Totally Frenched Out

From the blogger formerly known as Samdebretagne

Saturday, December 20, 2008

During the weekend my co-worker spent in Paris, we talked a lot about what it meant to be bilingual. I think this is something I've mentioned before, but at least in my mind, unless you are able to spend six months in both countries per year, it's pretty much impossible to be bilingual. Fluent yes, but bilingual no. You see, for me, part of being bilingual is being bicultural. And the longer I stay in France, the more I lose of my American side. My co-worker argued against this, saying "No way - if you moved back to the US tomorrow, no one would ever think you were anything BUT American".

Which may be true, but they'd probably think I was an idiot then. As more and more time goes on, I forget how things go in the US and especially this trip, I find myself stumbling over the simplest things. I forget that stores are open on Sundays. That incoming calls on my cell are not free. That the news is not on at 8pm. That you can't buy liquor in the grocery store (in MN anyways). That priorité à droite doesn't exist here and that you can turn right on a red. That I don't need to put my fighting gloves on before dealing with any kind of administration. That I don't need a 10 or 15 dollar minimum purchase in order to use my bank card. That some people really do eat at 5pm. And the list goes on and on. My repères are becoming French repères. My "normal" is becoming French normal.

I no longer know who all the big American stars are. I try to watch TV but the channels are filled with shows that I've never heard of and actors I've never seen before. Same goes for the radio. I'm not up on the latest gossip, nor do I know the latest slang. I'm starting to use direction translations of French when speaking English, not to mention how many English words I've forgotten. So all of this just makes me believe that you can't ever really be truly bilingual. The adoptive country will always eventually start to push out the home country. Of course if I ever moved back to the US, it'd come back pretty fast, but then I'd slowly forget all of the French parts.

Anyone else have an opinion on this? And how do people do it when they have a third or even a fourth culture thrown into the mix? (Fned, I'm thinking of you!)



Blogger Syd said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

December 20, 2008 at 9:47 PM  
Blogger Frou Frou said...

It seems so bizarre to say that you have forgotten some English words etc. because after all that is where you had spent most of your life (if I am correct).
So it does seem far-stretched to me. But then I have to think of myself and my Czech that was probably way better 4 years ago in its written form. Now the best part, I still live here but use English more often...hehe. So yes, I totally believe you:) And at the same time, when I want to express myself in Czech (recently to my friend who suffered a break-up after 8 years), I felt I did not find the words, all that was coming up were English expressions and I could think quickly of their equivalents...
Anyway, it is fun to have more than one language!
Did not mean to be this long:)

December 20, 2008 at 10:11 PM  
Blogger Fned said...

OMG Sam, you've hit a subject that's been eating at me for the past 4 years and to which I still, sadly, haven't found the answer yet.

When (if ever) are you truly integrated in a foreign country and if so, in what measure do you become DISintegrated from your home country?

I've often said that I don't feel 100% anything (not mexican, not american, not french). The more I live in France the less mexican I feel (without necesarily feeling more french/american either).

I think you're right when you say that you can never be truly bilingual, although I'd call it more like bi-cultural instead of bilingual. Language is just one part of it. BELONGING and UNDERSTANDING is a whole other thing.

Still, I agree with your colleague when she says that if you went back to live in the states you'd quickly pick up where you left off. I know that even if I do feel out of place when I go back home I am 100% confident that it would take me less time to readjust to things than it would if the opposite happened and I came back to France.

Maybe THAT'S the real secret of belonging (or not) to a culture?


December 21, 2008 at 12:42 AM  
OpenID iwonderasiwander said...

I completely disagree. What about people who come from bilingual countries? Or even trilingual counties? Places where it's perfectly normal to be able to express yourself in two or more different languages.

I'm a Canadian who's lived in France, and even though I'm not a native French speaker I've spent almost my entire life speaking French. I consider myself bilingual. No question about it.

And that being said what about people who've grown up with parents who speak two different languages? They're probably bilingual too. I've met many people who grown up like this. Not just French/English speakers, but Spanish/English, French/Spanish, Japanese/English etc.

December 21, 2008 at 12:59 AM  
Blogger Ksam said...

iwonderasiwander - i think we're talking about two different things here - at least IMO, you're talking about being fluent and being able to express yourself in more than one language, and i'm talking about being bilingual (and everything that goes with it - cultural understanding, references, etc).

Of course it's possible to be fluent in several languages, but I don't think one can ever be fully bilingual if one does not spend parts of the year in both cultures. I know several franco-american kids who were born in France, but unless they have lived for several years in the US, they almost always identify themselves as French, despite having American citizenship. They may speak English more or less fluently and have probably traveled to the US before, but that doesn't mean they know much more about American culture than your average French person.

