Different languages, different selves

Switching self

We are back from our first trip to France in two years. We caught up with our family and with our friends; with urban France and with rural France; with French cuisine and with French history by way of a few Renaissance castles and beautiful museums. It went all pretty fast, even though our vacation was fairly long by American standards.

I was hoping the trip would boost Minette‘s command of French conjugation. In a manifestation of voluntarism not exactly out of character, I had told her this summer would be l’été du subjonctif (the summer of subjunctive), an announcement gently mocked by my brother. I am happy to report some success on the subjunctive front in any event. The many conversations she has had, as well as her avid reading of French comic books while at my brother’s and at her godfather’s, have proven fruitful in more ways than one.

What I find most striking, however, is how different she is depending on the language she speaks. This is something I have perceived at times over the last years, long before the trip, but this last month has somehow brought the differences into focus. When she speaks English she is mostly this assertive, witty girl, sometimes bordering on cocky, well on her way to her tween years. When she speaks French, she is more measured, more dependent on me, still my little girl… Even her pitch is not the same: higher in French and Tamil and lower in English.

The contrast was particularly noticeable when she had a video call with her two best friends. All of a sudden, she was in her separate sphere. Knowing tone of voice, private jokes, confident body language. Looking at her older self from the sofa I was sitting on with my parents was quite an experience. I could hardly take my eyes off her.

On another day, as she was talking about Harry Potter with her grandparents, it struck me that she was pronouncing the names of the characters with a distinctly French accent, even though she has read the books in English. When I asked her why, she told me she enjoyed doing so after having recently watched the French dubbed version of the first Harry Potter film with her cousin. Enjoy she did, and so did we, as she then treated us to a line-up of characters alternating between American and French accents. She also said that one of her favorite words to pronounce with a French accent is camping-car, the faux English word the French created for RV.

I myself feel like a somewhat different person depending on the language I speak. It seems to me that my English-speaking self is often a simplified version of me. This may be explained by the fact that most non-native speakers have to take short-cuts and rely a bit too much on certain words and phrases in order to feel comfortable in their acquired language.

For Minette, however, things are not and will not be so simple. She has learned her three languages from her early childhood. Even though English is unsurprisingly her strongest language, French and Tamil are also at the core of who she is. My guess is, her languages will keep bringing out different facets of her personality and the connections will evolve and become more intricate as she grows up. I’ll be watching with curiosity, as ever.

2 Replies to “Different languages, different selves

  1. Chère Marianne,
    J’ai lu avec beaucoup d’intérêt ton dernier post. C’est un sujet digne d’une thèse! C’est vrai que les enfants polyglottes s’attachent d’une façon très subtile aux différentes langues et les expriment différemment suivant les milieux. Je le remarque constamment avec les miens et mes petits-enfants. Et bien entendu comme toi, j’ai plusieurs facettes selon la langue que je parle. C’est vrai que l’anglais est la langue pratique par excellence. Tout se dit avec très peu de mots.
    A suivre …

  2. I’ve been listening to English readers from England reading books set in England of different eras and modern day Quebec. I’m enjoying idioms, slang, vocabulary, and of course pronunciation different from mine. There’s so much variation. If I were to visit either place, I’d be a fish out of water, nearly as much as I am in France!

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