I’ve come across a couple articles lately about living and thinking in two languages. One was from a French woman living in the States, and talked about the strangeness of writing in English. She used it to acclimate to her new home, and put some distance between herself and her work. This worked especially well for topics that felt too heavy to talk about in her native French. The second was about the effects of speaking German, a language with the double you and the possibility that it would encourage the speaker to be more aware of relationships. They made me reflect about my own experiences living life in a foreign language, so I thought I would take the time to share a few of my thoughts.
The effects of German article talked about languages with the double you. Linguists have talked for years about whether a formal and informal you requires a more conscious decision about relationships. How you classify a person with word choice risks both offense and misunderstandings if you choose poorly. This was a totally new concept for me when we first arrived in Germany. My second language is French, which also utilizes the formal and informal you. Once I was out of high school though I only ever spoke the language with my elders or strangers while traveling. I never needed to make these distinctions. I always used Vous.
German was different though. I was trying to build a life and occasionally needed to speak German with my peers. Not to mention practicing with my husband. These were not people I would use the formal Sie to speak with. Suddenly I needed to make a choice. Did this make me more socially conscious with my interactions though? I don’t think so. I may feel differently if I was fluent and held all my conversations in German, but I don’t. Mostly it’s a headache trying to remember that one conjugation for this word that I never use with this subject. Occasionally though there is some second guessing. Should I have erred on the side of caution and been more formal with this person? Did I bring distance where there didn’t need to be?
Mostly I think I’ve been lucky. I have largely dealt with two types of German speakers. The first recognizing instantly that I am a foreigner and this is not my native language, will pick apart everything. No matter if what I said was technically correct. The second, more rare, being those who realize that I, as a foreigner, am trying. They help and try to figure out what I am trying to say. Even if I conjugate incorrectly or have my words in the wrong order. It makes it easier to dismiss the criticisms of the first and be thankful for the second.
I’m not fluent in either my second or third language
Maybe because of this I haven’t found the level of distancing that can come from using another language. Survival being of the utmost importance has led to a weird amalgamation of vocabulary. Ease of conversation has yet to come, but some things still ring true. The biggest joy definitely comes from building a sentence in one language, then finding that not only do I know how to translate it, but even better that it still works in the other language. It pretty much makes my day every time.
Some days… ok most days, I struggle. Sometimes what I want to say only comes to me in one language. No connections to allow me to translate for the person I’m speaking with. I was spelling my name in German the other day. I made to it to y and said it in French with no clue that I had. The looks of confusion quickly tipped me off. I couldn’t for the life of me make the connection though to get from the French y (ee-grek) to the German y (üpsilon).
Luckily the German friend I had brought to translate from German to English also spoke French. He was fast enough to catch it. I’m not always so lucky. I trip over what I want to say, and often mix my languages together. Usually based on which word comes to me.
I don’t want my non-native languages to fade when I am back in an English speaking country. They are a part of me. They affect the way I think and interact with the world. They encourage me to be flexible. They force me to constantly accept that there are things I don’t know.