Tongue untied

Tongue untied

BabylonIt is said that the language we use influences the way we think and feel, and possibly even how our minds develop and decline. For those who are bilingual or more, it introduces all sorts of interesting dimensions. So when conversing, for example, there are choices to be made consciously or otherwise as to the language in which it is best to reminisce, console, argue, berate and, for some, undertake psychotherapy. Although I am far from being bilingual myself, these influences affect me too, and one such influence relates to how I express aspects of my emotions in writing. Nowadays I spend a large part of my time writing essays – blogs in English for Greyhares, my homework in French. And, when tackling emotional issues, it is in French that I feel best able to express myself. How so?

As of last week the question has been resolved. The resolution has three elements; defining the dilemma, observing two people as they switched languages, and talking with Christine, a bilingual psychoanalyst friend.

For almost eighteen months, more precisely since February last year and the death of my eldest son [When words failed me, Greyhares, 23 March 2013], I have been aware that it was easier for me to express my innermost thoughts in French than in English – the Greyhares article was, in fact, translated from a French essay. This preference has always seemed very odd. My mother tongue is English, my English vocabulary is the greater, so why this apparent paradox? It was an issue I discussed with several of my French teachers and my wife, and the explanation that seemed to work, although was never fully convincing, was that French lends itself better to expressing emotion than English. It was this hypothesis that I chose to adopt while awaiting some more compelling explanation.

The clue that helped resolve the dilemma came last week. Our stone mason, Jean-Claude, and I were putting the finishing touches to the lip of a well in our front garden in Brittany. Pierre, a close neighbour, often came over to watch our progress and to comment on developments. On this particular day he looked glum as he walked slowly towards us. After a few moments discussing our work, he told us how his 98 year old mother, with whom he had lived all his life and had nursed for the last ten years, had been admitted to hospital the previous evening. On the edge of tears he explained how the doctors didn’t expect her to return home.

At that moment the conversation between Pierre and Jean-Claude switched from French to Breton. For both of them Breton was their mother tongue and talking with Pierre in French would have been unnatural – as Jean-Claude later put it. Conversation in French would have lacked sensitivity and intimacy and in these circumstances its use was unthinkable. But if this is the general rule, and it seems completely reasonable, what on earth was I doing expressing my more emotional thoughts by writing in French, rather than English?

The resolution came in a cafe in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Over tea I told Christine of the French/Breton language switch that had occurred beside the well two days earlier. Her face lit up – for her the reason was obvious. For intimate matters, speaking in one’s mother tongue offers by far the most effective way of communication, albeit sometimes the more emotionally painful. Speaking in Breton was a way that allowed the two men to share thoughts more closely. She went on to say how, when psychoanalysing bilingual patients, it was sometimes better to converse initially in the patient’s second language, changing to their mother tongue when he or she felt more secure. Speaking from the start in the more intimate mother tongue might prove too disturbing and from that the patient needed to be shielded

So there we have it, I preferred to write down my more emotional thoughts in French to distance myself from the more painful feelings that would arise were I to confront the issues in my mother tongue. In the case of my son, I was protecting myself by avoiding using the language in which we would have spoken when he was a baby. If such distancing helped in this instance, why not also when dealing with other emotionally charged issues?  Now that explains the paradox. The explanation has been a long time coming and, for me at least, it feels right.




2 comments on “Tongue untied
  1. Tina Bruce says:

    Dear Joe, A friend of mine, a psychologist, has a preference for cognitive theories. She said they saved people from unhelpful ‘eyeball to eyeball’ emotional encounters with people they loved. I suppose that using a second language helps to keep enough distance to think. Damasio calls this ‘thoughtful feelings’, and that feels important when dealing with deep emotion. Tina

  2. Graham Dukes says:

    Nicely expressed, Joe, and very true. I touched on the theme in my Greyhares piece some months ago on the Scandinavian word “hyggelig” [Hyggelig, they say, 13th Jan 2013]. Much more recently I saw David Shariatmadari’s piece in the Guardian of August 21st (now here on the net) in which he considered ten words that cannot be translated into English. Lo and behold my “hyggelig” is among them. He also lists the Portuguese Saudade (meaning, approximately, a painful pleasure or a pleasurable pain) and the German Schnapsidee (an idea that one only develops when drunk).

    Worth reading, though less subtle than your piece!

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