Unless you can spend equal amounts of time in both countries, one culture is always going to dominate, at the detriment of the other. This doesn't mean you'll necessarily lose the language skills (though they will probably weaken).

So just to clarify, I don't consider someone to be bilingual just because they can speak two languages - fluent in both languages maybe, but bilingual, probably not.

December 21, 2008 at 1:18 AM  
Blogger Alisa said...

i think this just goes back to the age old question of fluency and bilingualism... there was a k&k episode awhile back where they talked about it with frog, which was fascinating.
i think the issue here is that you and iwonderasiwander have completely different ideas of what it is to be bilingual. i don't think being bilingual you necessarily need the cultural repères, if you take apart the word, you literally get 'two languages'. personally, i think the only way to be bilingual is to grow up speaking two languages, so that you can speak both of them like a native and both come equally easily to your head when you speak in that language.
you are extending bilingualism to also mean being completely and utterly comfortable in both cultures, in which case i do agree that you'd have to spend a lot of time in both in order to feel comfortable.
in any case, i have more to say about the getting acclimated to US life, but i will write that in an email so this doesn't take up 12 pages :)

December 21, 2008 at 2:02 AM  
OpenID pinklea said...

I agree with Alisa's definitions. Ksam, it sounds to me too that you're talking more about biculturalism (two cultures) than bilingualism (two languages). I'm a native English speaker from Canada, and my entire working life has been in French. Am I bilingual? Yes. Am I bicultural? Not so much. But both Québec and France cultures are becoming more and more familiar to me because I make the effort to go to both places as often as I can and to spend time with natives of both places, too.

December 21, 2008 at 3:15 AM  
OpenID iwonderasiwander said...

I understand what you're saying, but I feel that you've completely missed my point, possibly because I didn't express myself clearly enough.

I wrote that I was Canadian to highlight that the French language AND culture are both parts of my country. I don't have to go anywhere to experience it. It's all around me. Am I of French-Canadian origin? No, absolutely not. Is that culture part of my identity as a Canadian? Absolutely yes.

Also, during my time in France as well as living in Japan, I've met many who seemed just as comfortable in one culture as the other, so much so that they have their own bi-cultural/bi-lingual cultural identity that seemingly make up a separate group different from that of either of the cultural groups that they belong too.

I've also met so many people that flit back and forth between different languages and cultures that I still have to disagree, but I see what you're saying.

However, I have to agree with the above, you're talking about being bi-cultural, not bi-lingual.

December 21, 2008 at 4:50 AM  
Blogger Mal said...

Yay Canada.

Coming from the only officially bilingual province in Canada, I agree with the others when they say you are confusing bilingual with bi-cultural. Here, if you are fluent in both languages, you're bilingual. Either from having both your parents speaking to you in different languages or by having taken classes and taking a test to say you're bilingual.

I've been bilingual since I can talk, it's never really been questioned. Obviously my girlfriends who had to learn English from outside sources (school, summer camps, media) didn't have the same advantage as me but since they all can work in both languages, they're considered bilingual too.

I know you thought it was weird in Montreal how ppl would switch languages back and forth, well it's even worse in New-Brunswick.

But yeah, being completely bilingual is NOT impossible, most people I know from NB and Montreal are bilingual, but maybe they're not all bi-cultural. Only the ones that are from other countries or have live in other regions of the world for extensive periods of time can be.

Humans are adaptable beings, you just became acclimated to living in France because you wouldn't have survived otherwise. Your American knowledge hasn't disappeared it's just been shelved because it's not useful to your life in France.

You are bilingual AND bi-cultural.

December 21, 2008 at 5:02 AM  
Blogger Madame K said...

OH, OH, lemme jump in! I love arguements where nobody defines the actual terms being argued!

Hmmm, sorry.

I'm with iwonderasiwander & Mal 100% on this one.

Being Fluent, bilingual, or bicultural are all completely different things. They may sometimes rub up against eachother, but not always.

Think about it Sam---by your definition if I have very little cultural awareness of what's up in the US because I haven't been there for 20 years, but still have zero grasp on French cultural references----does that make me... "NON-lingual"?

Bottom line--Language and culture are not the same thing.

If that were so, learning French grammer would have taught me everything I needed to know about French culture.

And God knows that didn't happen!

December 21, 2008 at 5:55 AM  
Blogger Ksam said...

Man, sometimes I really suck at explaining myself!! Does it ever happen to you guys that something sounds good in your head but just doesn't come out right on paper?

