petite anglaise

January 5, 2005

cultural schizophrenia

Filed under: Uncategorized — petiteanglaiseparis @ 11:15 am

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.


  1. […] ZO? Does speaking more than one language bestow upon you more than one personality? Petite Anglaise thinks so, as she detects different mannerisms between her […]

    Pingback by BILINGUAL = SCHIZO? Population Statistic — January 6, 2005 @ 2:38 am

  2. I feel the same. my English me (which is part American, as I learned the language in the USA) is a bit different from my French me.
    In English I think I’m more direct because in French I’m use more “formes de politesse” et respect the good maneers I learned as a kid. Sometime I may end up less polite.
    I swear more in English (I think picked up tat in the States).

    Comment by Chninkel — January 5, 2005 @ 11:55 am

  3. Oops! I left a few spelling mistakes in that comment!

    Comment by Chninkel — January 5, 2005 @ 11:56 am

  4. Hi. I’m a northerner too and a nosey parker to boot – I like to know what’s on other people’s bookshelves, what’s playing on their ipod, what they’re having for dinner etc., so I love your site. I had a year in France during my degree, in the very polite and restrained city of Tours, and also found it difficult to express myself beyond conversational limits. Not sure dry northern humour always travels well within the UK though, never mind all the way to Paris. I just found your site – it’s great.


    Comment by Rachel — January 5, 2005 @ 12:10 pm

  5. Hi there.

    Found your blog via Jason at typepad, who referenced the screaming tadpole in place incident.

    I’m culturally schizoid as well, Yankee/Froggy, I’m afraid, and I definitely am not the same person in either language. I don’t make the same jokes, yes, but i also don’t eat the same things, play the same games, or discuss the same things with my friends.

    Like you, I get frustrated if I can’t express both sides of my nature, and working for an american company has always been a great help, as have both Brentano’s and WHSmith ;)

    Anyhoo, happy new year, and I wish you, the frog and the tadpole all the best!

    Comment by Mathieu — January 5, 2005 @ 12:40 pm

  6. Ha. That’s funny. I think the opposite. I’m meaner, bitchier, and much more aggressive around the French (and in French) compared to how sweet and polite I am in English and around English speakers.

    I do totally agree that trying to speak two separate languages causes severe split-personality disorder.

    Comment by Anna — January 5, 2005 @ 12:43 pm

  7. PS: But this is because I often find the French more aggressive and provoking in the way they communicate (despite all their Madames and Monsieurs).

    Comment by Anna — January 5, 2005 @ 12:52 pm

  8. My ex-Frog didn’t speak hardly a word of English, which meant that I had to try to be “me” in French. I swore as much in French as I do in English. Maybe, over time, I would have developed distinct personalities. It’s hard to tell, really…

    As for politeness – I think in French there are a lot of phrases that are said for politeness’ sake, but I get the impression that the sentiment is not always there, it’s more of a habit and is just reeled off as a matter of course.

    Comment by witho — January 5, 2005 @ 12:57 pm

  9. oh how i envy you – i’m waiting for the day when i can even say i have a ‘french personality.’ on the rare occasion i do have a chance to speak french, i tend to just go mute because i’d rather not say anything than sound like a 4-year old. sadly, it’s too easy to live here without speaking any french at all so i wonder if that day will ever come . . .

    on another note, i recently discovered your blog and wanted to tell you what a pleasure it is to read – your writing is really smart and insightful.

    Comment by alessandra — January 5, 2005 @ 12:59 pm

  10. I left the suburbs of Heckmondwike for Paris yonks ago. Like you I speak pretty good French but I am never taken for a native except by some English people who can’t detect my persistant accent. I have a great relationship with my dear Corsican/Parisienne wife to whom I have always spoken in French. Crossed fingers but so far so good. Unfortunately our daughter is far from bilingual. She treats English as a foreign language she will never master.
    Some middle-class French people find me shy and reserved and can be shocked by my gritty references after a few glasses of wine. They would be even more shocked if they heard all the stuff I ‘ve picked up from my happily vulgar working class BILs.
    Are you mixing with the wrong kind of people?

    Comment by John O'D — January 5, 2005 @ 1:11 pm

  11. Petite- my own degree (back in 1986-1990) was in French and Spanish, with the third of the four years split between Valencia and Aix-en-Provence. My experience during this year would bear out your observations on the slippery nature of bilingualism (or for that matter trilinguilism).

