My French was all over the map

french vs English.jpg

During my last work trip, I did a lot of bouncing around:

⁃1 week in Dakar
⁃3 days in Abidjan
⁃Nearly 2 weeks in Korhogo, northern Côte d’Ivoire
⁃1 week in Abidjan
⁃1 day in Dakar
⁃1 week in Saint-Louis, Senegal
⁃2 days in Dakar


Like my body, my brain also bounced around a lot – especially when it came to French. In a relatively short period – 5 weeks – my speaking and comprehension skills flailed about on a continuum between nearly nonexistent and reasonably proficient. My French was so inconsistent, and my brain’s see-sawing (in)ability  to speak it was so bewildering, that I spent much of my free time pondering what it all meant. A few thoughts, as haphazardly assembled as my French:

Jet lag took its expected toll on my ability to think and speak straight, so I wasn’t concerned when my French came out haltingly at first. I became alarmed, however, when it completely escaped me several days later in Abidjan. I felt like I was grasping at words and phrases through a thick wall of slime. Comprehension was as difficult as speaking. At first I thought it was because I was struggling with the Ivorian accent, but then a French woman addressed me at the hotel and I completely failed to get her drift; she may as well have been speaking gibberish.


For the three weeks that I was in Cote d’Ivoire, my French was passable at best, nonexistent at worst. I got really upset at the thought that a few months of limited usage could erase the cumulative decade of work I had put into learning this language.


But then, remarkably, the day I got back to Senegal, my French returned as well. It was an extreme version of a lesson I’ve learned (and forgotten and relearned) countless times: my language skills are in constant flux, and dependent on so many different factors. So what caused my brain to turn upside down and empty itself of its French this time around? I attribute it to a subconscious decision, in the face of massive logistical frustrations and less massive but still frustrating language challenges, to shut down my French as a simplifying measure. By going mute for all intents and purposes, I effectively avoided taking responsibility for solving problems I hadn’t created and that I found overwhelming. Withholding my French was a way of retaining all my precious emotional and mental energy for myself, on a personal level, instead of using it all up professionally. Not the most emotionally mature reaction to adversity, but perhaps innovative?


During my bout of non-French, I also found myself unable to speak the fully-formed English of which I am always quite capable. (I made sure not to dangle a preposition in that previous sentence to prove my point.) Instead, I spoke franglais for the first time in my life.


Though my normal French had failed me, when I spoke in English, every so often the word I wanted would pop into my head in French and would not step aside to leave room for its English counterpart. Rather than pause and wait for the English word to finally arrive, I started giving in to the franglais, and to be honest I delighted in it.


Some things that came out of my mouth during my franglais period:


The first distributeur [ATM] was en panne [out of order] but the one at the far end of the lobby was working.


Is this the longest you’ve lived à l’étranger [abroad]?


Why is there so much traffic on a dimanche [Sunday]?


There is a moustique [mosquito] in this room and I am going to find it and kill it.


I have to go chercher [pick up] dinner soon.


By my last few days of the trip, in Senegal, I was back to speaking proficient French (and franglais-tinged English). Curiously, when speaking French, English words never, ever pop into my head in place of French ones. Instead, I’ll draw a complete blank every once in a while. After searching for the word in French – which feels like my brain is spinning through words on a Rolodex – if I come up short it’s impossible for me to throw in the word in English instead. My English-speaking brain shuts down and is pretty much inaccessible when I’m in French mode.


I always think of my French as akin to a certain factoid I learned in sixth grade sex ed. It really struck me / morbidly fascinated me that women can accidentally pee during sex, but men can’t. This is because when the penis is fully erect, it cuts off the flow of pee from the bladder to the part of the urethra that is in the penis.


The flow of sperm from the vas deferens to the urethra, however, is unimpeded during sex. I don’t know why but I always think of French as sexy sperm and English as run of the mill urine. English cannot mingle with French in my brain the way sperm cannot mingle with pee in the urethra. My recent spate of franglais complicates this analogy. In trying to figure out a way around it just now it I discovered an unpleasant concept called the piss boner (I guess I’m sheltered because I never heard of or encountered it before). I would like to posit that franglais is sort of like that rare occurrence that is the piss boner…? I don’t know. I’m sort of grasping.


But I’ve seen sex linked to language very convincingly before. I’m thinking primarily of White, part of Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy. The main character, a Pole living in France, cannot get it up for his French wife in Paris, so she leaves him, rather rudely if I remember correctly. But then he returns to Poland and tricks her into visiting him there, where he gives her a crazy orgasm before ensnaring her into looking guilty of a crime she didn’t commit, for which she goes to jail. I may be misremembering the plot a bit – I watched this movie when I was 14 or so. But even at that tender age I was deeply affected by the idea that fluency — whether in a language, a culture, or the social mores of a place — translates to belonging, which translates to confidence and  power.


When you don’t have control over your language or you’re in an unfamiliar environment, you are distinctly disempowered. (I know this on a deep level, from painful experience.)


Which brings me to another recent realization: puissance means power in French; impuissance means impotence. It’s interesting the way that the people (presumably men) who developed the Latin language inextricably linked the ability to get and maintain an erection with potency and power.


All this stuff fascinates me to no end. Linguistic psychology, I mean; the way our brains formulate and access language.


But perhaps I have droned on about it too long, so I will stop peeing words, so to speak, and bid you goodbye for a few weeks. I’m heading off on vacation to various places where I don’t speak the language one bit! Should be tons of fun, when not completely disempowering.


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