When in French: love in a second language

Updates: on a slightly different tack, Why Italian football does not make sense in the English language, followed by How morality changes in a foreign language (you are more likely to deny the truth) while Reasoning is sharperEmotions shape the language we use, but second languages reveal a shortcut around themCan language slow down time?

Elif Batuman’s brilliant The idiot embodies the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in a novel “mostly about semiotics” (GdnIrish Times | interview), which is also extremely funny:

Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book. I would rather have talked to Ivan, the love interest, but somehow I didn’t get to decide. And yet in the next moment it seemed to me that these superabundant personages weren’t irrelevant at all, but the opposite, and that when Ivan had told me to make friends with the other kids, he had been telling me something important about the world, about the way to live, about how the fateful character in your life wasn’t the one who buried you, but the one who led you out to more people.


Lauren Collins‘ (@laurenzcollins | New Yorker inc Danish postmodernWhen in French (2016; Gdn | New York Times | articlepodcast ) came over a bit en-US in the reviews, with over-use of words such as ‘charming’ and ‘disarming’, but eulogising is a problem for writing about La France in general; in fact, like another American Lauren’s Flâneuse, When in French is rather more serious than the blurb and branding would suggest, if a tad inconclusive.

En-US not being en-GB is kinda the point (see chapter 3). As Lauren discusses in flawless AmE in the podcast from Shakespeare and Company, BrE, at a 10 degree angle to her own English, was her ‘gateway language’ to foreign languages more broadly. (Note in passing: the copy the library supplied me with is the US edition, a very odd size…)

Those looking for a standard memoir are likely to be disappointed. Long sections explore linguistic relativism, with her key thesis made up of two points:

  • a language is not just about grammar; your use of (a) language depends on a range of factors including time and place, and where you are in your life (Lauren is a mother in French)
  • ‘language’ in a relationship has to be learned, even if you share a native language; factors in play include culture, class etc (George Steiner: intimacy as “confident, quasi-immediate translation”; translation occurs both across and inside languages; categories which may require translation include scientist/artist, atheist/believer, man/woman)

No Francophile at the start, she hated life in Geneva, with the lack of a dominant Swiss culture an issue (nothing to belong to, or conversely to be outside); she spoke French there, but not the French “we love”, ie of France, where she has now become a passable dinner table brawler, with its lofty, abstract nouns, courtesy of greetings and salutations, culture of argument, rhetoric and logic.

Having lived for several years in London she compares the UK attitude to first languages (often maintained by immigrants) with that in the US (stigmatised), however the preference in both for second languages which have been studied is a clear double standard.

From here, bulleted notes.

Chapter one (The past perfect/Le plus-que-parfait) makes some points on the move to a third city:

  • Geneva had long been a place of asylum, but its tradition of liberty in the religious and political realms had never given rise to a libertine scene; even though nearly half the population is foreign-born, the city remains resolutely uncosmopolitan
  • The stores were full of things we neither wanted nor could afford. I reacted by refusing to buy or do anything that I thought cost too much money, which was pretty much everything…Geneva syndrome: becoming as tedious as your captor.
  • I had been conditioned to believe in the importance of directness and sincerity, but Oliver valued a more disciplined self-presentation.
  • Language, as much as land, is a place. To be cut off from it is to be, in a sense, homeless.
  • Grocery stores, as much as cathedrals or castles, reveal the essence of a place.
  • The concepts we are trained to treat as distinct, the information our mother tongue continuously forces us to specify, the details it requires us to be attentive to, and the repeated associations it imposes on us – all these habits of speech can create habits of mind that affect more than merely the knowledge of language itself. 