    My experience in France was just like yours- I found it surprisingly hard to make the leap from classroom to cafe, and found myself reverting to that same painful teenage shyness. My French- which had been the strongest of my two foreign languages- suffered as a result, and has never really recovered.

    By complete contrast, in Valencia I somehow found myself able to throw off my inhibitions, and to come across in Spanish as a more outgoing, extrovert person than I had ever done in my native tongue!

    As I recall, various contemporaries had similar experiences. Usually, but not always, the Spanish identity that emerged was more extrovert (if perhaps shallower!), and the French one more reserved, and more sensitive to social niceties, than the original English one.

    If we accept that this development of language-differentiated split personalities was the result of our interaction with natives of the countries we visited, it seems to me difficult to escape the conclusion that there is at least something in the stereotypical portrayal of all three national characters (there, I’ve probably offended everyone now)!

    Comment by jonathan — January 5, 2005 @ 1:24 pm

  12. :cool:
    A new scenario for you. I am an English woman, hailing from Sunderland, pretty good French speaker (blame my school and the love of Cosmo in Paris)married to a South African. South Africans take everything totally literally – e.g “my bloody feet are killing me”!!!

    S.A Translation I have sore feet – you are being a drama queen…..!!! Do you see my problem? My other half has now been forced by his company to learn French – quelle domages! (excuse spelling – have not written French for years!!) and he’s now beginning to understand that English (Northern) can not be translated to Afrikaans literally as “quelle horreur”! neither can French!!

    Love your blog – found it care of B Magazine UK.

    thanks, it’s great fun!


    Comment by Amanda Leask — January 5, 2005 @ 3:05 pm

  13. I knew you would blog about this sooner or later. Nice!

    I just saw Arnaud Desplechin’s Rois et Reine, and that film is spot on for how beautifully sweet and violent french can be, even with politesse. I think that, for me, is the thing I yearn for in my french doppelganger.

    Comment by nardac — January 5, 2005 @ 3:06 pm

  14. witho, nardac – I do agree that beneath the veneer of politeness may lurk pure evil, or at the least insincerity. I know when I meet someone rude here my response is to be so over the top polite back that they just know I’m being insincere and calling their bluff.

    I probably need to re-read Dangerous Liaisons as I remember that being a masterful example of people not saying what they really mean in marvellously flowery language.

    Comment by petite — January 5, 2005 @ 3:49 pm

  15. Ahh, yes. I’m a schizoid English-speaking Icelander also fluent in German, where I lived for five years. My trick with the Germans, whenever I started to get that ‘I’m-inferior’ feeling, was to speak English to them and watch the tables turn. *They* all felt they should speak better English. But when I was growing up straddling two cultures (Canada-Iceland) I suffered greatly from the syndrome of never quite having a solid identity. However, in adulthood it’s become one of my greatest strengths.

    Comment by Alda — January 5, 2005 @ 3:51 pm

  16. I know exactly what you mean. However, unlike you, I feel truly myself in English, not in French.

    For example, I thrive on the sarcastic humour which is prevalent over here. I can (sometimes) be rather funny in English, and I find it really distressing to be decidedly dull in French.

    I think I’m happier expressing myself in English because I was brought up in quite a stifling atmosphere and was never allowed to find my own voice in my family. When I came to England, I was suddenly free of any expectations or boundaries and finally managed to develop my own personality. I think that’s why, although my French is far better than my English, I find it easier to express myself in English.

    Unlike you, I don’t think I have 2 personalities. I just have one, but it can only express itself fully and truly in English.

    Comment by céline — January 5, 2005 @ 3:52 pm

  17. I always found expressing emotion in German extremely difficult. Sometimes I would try and stress or accentuate certain words to convey ‘meaning’ but all they did was criticise me for not being able to speak properly. Some were kind and particularly those I was close to we got into the habit of speaking in our own tongue. Schwabisch is a very difficult dialect to master though.

    My revenge was always talking in the ‘London patois’ to my friends and watch the Germans struggle to keep up or understand as the eaves-dropped.

    Comment by Legomen — January 5, 2005 @ 4:31 pm

  18. I also have a multiple personalities, but being as I got no further than sniggering at ‘Ou est la piscine?’ at GCSE my French one is pretty under-developed. It’s a bit like William Hague.