Mal - you're the perfect example of what I was talking about. You are equally exposed to the Anglo and French sides of Canada, and when you speak English, you sound completely Anglo and vice versa with French. You can switch back and forth not only between the two languages, but also the two cultures.

Mme K - I'm not buying your zero cultural thing - you speak French, you're up with what's going on in France - don't be so modest!

Here's another question for everyone out there - what is the difference between being fluent and being bilingual then? Because for me, being fluent means being able to communicate in a language, but being bilingual is more and inplies the biculturalism as well...

December 21, 2008 at 6:24 AM  
Blogger misschris said...

I saw what you were trying to say Sam *lol* The right on red thing is something I can't remember to do either.

This whole debate that came out of your typo made me remember something though. I was thinking back to when I visited my University in the States a while back and went to the French Language Dept. to see the Director of the department. We chatted for a long while and she was nice. I'd done a trip with her and a bunch of other francophile students back in my University days and I thought she knew so much about France back then. After living in France though I was surprised how little integrated into French culture she actually was. Her language was stiff and she didn't seem remotely connected to French culture even though I thinks she'd spent most of her time off traveling to France. It just struck me funny --she'd based her whole career on France and speaking French--was the school expert on the subject I bet--and yet she'd never be Frenchified unless she lived there! Odd moment of reflection for me.

December 21, 2008 at 8:03 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

i think there is a difference between fluent and bilingual that has nothing to do with culture.

fluent being that you can speak and understand with ease (or in a fluid manner), and bilingual meaning you truly have 2 languages, you can express yourself equally well, fully, and easily in both
i would call myself fluent in French but not (yet?) bilingual, whereas i know people who are bi (or tri) -lingual despite not having grown up with the other languages.

December 21, 2008 at 9:01 AM  
Blogger Jo Ann v. said...

I love this topic :-)
I am from Angola, so my mother tongue is Portuguese. I was raised in Cuba since a baby, my second language is/was Spanish. When I was 3 yo, I went to French school in La Havana. So when I really started speaking, I spoke the three like a native.
Leaving Cuba behind, my Spanish was a bit lost. But I use Portuguese, French and English every single day, so for French and Portuguese, I'm bilingual and bicultural. The English comes in the "fluent" file after my years in South Africa.

December 21, 2008 at 10:50 AM  
Blogger Alison said...

I'll jump in here. I think there might be some confusion about the English "bilingual" and the French "bilingue." In my 13 years in France, I came across a lot of people who thought they were bilingue, but they weren't according to the English sense of the word. They were fluent (if that!) and nothing more. Ever notice how there's no word for "fluent" in French? Yeah.

So if I may use myself as an example, I'd say I'm extremely fluent in French. Superfluent, if you will. However, I'd say that my kids are bilingual, having grown up speaking both English and French.

And as one who moved back to the States, I have to say that you do pick up the cultural literacy pretty quickly. I've been back almost three years, and the times I have to joke "I was out of the country" are fewer and farther between.

As for French cultural literacy goes, I'd say the Internet helps maintain it (and having kids who still live in France helps, too). I can go from Clo Clo to Kaamelott in about two seconds. ;-)

December 21, 2008 at 2:57 PM  
Blogger Canedolia said...

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December 21, 2008 at 5:20 PM  
Blogger Rochelle said...

I see what you were trying to say here but I think being bilingual (as other people have already said) has absolutely nothing to do with being bicultural.

One problem that may occur when you consider being bilingual and bicultural to be intrinsically related is that one person's experience of a culture is never going to be the same as the next persons. One person's cultural experience is entirely different to the person's across the street. Language is not a factor in this at any time.

Sure there are such things as shared histories and cultural references (although with globalisation these kinds of links are fading away I think) but I don't believe that it hinders someone's ability to be bilingual.

Sometimes I think that as Anglophones, because so few of us seem to speak a second language, we view people who can speak another language as though they are in some kind of elitist special club or something- and that nothing we ever do is good enough, we will never been fluent enough in another language no matter how hard we try. But, I wonder if that is just an Anglophone issue because take for example the people who live in Luxembourg and speak French, German and Luxembourgish all in the one day, I don't think that they really question it or their ability to communicate... (sorry if this is totally off track, I'm bad at explaining myself as well!)

December 21, 2008 at 7:31 PM  
Blogger Rochelle said...

Sorry that was meant to be French, German, English and Luxembourgish!

December 21, 2008 at 7:32 PM  
Blogger parisiannewyorker said...