Chapter two (The imperfect/L’imparfait):

  • Europe’s multilingual empires have given way to monolingual nation-states, founded on the link between language and identity
  • America is the graveyard of languages, extinguishing the native languages of immigrants within a few generations

Chapter three (The past/Le passé composé):

  • in London, “history had discredited the flag-waving impulse, so – at least for foreigners, who were exempt from the strictures of the class system – the greater part of fitting in was showing up”
  • the vibrancy of British English; “in public speech, trying to be memorable and coming off as slightly unhinged remained more advantageous than trying to be bland and succeeding”
  • the intellectual arsenal of a country where words were deployed like darts
  • a superb megalopolis of words…I strolled in the mews of understatement…I stalled in the roundabout of the English non sequitur
  • after a discussion of Vladimir Nabokov’s re-translation of his own memoirs she concludes: “if translation is a catalyst, the B that turns A to C, sometimes it seems to work in reverse; after translation C does not revert to A, but rather into A+ (or A-), an entity that has been permanently altered by the transformation”
  • body language: where does instinct give way to expression, or biology shade into culture?

Chapter four (The present/Le présent):

  • speaking a second language can be “a frequency devoid of complexity, color and jokes”
  • the English as a lingua franca issue: “everyone, from everywhere, speaking a common language – my language – poorly…English, somehow, is everyone’s property…while I was gone, strangers have moved into my childhood home, ripped down the curtains, and put their feet up on the couch”
  • the relative difficulty of languages can be assessed by breaking them into parts:
    • level of inflection – the amount of info a language carries on a single word
    • size of vocabulary – languages of larger, literate societies have larger vocabularies
    • structure – OTOH the simpler the society, the more baroque its morphology
      • large societies have frequent interaction with outsiders, and hence the languages undergo simplification, while members of relatively homogeneous groups share a base of common knowledge, enabling them to pile on declensions without confusing each other
    • see the Language Weirdness Index, which analysed 1694 languages (most straightforward: Hindi; English: 33rd)
  • small languages stay spiky, while large languages lose their sharp edges amid waves of contact, becoming beveled as pieces of glass
  • US State Department: French is among the easiest languages for an English speaker to learn, requiring 600 hours of instruction; 25-50% of basic English vocabulary comes from French
  • note that the French 70, 80 and 90 are as byzantine as their Danish equivalents, which the Swiss have simplified (“perhaps as a courtesy to their bankers”); the Swedes have also simplified
  • two schools of thought on the difference between languages:
    • each language expresses itself uniquely
    • all languages are variations on a universal theme
  • English and French as opposing systems – English is global, convenient and casual, while French is particular, hierarchical and painstaking; she feels more authoritative in French
  • English consider people intimates until proven not to be, while the French only love one person

Chapter five (The conditional/Le conditionnel):

  • can the lexicon of a language reveal truths about its speakers? do ‘untranslatable’ words prove that speakers of different languages experience the world in different ways, or do they just get a lot of snow in ‘Eskimo’ lands (in Hampstead they have 20 words for bread)?
  • a language carries within it a culture (heritage?); ways of thinking or being; you assume eg your Americanness agrees with you, because you never question it (no logic in your habits); you are more likely to question a second culture
  • does each language have its own worldview? do people have different personalities in different languages? could – or would – you become someone else if you spoke eg French?
  • a vision of a parallel life, a latent alter ego, righting a linguistic version of having been switched a birth…
  • issues of self-representation: speaking another language like wearing a mask, pretending to a character or attitude one doesn’t actually possess, taking on a new identity (as can’t express oneself), the line between adaptation and dissimulation…
  • I wanted to speak French and to sound like North Carolina. I was hoping, though I didn’t know whether it was possible, to have become a different person without having changed.

French vs English:

  • in French the grid is divided between public and private, rather than polite and rude; its emphasis on discrimination and relentless taxonomising may feel almost like an ethical defect
  • French language and culture is doctrinaire, hung up on questions of form, classifying each person into vous or tu, outsider or insider, potential foe or friend (pompous or paranoid?) vs English flexibility and egalitarianism
  • French as a reprieve from the relentless prerogative of individualism as expressed in the avoidance of cliche; a sense of community, an attempt to join in rather than distinguish yourself
  • the strictures of French, the elegance of its form, a secular catechism, both comforting and sublime, correctness as not vanity but courtesy
  • in French: difficult to be excited in a non-sexual way, enthusiasm and fun need to be tamped down; American English increasingly sounded like exaggeration, speaking in all caps
  • semantic bleaching vs baking soda, reinvigorating and expressive palette; discrimination rather than effusiveness
  • English: simpler, less Machiavellian than Italian
  • French: its austerity makes you feel more complicated, its formality heightened its potential for feeling, shedding superlatives like Chanel’s advice to remove one piece of jewellery
  • men and women: more distinct and less adversarial, the interplay of gendered adjectives and sexual politics; without this there can be confusion over who’s supposed to do what when, a resentment over the melding of roles

