Bilingual and Bicultural status Part #5 FINAL: Weird expectations, children & writing
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. 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 MyFrenchLife.org 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
Final Part #5: Weird expectations, children & writing
What are weird and not so weird expectations that people have of me – as an expat – both in my native and adopted country?
Rebecca responded that French people think that they can freely ask her about her political identity and opinions – something that they would never ask another French person. In the U.S., Americans assume that she is lazy because she lives in France. French folks expect French expats who live in the U.S.A. to explain American politics knowledgeably, and with a French perspective rather than with an American one (let me add that it’s been a very busy year on this front!)
American women who live in France are expected by their American friends to have suddenly become stylish, and French women who live in the U.S. are expected to be extremely fashionable as well, and to be fantastic cooks and wine connoisseurs (I am from northern France, and prefer, by far, beer to wine!) Most Americans think that I am very familiar with every region of France. The reality is that my family seldom traveled through France when I was growing up, and that I have seen more of France over the past 15 years than I had in the first 23 years of my life.
Marie-José sums it up perfectly: French and American folks have “this aggravating thing in common prejudice and clichés about each other’s culture.” She adds that some Americans who have never set foot in France find her “typically French” and that some French people who have never been in the U.S. have told her that she “speaks like an American.” Yet, she remarks, “We cry, laugh, worry about our kids, suffer for the same reasons. We fight the crooks, we ignore the crooks, or we are the crooks. But our nose – here [in the U.S.] or there [in France] – is still in the middle of our face. The difference is about details, not about our essence.”
I have children. Are they bilingual?
Betty has two daughters who are 29 and 27 years old respectively. She spoke to them exclusively in English and made sure that they had lots of English language books and videos until they were 10. Then, it got more complicated, but they started visiting the U.S. for long periods in the summer. As a result, they became and remained bilingual. One of her daughters has lived in New York City for the past eight years – she had spent her sophomore year of high school in Betty’s hometown. English is now her dominant language.
Sylvia’s kids were brought up in two languages – English and French right away (they lived in Quebec at the time.) The idea became quickly that English would be the home language, and French the ‘public’ language, and that proved very successful. Of course, they also had children books in English and watched Sesame Street! Her grandchildren are fairly bilingual as well.
Rebecca’s two children are also very bilingual, something of which she is very proud. She and her husband uphold the rule of “one parent, one language” – French was spoken by and to their father, and English by and to their mother. They watched a lot of English language movies, read a lot of English books, and their American grandmother came for extended visits. They also have English-speaking friends.
Marie-José’s only daughter is bilingual – which might have been facilitated by the fact that both her parents are French, and that French was the language of the household – “she never spoke a word of English until she was four.” She did watch Mr. Rogers and, of course, went to school, and then picked up the English language.
It turns out that both Laurenceand I did not exactly succeed in raising our children as bilinguals, and we both feel that this state of affairs is quite unfortunate. In Laurence’s case, “life was complicated” at the time when, for both her sons, it was critical that they learn how to speak in both languages and she adds, “this time has now passed.” It was basically too much for her to invest time, effort, and resources to speak French and teach the language to them.
I spoke exclusively in French to my daughter until she was close to four years old. At that time, I spent a month with her at my parents’ in France. For reasons that I have yet to comprehend, they were hideous to her, as well as to me, during that entire time. This led to making my relationship with my parents (especially my father) very tense. Upon my return to the U.S., I made the semi-conscious decision no longer to speak French to my daughter. Interestingly, at the age of 34, she still understands French fairly well, and can speak it well enough to sustain a simple conversation – although we have not really conversed in French in quite a few years. And she is very proud of being half-French and of her French heritage.
Writing in my second language
This leads me to a final remark. Marie-José is a published writer who writes in English. She explained that she writes in English because of her painful childhood and teenage years. “French connected me with the abuse I basically escaped from when I moved to America. So, I needed a language that did not connect me with painful memories. It is only now that I can go back to French because I feel strong enough to face my past. I am writing my memoirs, and I want them to be in French.”
I also write quite a bit, was an avid blogger for years, and I always wrote in English. My situation is very similar to Marie-José. I had parents who were extremely controlling, and my mother was what I would deem mentally abusive. To me, French was a language of pain. I must add, however, that, as someone who has a doctoral degree in French literature and taught that language for close to 30 years at the university level, I also love my native language. I still constantly read French books and am also starting to write in French again.
 The native English-speaking Canadian writer Nancy Huston – who came to Paris in 1973 where she did her master’s thesis with semiologist Roland Barthes and then stayed on in France, decided to write in French when she started to do so. François Grosjean quotes her explanation for her decision to write in French: I suppose it has to do with the fact that my mother tongue was too emotionally fraught at the time. I preferred something more distant, more intellectual… I was in denial of my roots. No childhood, no Mother, no problems.
Nancy Huston’s fairly short book Losing North: Musings on Land, Tongue and Self (Nord perdu in the original French) is a wonderful read about the topics of this article.
Note:  A semantic field is a lexical set of words that refer to a specific subject.
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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