Bilingual and Bicultural status Part #3: What helps and hinders acclimatization?

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?

Part #3: What helps and hinders acclimatization?

What helped me improve my language skills?

Linguistic immersion was key here, conversations with others and listening to them, most crucially in a work environment.

Not having any access to anyone speaking English was important for Sylvia. Reading, doing crossword puzzles, listening to the radio, to songs, and viewing films and TV shows were also mentioned as very helpful. Sylvia stated that being curious about others and new activities had played an important part in her linguistic progress in French. Most of all – daring to make mistakes, and not being overly self-conscious about making them.

A few friends mentioned the kindness of native speakers – be they American or French – as a key factor that put them at ease. The language learning literature maintains that exposure to “sympathetic native speakers” is a key to acquiring another language.

Schooling in our second language, English, proved extremely useful to both Marie-José and me. She completed a master’s degree in English, and I completed a B.A. in political science – we were required to read a lot of books and scholarly articles, and to write many papers in English. Later on, I wrote an entire doctoral dissertation in English. Both Marie-José and I are as comfortable writing in English as we are writing in French.

What obstacles did I have to surmount to feel comfortable living in another language and culture?

A few American friends mentioned bad headaches after a whole day immersed in the French language in the beginning of their lives in France! It is a common issue to those who find themselves suddenly surrounded by a language that they do not fully master.

Two American friends mentioned their accents. Others mentioned social graces and cultural misunderstandings, and different ways in which conversations are conducted in the workplace. Rebecca mentioned that the French use more negative turns of phrase than Americans do: For example, her daughter received a 16.71/20 (a very good grade) in one of her school subjects on her report card, and the teacher’s comment was “résultats satisfaisants, mais ne participe pas assez” (“satisfactory results, but does not participate enough [in class].”) Rebecca noted that a more positive way of stating the very same thing would have been “bon travail. Suzanne est encouragée à participer plus” (“good work, Suzanne is encouraged to participate more [in class.]”)[1]

Sylvia mentioned no real issues, safe for loneliness, which she alleviated by going to markets and walking around Paris, absorbing the beauty and atmosphere of the city, and “listening to people babble.”

Marie-José had difficulties dealing with the puritanical American culture, and the lack of ability to be very direct about her opinions (political, religious, or other.) I definitely agree with her. In fact, I have learned to keep my sometimes “undiplomatic [French] mouth” (as Marie-José puts it) shut for so many years that I now find the more aggressive French way of discussing issues rather obnoxious. The mocking of political correctness by many of my French friends and relatives also annoys me.

As far as I am concerned, I feel that the greatest obstacle that I faced early on in my expat life was a lack of acceptance, understanding, and patience with me on the part of some individuals who were close to me. I wrote elsewhere about this, some years ago, that “I was struggling to adjust to a new life and environment, and those around me expected me to be done with it already.” One example of this is my mother-in-law being mad at me, just a few weeks after I had moved permanently to the U.S., because I never called her on the phone. It turns out that, in France at the time (1975) the telephone – for my family – was not something that you used just to chit-chat with someone whom you saw frequently, but only to communicate with others on important matters. I just never thought that my calling her or failing to do so mattered this much to her.

And what proved helpful to me, in terms of getting acclimated to the culture of my host country?

Social media was a factor that helped Laurence overcome her emotional barriers.

Rebecca mentioned that the realization that she was never going to understand the intricacies of the French language, even after so many years spent in France, helped her become a more comfortable American expat living in France. She also works in English with other expats, and it helps her to be surrounded by other people in the same situation as hers. Rebecca added: “I still lose patience with the French, the lack of customer service, the dog poop, the inability to stand in line…. But then, I think, at least there are no guns here and I have health care! I take it all with a grain of salt on both sides.”

Sylvia appreciated the freedom of lack of racial pressures: “White people in France did not seem to be bothered by my color.”

Marie-José stated that her college studies and American friends were very helpful to her. But, she added, “TV comedies helped me understand the most profound aspects of American culture. Once I understood what made Americans laugh, I began to have a clearer idea of what America was about.”

As far as I am concerned, I was very lucky to befriend a wonderful woman who was a history professor at the University of Delaware. She became my mentor in many, many ways, and taught me most everything I know about American history and popular culture (I remember vividly her teaching me “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” while we were on our way to a Phillies-Reds game in Philadelphia, back in 1979 or so.) My mentor friend also suggested books for me to read, and we would often discuss all kinds of topics. In language acquisition, input is of the essence and I got a lot of it! I also got exposed to what is referred to in socio-cultural theory as “a multiplicity of communities of discourse” and “communities of practice” – which turned me into a well-polished individual, capable of functioning extremely well at many levels of American society.

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

Note: [1] An interesting discussion of French negativity can be found in chapter 3 – “Finding the Yes in Non” of The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, By Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit-Nadeau.
Works Consulted:

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

Bilingual and Bicultural Status is a 5 Part Series

Part #1Six Expatriates—an informal case study—Introduction
Part #2: Am I bilingual yet?
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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