Chapter six (The subjunctive/Le subjonctif):

Linguistic relativism vs universalism:

  • the academy is split on the question of whether one’s language shapes one’s worldview
  • language at the structural level – do the distinctions each language obliges its speakers to make (what they must say) result in differences in memory, perception and practical skills
  • languages as either prescription glasses, changing the way you see the world, or vanity contact lenses (basically negligible)
  • the idea that languages possess and inculcate different ways of thinking spread from the Romantics in France to Germany in the 18th century
  • as critics of the Enlightenment the Romantics preferred the emotional, the local, and subjective, adopting the creed of nationalism as a means of spiritual renewal, with language as the font of national identity (see eg Herder, and, surely, Wilhelm von Humboldt)
  • Franz Boas (Columbia, early 20th century), then Edward Sapir at Yale, who trained tada! Benjamin Lee Whorf
  • Whorf demolished in the 1960s by Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar – language as a biological instinct, with us each equipped with a grammatical toolkit as independent of culture as breathing or walking
  • the differences between languages are trivial – a visitor from Mars would view them as dialects
  • 1994: Stephen Pinker’s The language instinct, an obituary for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
  • we know how to speak like spiders know how to spin webs; children acquire language without formal instruction, thought is not the same thing as language…
  • Boutros Boutros-Ghali: much in the way democracy within a state is based on pluralism, democracy between states must be based on pluralingualism; linguistic diversity as a check on political monoculture, as unhealthy as mass-cultivating a single crop
  • how language encodes space: geocentrically, intrinsically and egocentrically
    • English makes use of all three: walk south on Main Street, continue in front of the library and turn right into the park
    • relativist Guy Deutscher: Guugu Yimithirr only offers the geocentric option and its speakers have suburb navigational skills, with their brains turned into compasses – > language influences culture
    • universalist John McWhorter: this confuses causation with correlation, like saying tribes with no words for clothing do not wear clothes; their navigational abilities are a function of their environment, flat land in the Australian bush
    • but…plenty of people in similar environments use egocentric orientation systems, and children can master geocentric ones with exposure to very limited landscapes
  • a number of neo-Whorfian experiments have illustrated the connection between features of languages and the different way their speakers behave, suggesting that language can shape culture, rather than merely reflecting it
  • language and gender: Lera Boroditsky analysed 765 artworks, finding that 78% of the time the gender of the figure matched its gender in the artist’s native language, see eg the Statue of Liberty
    • does not prove causation (and what when nouns aren’t gendered??)
  • more neo-Whorfian attacks on Chomsky’s universal grammar, eg colour:
    • do languages add colour terms in a predictable sequence of seven stages of the rainbow, or does this assume that colour is a natural property of the physical world?
    • some languages do not encode colour as an abstract dimension independent of other properties of material objects
    • categorical perception of colours, snow etc is shaped by our engagement with the material world, with lexical categories serving as a means of focusing selective attention on relevant distinctions; a belief in the naturalness of categories is a Whorfian effect in itself (Aneta Pavlenko’s The bilingual mind)
    • a Russian can distinguish between dark (siniy) and light (goluboy) shades of blue 10% faster than English speakers
    • Geoff Dyer: do you see things if you don’t know what they are (from Yoga…); why technical vocabularies develop
    • the best metaphor for Whorfian effects: predictive text, when you more often than not accept the suggestion
  • if you feel like a different person in a different language, is it perhaps because you are; during the transition from one language to another people undergo deaths, births, triumphs, displacements etc
  • if the mother tongue the language of the true self? a primal vehicle, a reservoir of emotion, a second language can be a river undammed, where you play a different, or no, role; the emancipatory detachment effect

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