Confessions of a Bilingual: Language, Emotions, and Being Understood

By Posted in - Life on June 5th, 2017 Confessions of a Bilingual by Elaine Konopka

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.

(9) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Birte - Reply

    July 2, 2017 at 22:57

    Dear Elaine, thanks so much for describing the adventure I’m just living :) Having recently moved and noticing how English is now becoming my first language in every day life, I can relate to what you wrote about being more courageous in a second language – I feel more grown-up, as if I’m detached from a shyness or shame with certain topics that I used to feel as a child or teenager and that I sometimes still encounter in my native German. On the other hand, there are moments when using the mothertongue is just more juicy, satisfying and real. Another thing that I think makes a difference is the fact that I use English mainly with other non-native speakers. And – speaking of creolisation – this is where a whole different language begins: We all get used to each other’s mistakes, we’re all limited in the scope and nuances of our vocabulary, and we still make do and sometimes create new figures of speech or grammar that actually work for us. I’m never quite sure whether I like this or not (as it always takes me a while to remember “proper” English when I’m around native speakers) but it is definitely a mechanism that takes over whether I want it or not. And taking into account what you wrote about being distanced in a foreign language, and what Sharon related to interactions at work in her comment, I can see how this is actually part of our every day lives as expats and how languages, while connecting us and enabling us to talk at all, will also stay imperfect and make us feel that imperfection more when we learn them later in life. Now I’m not sure whether my conclusion is to be motivated to learn to speak better, or to be frustrated about these limitations. Maybe the most general thing I can say is that I’m happy to have my senses, my feeling of the other person and my ability to resonnate with how they are in addition to language. These work independent of linguistic proficiency and can add such a strong sense of connection that I relax about finding the right words – and then I do fumble less and the gloves are thinner :)

    • Elaine - Reply

      July 3, 2017 at 08:47

      Oh gosh yes, you bring up a fantastic point, Birte. My version is speaking French with other non-native French speakers, which is often an almost gleeful experience — like messing around in class when the teacher is out of the room. The monitor in my head that usually worries about absolute correctness takes a coffee break, and I feel much looser, allowing myself to make mistakes.

      And how true about using other senses to connect to people. I would not want a native French speaker to determine anything about me based solely on my proficiency in the language, and I try not to do it when the shoe is on the other foot. Or the glove on the other hand, so to speak. I would say that speaking another language has made me more tolerant of people’s imperfections in that domain. (To be honest, I’m less tolerant with native speakers who don’t seem to care about their language. But that’s another story.)

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

  • Kathleen - Reply

    June 25, 2017 at 00:37

    As always, Elaine, a beautifully written reflection on a fascinating subject. Your image of the glove is similar to my feeling that speaking French is like being behind a veil, or wearing slightly wrong prescription glasses.

    In my imagery, the glove represents going back to Scotland and slipping not only into English (which I use a lot in Paris both for work and socially) but also into the Scottish turn of phrase and vernacular, which I’m cut off from here. I wonder how much the particular version of English we expats come from adds to the feeling of alienation and frustration at not being able to communicate a particular aspect of ourselves?

    What I love most about going back to Scotland is the way I tap into a sense of humour that is intrinsic to that place and which I can’t express properly either in ‘standard’ English or in French. On the other hand, I’m conscious that my friends in Scotland don’t really know the person I become in French. I’m also certain that if I ever left France I’d feel as if I’d lost a limb. I guess this brings me to the conclusion that no one can ever know another person fully – the conundrum of our bilingual personalities makes this clearer, perhaps. But for all its complications, having two or more cultures and languages is a such a gift in life.

    I’m sorry I won’t be able to join you at the workshop tomorrow to explore this with you further. A bientôt, j’espère.

    • Elaine - Reply

      July 3, 2017 at 08:37

      Thanks for sharing your experience Kathleen. It’s so much about compromise, isn’t it? And then that wonderful feeling of slipping back into something completely familiar. I can especially relate to losing and regaining your ability to express humor depending on what language you’re speaking.

      We missed you at the workshop, but maybe another time? They’ll be happening again, one Sunday a month, from September through December 2017. Happy summer!

  • BB - Reply

    June 24, 2017 at 17:49

    Wonderfully and beautifully expressed, as always….Bardzo Dobrzie! Xo

  • Sharon - Reply

    June 24, 2017 at 13:08

    I do not speak a second language fluently and stumble with Spanish at best but your description using the glove and the explanations about emotion made a light bulb go off for me. I have 6 employees who are not native English speakers and your article has given me valuable insight as to why there is sometimes a disconnect in their reactions and our interactions .

    • Elaine - Reply

      June 24, 2017 at 13:33

      Glad to hear it, Sharon! How great to make the connection with your employees and how you interact. Even if people are fluent in another language, the missed emotional subtleties can sometimes add up to some real misunderstandings — which are often left unsaid. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  • Anne-Catherine - Reply

    June 8, 2017 at 23:01

    Thanks for that Elaine. I totally connect with the frustration of the glove fumbling in the dark pocket and the heady world of cross cultural misconnections that can emerge. I am one of those ‘lucky ducks’ who was born at the confluence of two main languages English and French and have been carried by the currents ever since. But as you say it can be a lonely journey, particularly when we choose to navigate in zigzag across both French and English words to express ourselves. Happily some countries or communities embrace the riot of waves that can ensue from such foolhardy trips and positively celebrate the ‘creolisation’ of language that can follow in their wake. It seems to happen everywhere, just need a group of close knit people; families, teams, communities and low and behold you’ll find them sailing across language(s) in their own unique way which can be creative and fun. Alas not always understood by outsiders, which brings us back to comprehension and language; to the importance of words and their meanings and to the real language barriers that can rise like dams across our desire for flow. True, once we’re plunged into the vaste ocean of bi and multilingualism it is difficult to escape its charms, and not to want to use all the different colours and textures its has to offer; each language having a unique take on the elements! I remember how sad I was when interacting with my monolingual French grandmother whom I felt somehow only ever seemed to perceive half of me despite my fluency! But the experience taught me to let go of my expectations and to enjoy the trip whichever way I tried to sail to my imagined destinations. So here’s to Fringlish and all those other combinations that help us on our adventures….bon vent à tous et à toutes!

    Best wishes

    Anne-Catherine Wright

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