    Comment by the manly smell — January 5, 2005 @ 5:30 pm

  19. It’s interesting to hear about your association of French and politeness, because at home, where I speak English most of the time, I will often lapse into French in the heat of an argument :smile:.

    Comment by Daniel — January 5, 2005 @ 6:29 pm

  20. alas, my husband has told me a few times that I speak “too aggressively” and am “too masculine” in my french speaking; french females speak daintily, I suppose, and I like to crack wise-ass remarks. However, I am only like this in the company of friends (I have my fake phone voice as much in french as I do in english), so I figure they must just take me as I am. Still, it would be nice if it didn’t bother the other half (I think it gets to him just a bit).

    I am curious though, what language do you use in your coversations with the Frog? Because my frog and I tend to speak about 97% french these days (now that I can express myself without too much trouble), although in the beginning it was only english. Although there is times that we will have a conversation with my talking to him in french, and him responding in english (which is rather odd, but we just go with the flow).

    Comment by kim — January 5, 2005 @ 6:48 pm

  21. I remember when I used to live in Leeds, some years ago, I was in-touch through the local mosque, with a middle-aged Iraqi teacher who had been tortured under Saddam’s regime. He said something to me, which I have always remembered since. Being from Iraq, he spoke both Persian and ‘Arabic (and also English). He said that there is an old Persian saying which goes that if you speak one laguage, you are one person and if you speak two languages you are two people. How true that is. I speak English and ‘Arabic: you can call me a dog as much as you want, all day long in English and I won’t bat an eyelid – but say the same thing once, in ‘Arabic (i.e. “anta kalb”) and I will get extremely angry, instantly. Strange but true.

    Comment by Adnan Mole — January 5, 2005 @ 7:05 pm

  22. Just found your site and I adore it!

    Your post is one reason why I am keeping my butt planted in the English-speaking world. However, I am in love with France and like to visit. When I do attempt the easiest of words or phrases I get a lot of odd looks and silly half-smiles. I’ll never achieve a tenth of a personality in another language/culture!

    Comment by pismire — January 5, 2005 @ 7:51 pm

  23. I think the moment I knew I really could live in a francophone country was when I went home to visit my parents in London at Christmas. I had recently broken up with my girlfriend and was feeling down in the dumps. When my mother asked me what was wrong, I couldn’t say it in English – what I was feeling, I was feeling in French.

    Since then, living, working, thinking, loving in French have all certainly brought the best aspects of my personality out – made me less cynical and sarcastic. Though I agree you can be much ruder to someone when you hide it behind the “vous” construction than when being much more direct and using “tu”.

    One curious thing : I lived in Vienna for a year, and though my German barely developed while I was there, I have retained the tendency to swear in three languages, which puts a much more satisfying range of options at my disposal. There are times when the English F-word is perfect, occasions when the French M- or P-words just seem to fit the bill, and moments when a good old-fashioned German Sch- can’t be beaten.

    PS So sorry to see you’ve been victim to comment spam. I always wondered what it was – now I know. Good luck clearing up the mess.

    Comment by Waterhot — January 5, 2005 @ 8:46 pm

  24. I was just thinking earlier this week how wonderful ‘Bonne Annee!’ sounds and how cheery I sound when I say it to people. I was thinking… would I say ‘Happy New Year!’ to the same people? …would it sound as nice? I don’t think so.

    Comment by Auntie M — January 5, 2005 @ 10:08 pm

  25. Hi “petie anglaise”,
    I began to read your blog last month and I love it.
    Your last post is so good even if I feel a litle bit guilty now : I’m French, my husband is British and came to France 8 years ago and I sometimes underestimate his feelings as a foreigner in France even if he’s fluent in French.

    Thanks for reminding me

    From la petite francaise.

    Comment by Pascale — January 5, 2005 @ 11:24 pm

  26. Welcome to my new visitors!

    Kim – At the moment Mr Frog and I speak probably 50/50 English and French. There have been periods of my life where it was mostly French (when I was in a 100% French job, for example) but these days he speaks English all day at work (advertising) and I speak mostly English at work and of course I only speak English to Tadpole.

    But it’s a constantly evolving situation…

    And that’s without going into the whole subject of mixing two languages in the same sentence or pet subjects I only speak in French about (because I know the vocab only in French). We also do that thing where he speaks to me in English and I reply in French.

    Most confusing!

