Bilingual and Bicultural status Part #2: Am I bilingual yet?

As a French expatriate who has been living in the United States for 45 years, I consider myself bilingual and, to a large extent, bicultural.[1] I have often pondered over what this means – and some years ago, I expressed those musings in writing in a few blog posts.

A project that I have had in mind for at least a decade now but has not come to fruition was to examine the complex lives of American expatriates who live in France, and of French expatriates who live in the United States.

This topic absolutely fascinates me and, when after having seen a Facebook post on which I had expressed my gratitude about being bilingual/bicultural, Judy MacMahon, the Fondatrice of asked me if I could write a longer piece on that topic, I immediately agreed. So, here I am.

Bilingualism is not the burden or the problem it has been made out to be by some, but neither is it the complete bliss that others would have us believe.

– François Grosjean, Bilingual: Life and Reality –

Meet the author Elisabeth and the five friends she surveyed for this mini-series.
Top left to right: Marie-José, Sylvia, Laurence, Betty, Rebecca, and the author Elisabeth

Read Part #1 here:
Six Expatriates—an informal case study

Part #2: Now, that I’m an expat, how are my language skills?

Settling permanently in a country whose language is not your native one may be a bit problematic.

Betty describes her oral/aural French proficiency when she first settled in France as “functionally fluent”. And more advanced for the reading and writing skills than for oral/aural ones, with a need to be able “to handle complex professional situations and using the phone in a natural way.”

Rebecca qualifies her French in her early expat days as “good enough for job interviews, but far from perfect.”

When she first came to study in France, Sylvia faced higher linguistic hurdles, since she knew only six words: oui, non, merci, je voudrais, bonjour, and au revoir. Then, when she returned to France permanently the language was no longer a problem, after having lived in a French immersion setting for twenty years, including 12 years of teaching chemistry in French.

Marie-José’s language studies had been focused primarily on Spanish (she is, after all, a native of the French Basque country, just north of Spain), so she barely spoke any English when she first came to the U.S. She admits not having been a great English student at school.

Laurence stated that when she first came to the U.S., she was “fluent enough to speak and understand daily conversations.”

As far as I am concerned, even though I had studied the English language for nine years in France – seven years in secondary school and two at the college level, my oral/aural skills in English were very poor when I first came to the U.S. for a year. However, they improved greatly and were much better by the end of that year. Still, shortly after I had moved permanently to the U.S., I realized that there were serious gaps in my linguistic and sociocultural skills that were causing a serious dissonance in my life. My stress and anxiety levels became so high that I developed a bad case of agoraphobia.

After all these years, am I 100% bilingual?

Among the five expats responses to this question were a bit mixed.

Marie-José answered it with a resounding “yes,” adding “despite my accent and occasional Gallicisms.”  Having a foreign accent was mentioned by three other people as an impediment to considering oneself 100% bilingual, as if one can ever be ‘totally bilingual.’

Two of the five friends considered that there were two factors that made it impossible to ever be fully bilingual with equivalent skills in two languages. Those being: not having been raised in both French and English simultaneously, and not being a native speaker of their second language. Making an occasional grammatical error in the second language was mentioned by a couple of folks – more specifically,

Sylvia mentioned having issues with noun genders in French (i.e. using “le” instead of “la,” or “un” instead of “une” and vice-versa.)  Sylvia also stated that she was still having occasional problems with “understanding everything on the radio, or with my teenage grandkids,” but added that she does not understand teenage lingo in English either. She also admitted that she’s always had to have her scholarly texts and manuscripts proofread by a French woman.

A slight language attrition in one’s native language is also a concern for bilingual expats.

Betty states that she no longer feels like she has a 100% mastery of her English: “I have spent so much time speaking French that I find myself translating French expressions into English and it doesn’t always work.”

My other friends did not express this concern, but I have been extremely careful about not “losing” my French because, through the years, I met a number of French expats living in the U.S. whose French had eroded rather badly. When I return to France, I will occasionally use so-called “anglicisms.” I remember my cousin making fun of me years ago, when I used the word “yogourt” – which, by the way, is a perfectly correct word, although a bit old-fashioned – instead of the more widely used “yaourt.” “Yogourt” had come naturally to me, because it is close to its English equivalent, “yogurt.” Once I started teaching French, I was using my native language more frequently – including with colleagues who were either native French speakers or fluent in French – and, as a result, my concerns about language attrition subsided a bit.

Betty mentioned a disparity in her English and French mastery in some semantic fields[1], depending on when she was exposed to them and what she had opportunities to discuss: “I’m still better in English at flowers, trees, obscure animals and geological terms, for example. But my vocabulary about pregnancy, early childhood, and DIY is much better in French because I’ve had the chance to develop it in France and in French.”

Are you an expat and do you consider yourself Bilingual and/or Bicultural? Please share your experiences and comments with us below.

[1] A semantic field is a lexical set of words that refer to a specific subject.

Works Consulted:

Another useful read (although probably difficult to find in English):

Bilingual and Bicultural Status is a 5 Part Series

Part #1: Six Expatriates—an informal case study—Introduction
Part #2: Am I bilingual yet? (this one)
Part #3: What helps and hinders acclimatization?
Part #4: Two Cultures – how to juggle?
FINAL: Weird expectations, Children and Writing

About the Contributor

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

I am a native of France, and a retired French university professor living in the USA. I return to France every year and love discovering new places I have not yet visited. I am interested in issues of bilingualism and expatriate identity. I enjoy good food, great books, and all kinds of music.

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One Comment

  1. Keith Van Sickle Mar 10, 2021 at 6:55 AM - Reply

    Excellent article!
    I read Nord perdu a few years ago and enjoyed it. My lasting impression is that author Huston spoke excellent French but it was a tad short of perfect. Her French friends, however, made her feel terrible about her minor imperfections, causing her great stress. My reaction was that she needed new friends. 🙂

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