I think (according to my Frenchies) that if you want to say that you are fluent, you would say (for example) "Je parle couramment anglais" but if you are bilingual you would say "Je suis bilingue en anglais et français". I remember this because on my French CV I used to have under languages "Français (couramment)" and my husband made me change it to "Bilingue français/anglais" his argument being that I was completely comfortable in both languages in both cultural situations.

I guess I would consider myself bilingual as well as bicultural because I feel very comfortable in both languages and cultures but I guess my American side is a bit more dominant only because that is where I was born and where I was raised. My mom is bilingual and bicultral, having been born and raised in Taiwan, but has been living here in NY over 30 years. She has no accent in English and speaks it just like any American, but she has not lost any of her Mandarin either. She has gone back to Taiwan maybe once or twice to visit her brother in the last 30 years, but I think the Taiwanese culture still remains.

On the other hand, I know a few immigrants here in the US who have been here for almost as long as (or even longer) than my mom who have cut off all ties to their native countries, but then again, most of them have fled persecution or very traumatic situations.

Also Rochelle - I don't think this is just an anglophone problem. I've met a lot of people who speak only their native language (not English) and have this same issue. My husband and his family for example are (I think) jealous of people who are bilingual and do indeed view them as being elitist. (This I know because my in-laws have accused me of being elitist when we discuss differences between French and American culture - usually because I will correct their crazy misconceptions of the US by pointing out that I am American and have actually LIVED there as opposed to having visited for 1 week with French friends back in 1972).

December 21, 2008 at 7:50 PM  
Blogger purejuice said...

there's a book called "third culture kids" which is about growing up outside your parents' culture, which i think is one of the bi- or tri- cultural issues being discussed.

i think growing up in bi-lingual and bi-cultural canada would count as such an experience.

i think what is truly bi-lingual is when your parents speak different languages to you. mine did not. what happened was the servants and the rest of the world spoke a different language to me, and i was aware that my parents could speak it also.

while i am bilingual, i think i'm also bicultural because i came to consciousness in puerto rico. so i feel that i've come home whenever i'm in that latitude -- and, i discovered, when visiting cuba for the very first time, surrounded by black people who speak spanish. that feels like home to me, even though my parents and i are of a different culture.

December 21, 2008 at 9:06 PM  
Blogger Madame K said...


All I have to say is I've been here for 5 years and I'm STILL not fluent....nor do I know what it means.


December 22, 2008 at 11:52 AM  
Blogger Leesa said...

Why is it that my coversational Spanish was pretty good back in the States (as I used it a lot) and since moving to France, every time I try to speak in Spanish the words come out in French?!! Aie!!! I know it's in there somewhere.... probably with my Arabic (I've forgotten so much of that, too)! Well, at least my French has improved a lot since living here but I still have a long wayyyyyyy toooo gooooo!!!!
Great post and interesting feedback! Just got done reading all the comments!!! I love the topic of language!

December 22, 2008 at 10:03 PM  
Blogger Non, Je ne regrette rien said...

Well, I was confused by your original post as well because to me bilingual's definition is someone who speaks 2 languages fluently.

after reading comments and your reaction, I figured out you were referencing integration, biculturalism. which is something far more than fluency.

in any event, it will be a long while before I achieve either. And I think to achieve the 2nd (bicultural) one must obviously master the 1st (fluency). Particularly in France, with their reverence for their language and its history.

Allison's points are well taken, even if or when I feel 'fluent', I doubt I'll match my children's bilingualism ... who attended french schools, learned to read/write French before English, etc. But who knows, since I'm living in France maybe there's hope. in a hundred years or so!

December 23, 2008 at 5:35 PM  
Blogger Cécy said...

The difference between fluent and bilangual exists in French. You say "parler couramment" for fluent and "bilingue" for bilangual.

I understand your point Ksam about the bi-culturalism.
I'l always consider myself French and proud to be one, but I already feel that I'm not quite French anymore but not American Either. I guess being an Expat is a culture in itself.
It's true that to be bi-cultural you need to share time between the two countries. Being able to speak a language, fluently or to be bilangual is not enough to be bi-cultural. There is so much involved, so much that changes everyday in each country. It makes it fascninating though.

I am a bit worried after over 2 years here and marriying and american on how things we'll be when we go visit France.

Oh and to me being fluent is: you can speak a language with a good accent that allows you to be understood and you have a rich vocabulary that makes it that you can be understood in any situation.
Being bilangual, to do that my belied is you need to spend time speaking and being spoken the language (either be raised bilangual or stay several month in a country). It includes a good accent, vocabulary, grammar, etc, but also day to day expressions. You would speak in a similar way as a native if you are bilangual.

December 23, 2008 at 8:58 PM  

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