    Comment by petite — January 6, 2005 @ 10:04 am

  27. I don’t really have the ‘real’ experience to talk about. I have spent three months in New York some time ago, but I don’t think that comes even close to actually living in another country.
    Still I can relate to the ‘I’m different when I talk another language’-feeling you are talking about. I tend to be a lot more emotional and enthusiastic when I write or talk English than I am when I talk German – which, by the way, is my mother tongue.
    I also knew someone who was of Greek and German heritance (I think his mother was German and his father was Greek). Although his German was fluent you could detect a slight accent. His whole body language and way of speaking changed when he was speaking Greek. I couldn’t understand a word of it, of course, but it seemed like he was another person.
    And this was someone who was raised bilingual and had no problems at all with speaking German.

    Comment by Jamie — January 6, 2005 @ 12:55 pm

  28. Ah, what a great subject! Having moved 3 years ago in New Zealand from France, and being completly fluent now, my Kiwi self is very different from my French self:

    – I’m not as witty in English as in French which makes me a bit dumb I have to say or let’s say a bit boring
    – I don’t always get the subtle cultural references in a conversation and will miss a good repartie – which again makes me dumber
    – I don’t have the level of confidence I have in French, particularly in heated debates – lorsqu’une phrase bien sentie peut clouer le bec a vos adversaires.

    In a nutshell, my kiwi self is not as interesting to talk to as my French self. Thank God being French still makes me a bit special here :oops::roll::razz:

    By the way petite Anglaise I’m loving your blog.

    Comment by Maurine — January 6, 2005 @ 11:44 pm

  29. i find, it is common to be more reserved when using a second, more so on the third, language. because what we learn from them are usually formal. the correct way of speaking or reading rather than the more common, colloquial. so that, there is an inherent difference in expression ..

    Comment by 3rdWorld — January 7, 2005 @ 12:07 am

  30. During a class in dialects and accents I was taught that languages adapt to the geography and climate of the country, so that, for example, the american south has a drawl because of the often opressive heat and humidity, finnish is clipped and quiet which meshes with the solemn forests and harsh winters.
    Makes sense to me, but then again it would, as I’ll do anything to blame my tripple personality disorder on the weather. (I grew up bilingual, and then spent the last ten years mainly speaking a third language. :lol:)

    Comment by Elin — January 7, 2005 @ 3:12 am

  31. Coucou Petite anglaise,

    I really like your blog, even though I sometimes wonder if you really live in France or in the Twilight zone. Granted, some of my fellow countrymen are rude and certain French ways (crappy pavements, utter ignorance of basic concepts such as bus stop lines, etc.) can be pretty infuriating, but come on! it looks like apart from Mr Frog, all the French people you know are hypocritical/haughty/whiny/lazy/unpleasant bores. Those probably exist, but most of the people I know are at least friendly, and sometimes even funny and thoughtful! Maybe you’re mixing with the wrong crowd? And what about that cliché of French women being all prissy and ladylike and not getting pissed?
    I don’t really expect you to slip in a few nice words about the French, your blog would lose its bitchy quality if you did! I guess I should just be content with the fact that you have never talked about France’s alleged alternative take on personal hygiene!

    Bien à toi. Je sais que, malgré tout, tu me feras ricaner comme d’habitude la prochaine fois que je te lirai.

    Comment by Delphine — January 7, 2005 @ 9:05 am

  32. Delphine

    Mr Frog and I have some lovely French friends – although I don’t see much of them these days as being a working mum doesn’t leave me with a lot of free time.

    I rather regret that I’ve never had a really good soulmate type French girlfriend. It just hasn’t happened. I think when you don’t have a shared culture it is harder and when your friends are inseparable couples it doesn’t help!

    I don’t mean to be bitchy on this site, and while your comment doesn’t surprise me, no-one has ever said this to me before. I’m aware that I can’t escape certain stereotypical views of the French that I was brought up with, but at the end of the day I love living here, love speaking the language and want to raise my children and grow old in this country.

    It’s probably just more fun/easy copy ranting about negative things.

    Comment by petite — January 7, 2005 @ 9:33 am

  33. oh, and watch out for a rant on personal hygiene any day soon.


    only joking

    Comment by petite — January 7, 2005 @ 9:34 am

  34. As a confirmed non-believer, it took about 10 years for my resistance to greeting everyone Bavarian-style with a hearty “Grüß Gott!” to wane. I’ve given up now and I’m grateful for all the catholic public holidays as well. My two personalities are pretty intertwined now. My parents think I’ve got teutonic and pushy. Germans think I’m incapable of saying directly what I want – but the dry humour is a cute plus point. I just miss having people around with whom you can be facetious about everything.

