One of the coolest things about living abroad in a country where they don’t speak your native language is what starts to happen to your brain. It used to feel like I might never lose the intermediary mental translation, that time-consuming stopover to convert all French input into English and English output into French. But almost three years into my move abroad, I’m looking out the window across the street at a sign in French and mentally the words connect to their meanings, not to English words. They have semantic significance of their own, the way words in my native language do.
I’m still very frustrated with my perpetually slow and clumsy conversational skills, though. I always imagined that I would become much more fluent than I now realize I will likely ever be– but long-term immersion has made French accessible, the connection between thought and utterance no longer flipping-through-a-dictionary slow, my sense for its rhythm and idiosyncrasies becoming increasingly instinctual.
Switching from one language to another, a process that used to be about as smooth as running boots through a spin cycle, has also become easier. My closest colleagues at work are another American, a Spaniard, and a German, and when we’re all together we switch between speaking English and speaking French (favoring English, because it’s easier for three of us). Switching back and forth in these conversations is a mental work-out, but it’s doable, because everyone involved is proficient in both languages and communication remains clean and clear.
But the most bizarre and amazing brain trick of all is a feature of conversation with fellow Anglophone expats, in which French seamlessly infiltrates English. This Franglais is usually the result of a mental short-cut, a French word being closer to the tip of the tongue or simply easier to say, as in “I didn’t buy it because it was too cher,” the short and smooth French word replacing the linguistically cumbersome “expensive.” There are also times when Franglais is necessary because there isn’t an easy English equivalent, as with certain specific laws, processes (e.g. “composting a billet”), or paperwork (e.g. “the sécu”). Franglais is especially useful when an English equivalent feels inadequate. For example, the neat and tidy expressions “chez moi” and “n’importe quoi” feel both semantically and rhythmically different than their roughly equivalent “at my place” and “nonsense.”
Speaking Franglais is also, consciously or unconsciously, a way to poke fun at our lives here and the foreign language and culture inside which we remain outsiders. We all know we can count on our fellow expats to get it, not just the language but how it sounds when natives speak it to us: delightful and exotic, familiar yet still intimidating (and, for me at least, at times alienating). Franglais is à nous.
When I return to the States later this month, there will be no one to enable these ingeniously lazy brain tricks, and for the first few days back home I know I will have to stop myself from sprinkling my speech with French words. I may even find myself back-translating French words and expressions into English, grasping for my own language and using weird turns of phrase, especially when cognates with slightly different meanings get involved (for example, last time I was in the States I caught myself telling someone that I “give classes,” because all I could get out of my brain was “donner des cours,” while a friend of mine warned her brother, “attention,” as he stepped into a busy street crossing, because the French word “attention” means “careful,” and another friend said she’s “hesitating between” two choices because that’s the way the French “hésiter” is used). I will have to pause to mentally dismiss my poor brain’s hopeful French offerings until, just as sneakily as Franglais crept into my vocabulary, it inevitably fades out of it. If I’m lucky, my mind will hold it somewhere, keeping it safe inside memories of expat Thanksgivings and birthday parties and red tape vent sessions and 90s-music singalongs.
I still don’t feel at ease expressing myself in French (I often wonder to what extent it is possible to feel comfortable in a second language, and this makes me admire all the more my expat friends who have very few people here with whom they can speak their native language), but I do recognize and appreciate how much I’ve absorbed and internalized. After I leave France next month, I will truly miss using the language on a daily basis and doing linguistic aerobics with my colleagues. Most of all, though, I’m going to miss Franglais, which is really just another way of saying I’m going to miss my expat friends. I’ll miss the French friends I’ve made, of course, but sharing a “foreigner” experience, even with people who have vastly different personal and cultural perspectives than my own, has been uniquely satisfying.