Speaking different (love) languages

When I get to know someone in my mediocre French, I often find myself becoming increasingly self-conscious and frustrated that I can’t express myself fully. I worry that they will interpret my childlike vocabulary as a reflection of me and my own intelligence. This irrational embarrassment can impose barriers in building a relationship with others, especially an intimate one. I find myself reassuring them, “je suis plus intéressante en anglais”, hoping they’ll believe me. And while most of the conversations end up taking the form of “franglais”, I often go home wondering if a connection can be made through the fragments of our makeshift conversation. Once we understand the literal words, will we be able to understand each other’s unfamiliar upbring? This may appear like just another post-first-date mental spiral, often accompanied by triple checks in the mirror to make sure I didn’t have food between my teeth or replaying various sentences in my mind. However, strategies for cultivating cross-cultural relationships is a common concern for expats and internationals alike. 

Text and image: Sophia Widrig

Of course one size does not fit all, and these concerns mustn’t be amply applied to all bilingual relationships, which are accompanied by their own strengths as well. The limited vocabulary may also be an advantage. In my broken French, I am only able to explain my thoughts in their most simple form, let alone add any embellishment. I am brutally honest, because I don’t know how to be anything else, while in English, I attempt to prove my poetic and extensive vocabulary, often sprinkled with pleasantries and politeness. Is my alter ego a frank frenchwoman? Will future progress be accompanied by a decrease in candor?

“I find myself reassuring them, “je suis plus intéressante en anglais”

Language is a powerful tool for both conveying and provoking emotion. At first, other languages may sound just like, well, sounds. However, this is not the case for those who have constructed their reality based upon the application of those sounds. I have come to understand the world through the English language. I have a connection to the words because of their association to the things around me. Therefore, the way in which I use these words is contingent upon the relationship I have with the word, vis-à-vis what it represents. I recently heard the three most heavy words of all. The sacred “L” word. “I love you”. I froze, convinced that I had made it up, that he had in fact said “hello you” in his whispery French accent. But upon hearing it repeated with more certainty this time, I was sure. Unable to detangle the words from the knot in my stomach, I instead responded with “je t’aime”. It was easy, effortless. Knowing the meaning of the words, but not feeling the weight of the translation. What should’ve been a declaration and profession of the three words I hold dearest, was instead a simple utterance of sounds that derived from nowhere deeper than the tip of my tongue. I felt more moved by the words he spoke, than the ones I did myself. A sacred sentence that I myself could not have returned. And I couldn’t help but wonder: would he have said it in French? 

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