    Comment by David — January 7, 2005 @ 10:19 am

  35. Delphine’s got it right. It’s like I said luv, you’re not mixing with real French people.
    You say you can’t imagine a meaningful relationship conducted entirely in French. In my experience the language is not a problem. Culture clash can be.
    No, but here’s the real BIG QUESTION…..How can you build a M’g’f’l R’t’sh’p with someone who’s first record was by Boney M …..aggghh :?:
    NEXT QUESTION…Is the Frog, like millions of his compatriots, crazy about Claud François:?:
    Suggestion for another subject : Why are all popular French heros dead? E.g. Dalida, Claud F, Daniel Balavoine,Joe Dassin,Mike Brant,Coluche,etc etc.

    Comment by John O'D — January 7, 2005 @ 10:39 am

  36. *trying to be diplomatic*

    I write about my own experiences and express my own points of view on this site. And reserve the right to exaggerate wildly or make generalisations when it suits me in order to amuse my anglo audience/provoke this sort of response.

    I think if you read my archives you will however find me poking fun at the British as well.

    If any ‘real French people’ would like to take me out for a few drinks and prove to me that my experience thus far was untypical, you know where to find me!

    p.s. my parents bought me that record. I accept no responsibility whatsoever (although I do quite like the sleeve photo)

    Comment by petite — January 7, 2005 @ 10:55 am

  37. Hey lighten up, petite.:grin: You’re blog is great. So well written with a nice balance between good humour and some more serious stuff. I’m only sorry that I stumbled across it so late and that catching up is taking all my time when I should be working.
    You’re forgiven for Boney M. I still suspect your man likes Claude François!

    Comment by John O'D — January 7, 2005 @ 11:39 am

  38. sorry John, never was very good at taking criticism (however mild) gracefully!

    Comment by petite — January 7, 2005 @ 12:40 pm

  39. So incisive as always, petite. I must say that Delphine’s comments SHOCK me though. Not just for being so off the mark, but for the complete lack of sympathy. Being foriegn can be a BITCH. We are the little guy on the playground. CAN’T WE BE A LITTLE BIT SNARKY AND BITCHY ON OCCASION? WONT THEY ALLOW US AT LEAST THAT? PLEASE?

    Comment by Coquette — January 8, 2005 @ 1:45 am

  40. Coquette,

    being French, having lived in the UK and currently living in Australia, I do know what it feels like to be the little guy on the playground, and totally sympathize with foreigners in France. I’m patronized because of my accent on a regular basis and some people seem to think I am accountable for every decision the French government has made in the last 70 years!

    I also feel like the little guy sometimes when I read some of Petite anglaise’s posts, that’s all. I know they’re aimed at English speakers and not at the odd French person; I guess that’s why some comments can seem quite scathing from a French point of view. I giggle at the great majority of them, but also cringe a little at times, can’t help it, call it chauvinism if you want. French people have feelings too, damn it! :wink:

    Petite anglaise said it herself, this is her blog and she’s of course free to speak her mind, exaggerate and generalize as she pleases.
    I, too, am free to add my twopence, Coquette. I’m sorry if I’ve hurt PA’s feelings though.

    Comment by Delphine — January 8, 2005 @ 12:41 pm

  41. I like Claude Francois! “your girl is crying in the night, is she wrong or is she right? Je ne sais plus comment faire.”

    This blog is written by petite anglaise who has probably absorbed quite a bit of french culture in her ten years living and working here. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make her french, and she’s going to see things a little differently. We all have the right to disagree/agree with her, that’s what comments are for, but I think what’s a bit shocking was calling someone bitchy on their own blog, minus the humour. Not very nice, in any culture.

    Btw, I don’t feel like the little man. I feel like a silly hotdog’n’cheese bun lying next to the croissants. MMMM…hotdogs!

    Comment by nardac — January 8, 2005 @ 1:26 pm

  42. Thanks for your comments nardac and coquette!

    Delphine – your comment stung a bit, but probably partly because there was some truth in it.

    Something I will recognise is that Parisians are not representative of the French in general. When we take a holiday elsewhere in France I am always reminded that it is a very different ballgame in the provinces.

    Comment by petite — January 8, 2005 @ 2:30 pm

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