Confessions of a Bilingual: Language, Emotions, and Being Understood
I curse. What can I tell you. I try not to do it in truly inappropriate situations.
I speak two languages. This gives me multiple ways to be profane. I don’t consciously choose, but if I had to break it down, I’d say my saucy tongue forks along the following lines: In situations of frustration, annoyance, disappointment, or disbelief, I curse in French. Anything involving deep anger or physical danger brings out my inner New Jersey.
The guy next to me in the subway is screaming into his phone? Putain!
A good friend is in trouble? Merde.
I’m flying down the street on my bike and someone in a parked car opens their door in my path? Jesus fucking Christ!
I learned bits of Polish as a child and had 8 years of Spanish classes, but French is the foreign language I’ve kept, and learning it was (and is) my strongest experience of bilingualism – and when I say bilingual, I’m referring to someone who clearly has a native tongue, and has learned a second language, not those lucky ducks who grow up speaking two languages and are equally comfortable with both.
Speaking a second language, at least for me, is like ferreting for something in your bag or pocket while wearing gloves. The better you know the language, the thinner the gloves; but no matter how proficient you are, there’s always something between you and the object. You can feel approximately, but the subtleties escape you and you’re always groping ever-so-slightly – grasping things without entirely feeling them.
This brings a kind of distance to your experience. In fact, scientists have researched what they call “disembodied bilingual language” and its relationship to emotion. They conclude that bilinguals show less emotion when using their second language, and are more likely to ignore or misunderstand the emotional import of a situation when making decisions or analyzing situations. This may be because the emotion does not get processed in the same way with the second language, or because speaking in a foreign language seems to release the speaker from social norms or limitations associated with their native language.
I concur: a second language can be a heady means of reinventing yourself. Sometimes when I speak French, it’s as though I’m sending out a surrogate from some other part of me who can say things that my native self cannot or dare not utter. The words, and the emotions behind them, are slightly unreal. But as researchers have noted, that can also lead to misunderstandings when assessing a situation.
In my early days in Paris, desperate for work, I found an ad for what was ostensibly a modeling job. I read it aloud to a friend who knit her eyebrows and looked uncomfortable. “How do you feel about that part where he’s looking for someone ‘un petit peu soumise’?” she asked. I shrugged. I sort of knew what soumise meant, but there was a disconnect, and I convinced myself the employer wanted someone who was “a little harried,” which I certainly was. For some reason my friend did not set me straight, and I actually went to meet the guy – at a café, thank God. My folly was clear as soon as I laid eyes on him: an older man in mirrored sunglasses and a thick-lipped smile who looked like a lascivious version of my Uncle Eddie. We had a brief, surreal conversation in French while I stared at my Perrier and learned, definitively, that soumise does indeed mean “submissive.”
Freedom and detachment
So the second-language surrogate I’m sending out might be daring, but that freedom may come with an ever-so-slight detachment from reality and my own emotions. When a French-speaking client has a breakthrough – a deep breath into the rib cage, the letting-go of a contracted shoulder, the release of a long-held emotion – my enthusiasm usually bursts forth in English. Exactly. Great. Yesssss. And when something particularly intense comes up in a session with a bilingual client, I encourage them to express it in their native language. The difference in their bodies is palpable. In the second language, the emotion is almost recounted; there’s a kind of neatness about it, however sincere its expression. In the native language, the whole body gets behind the emotion. I marvel at the additional release and physical intensity people experience when they swear in Swedish or voice their sorrow in Hebrew.
A second language is a fabulous workout for the brain, and comes with all manner of perks. There is fairly conclusive evidence that bilinguals have a higher capacity to remember, focus, and concentrate than monolinguals; are more cognitively creative and mentally flexible; are likely to experience later onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia; and are more perceptive of their surroundings. But it’s a double-edged sword. There are the health benefits, the expanded horizons, the sweet liberty of re-inventing yourself – but also the risk of loneliness, of being misunderstood, of never being grasped by bare fingers in your dark pocket, never being recognized or entirely felt.
I was once in love with a Frenchman. We spoke only French together. It was satisfying to be able to conduct an intimate relationship in another language; it was thrilling to hear his exotic words of love. Yet somewhere I felt it: the constant concession to being less precise, to making do without my full range of expression, to foregoing subtlety – and, often, my sense of humor. Once, and only once, I asked why we couldn’t speak English sometimes, since he understood and spoke it fairly well. “Why would we do that,” he said matter-of-factly in his native tongue. “You speak perfectly good French.”
Oui. Et merde.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork, breath coaching, and pain management. Her latest series of workshops combine conscious breathing and expressive writing to explore life’s juicy themes. Join her on June 25th for Sunday Labs: Second Soul.