Based in Birmingham, Alabama, forgotten regrets is a blog by suzanne, a nutrition scientist with a passion for food across the world. this blog chronicles her experience in bordeaux france with an exciting opportunity from the fulbright commission.

Thinking in two languages

When communicating with people around me, it can be difficult to think of what I want to say.  Sometimes I think of the response in English but sometimes I just respond in French.  Some things are easier than others.  Numbers, letters, introducing myself, ordering food, directions are all very easy for me.  I don't even have to think of the English version first.  When I first learned French in high school, there must have been things I must worked harder to learn because certain things stuck and others did not.  I don’t seem to know a variety of verbs.  I know how to say I am, I have, I want, I need…(critical verbs) but I want to communicate more than action.  I love the nuances of communicating.  When I talk to someone, I want to jump right into being able to express my emotions, thoughts, beliefs and feelings, not to mention my personality.  

The French language is so beautiful when it comes to expressing emotion.  You can convey emotion just by changing verb endings.  You don’t even have to find an adverb to qualify the verb, you can just change the verb.  French makes English seem so logical.  We can add in adverbs and adjectives to paint a beautiful picture but French can do it within the words themselves.  This is the part I have trouble translating back and forth in my head and am having trouble describing here.  Often there are phrases in French that I simply don’t literally translate to English.  So I make up something close to give my husband and son the gist of what is said but I never feel like I quite get it right.

For me it is easier to speak French when I don’t think in English at all.  When I think of what I want to say in English first and then translate it to French, I get tongue tied and confused.  Half of my brain has moved on to a new part of the conversation and the other half is responding in a language that sounds more foreign than either French or English.  So when I speak French with my colleagues I try to just speak in French, both in my head and from my mouth.  The funny thing about that is sometimes when I get home, I can’t remember what we talked about at work unless I think in French.  Talk about exhausting!

Humor is the other part of communication that is difficult.  By nature, I am sarcastic.  Anyone literal person who has had to communicate with me knows how frustrating it can be to have a conversation when the meaning is often implied but not stated.  But that is the space in which I am most comfortable.  From my limited perspective, the French seem to be more sarcastic than Americans.  When I get home from the office, I find I am even more sarcastic that I would normally be (I also find I am bringing home facial expressions that I did not previously use). That can be challenging for my literal husband and my engineer-in-training son.  I find I have to reset my brain both emotionally and linguistically (sometimes by literally shaking my head to clear the cobwebs).

Speaking French was so important to me when I first arrived in Bordeaux.  Although I would say that my French language skills are expanding (I know more verbs than when I first got here), the aspect of language learning that I didn’t know would be so hard was translation.  Each day it gets a little easier to go between French and English in my head.  And by easier I mean that I am starting in Alabama and attempting to walk to California. I don’t think I have made it to the Mississippi border yet.  But at least I have made it beyond Birmingham!

La Braderie

When a door is open, walk through it