I was rather reserved and shy, quiet and not particularly opinionated. As painful shyness was something I had suffered from as a teenager and subsequently conquered, it was intensely frustrating to relive that awkward phase all over again in French. Another sticking point was humour: any attempt to communicate a dry Northern English sense of humour into French tended to result in disaster. What I had intended as sarcasm was often taken literally.
Ten years down the line I am far more comfortable in conversation in French am often mistaken for a native (a compliment I never grow tired of). Nonetheless I have realised that I am a slightly different person when I speak French. I think this is due in part to a conscious or subconscious desire to conform to French expectations of what it is acceptable for women to say (which means, for example, less swearing and crudity, even after a few drinks). Whatever the reason, my French alter ego is undoubtedly rather more polite and deferential than my English self.
Take answering the phone for instance. The English me is congenitally incapable of uttering the phrase “your welcome”. My mind goes blank when someone says ‘thank you’ and I mumble a bashful “no problem” or “that’s alright”, only to remember the existence of the phrase “you’re welcome” as I replace the receiver. My French self, on the other hand, adopts a syrupy sweet voice not unlike the invisible anchorwoman on the Arte channel (think the Cadbury’s caramel squirrel and you get the picture) and never ceases to amaze me when “il y’a pas de quoi” or “je vous en prie” trips effortlessly off her tongue.
In previous jobs, where I was the only native English speaker in the office, I often found it frustrating to be trapped in my polite, too nice French self all day long. I longed to let down my guard and relax into my English personality, and to have honest dialogue with my bosses and even inject a touch of humour once in a while. Eventually I made the move to an English firm where I really could be me all day long: the sarcastic, occasionally subversive, mercilessly piss-taking and smutty (after a beer-or two) me. It was the best move I ever made. My very mental well-being depended on it.
I doubt I would have ended up living with a Frenchman if he hadn’t been fluent in English. In the case of Mr Frog, I am not his first petite anglaise, so he already had some experience in that department, and in the early days he saw me mostly in the context of my group of heavy drinking, bar-hopping friends and definitely fell for the English me. I honestly don’t think I could have had any sort of meaningful relationship with someone whom I only ever spoke French to.
At the end of the day, although I did move to this country with the aim of becoming fluent in the language, and to live a French life, I am adamant that I don’t want to lose touch with the English me within. My French personality doesn’t feel quite genuine, it’s more like a mask I wear sometimes.
And it gets a bit uncomfortable after prolonged wear, not unlike my contact lenses.