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Why I write in English

Elisabeth Donato, 19/08/2011

Born in France in 1952, I became enamored with English as a teenager because of my love for British and American rock music. Yearning to ‘get’ the lyrics of songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other great rock bands, I played catch up with my English. I read Agatha Christie novels and listened to British ‘Pirate stations’ on the radio, even though I did not understand a word their DJs said because they rattled off words at (seemingly) amphetamine-induced speed.

But my written English improved quickly. I started to use a lot of idioms, because I was able to ‘feel’ them. I had little formal knowledge of English grammar, but when I wrote in English, I just knew it was correct.

I then specialized in English in the classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles. The curriculum there was archaic – grammar translation at its best. We spent countless hours on tedious thèmes (translations of texts from French into English) and versions (translation of texts from English into French) and read a few works of English and American literature. But how can you get the meaning of a literary text (or of any text, for that matter) when you don’t understand its words?

Trips to London and a whole year spent in the US saw my English proficiency improve tremendously.

In August 1975, I married an American (who was a French teacher) and moved to this country. There were serious gaps in my linguistic and socio-cultural skills that led to a serious dissonance in my life and a certain level of conflict with those around me, especially my in-laws. It took time to admit to myself that my anxiety attacks were a symptom of my struggle to adjust to a new life and environment, compounded by my own and my new family’s expectations that I “should be done with it already”.

Two things helped me ‘acclimatize’ to my new life in the US:
1. I decided complete a B.A. in political science at the University of Delaware (credit must be given to my then husband, who encouraged me to resume my studies.) I was, by now, a ‘born again’ student and did extremely well.
2. I befriended a wonderful woman who was then a professor at the University of Delaware. She became my mentor and taught me about American history and culture (she knew zip about rock music, luckily I could fill that gap myself).

Little by little, English became my language. I wrote many papers in English and loved writing in English as much as I had once loved writing in French.

While of all this was going on – over about 20 years – my relationship to the French language became tenuous. I seldom read in French and spoke French for only a few weeks with my French relatives, when we could afford to visit them.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I went to France with my daughter, Claire, in 1990. My parents behaved hideously toward me and, worse yet, toward Claire, who was only four-years-old.
Elisabeth Donato, 19/08/2011 This image is a picture of my daughter (who’s a bit older now!) and me. It was taken in New York City, where she lives.

I immediately rejected French as the language of my family life and of my heart and soul. I had been trying to raise my daughter bilingually, but after the falling out with my parents, I stopped speaking French to her.

Later that year, I started a PhD program in French literature at the University of Pittsburgh. Over the five years, I read most works in the French literary canon. The professors always addressed me in French and many of the other students were native French speakers. I secluded my use of French exclusively to my studies.
Elisabeth Donato, 19/08/2011

I still love my native language. I teach it and, of course, speak it extremely well, even if I pepper it with an occasional anglicisme. Don’t take me wrong, I love French. For me, it is a language of deep pleasure, but it also carries a painful emotional baggage.

I find it much easier and more natural to express my feelings in English rather than in French. This is why I write (mostly) in English.



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4 Comments




  1. Judy MacMahon
    10 years ago

    Hi Elizabeth, thanks for sharing this intimate insight into your life…


  2. Elisabeth Donato
    10 years ago

    Thanks, Judy!


  3. Emmanuelle Tremolet
    10 years ago

    Sur la photo, je vois un livre de Proust. De nombreux anglo-saxon aiment Proust mais pourquoi ? C’est un véritable mystère pour moi !


  4. Bethany Untied
    10 years ago

    You poor dear, being subjected to grammar translation !