My parents put in uncommon efforts to raise my brother and me completely bilingual. Our mother (a Frenchwoman from Normandy) spoke only French to us, ever, our father (a New Yorker by way of Romania and Tunisia) only English. To build a wall of separation within us between French and English, they pretended not to understand when we addressed them in the wrong language.
To complicate this system, they speak French to each other, which I suppose serves as a symbol of the fact that my mother always has her way, but they text each other in English, the more concise language of my efficient father.
The system functioned perfectly. My brother and I turned out completely bilingual, far more bilingual than I could ever raise my own offspring unless I procreate with a fellow oddity—a fact that never fails to give me a feeling of self-betrayal. We follow the advice given to Alice in Through the Looking Glass to “speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing…and remember who you are.”
Who we are is best described by the untranslatable word métis, which means we aren’t both French and American so much as we are melting pots full of a hybrid sludge of a third identity, with blips of one or the other bubbling startlingly to the surface.
So we speak Franglais with native fluency and disregard for anyone else’s comprehension. Other people are often frustrated by our hermetic speech or think we’re putting on airs, and at best they commend our bilingualism as an impressive skill—though to think about bilingualism in that way carries the false impression that using it is a conscious choice. Franglais just flows out naturally and it solves all the problems of the untranslatability of language (though only for us). Over the dinner table we would say sentences that normally could not exist: “c’était un peu awkward” or “shut up, connard.”
The system functioned perfectly for twenty years without anyone realizing that it did not function perfectly. There was a hole in a crucial point of our logic: what language were we children to use when addressing both parents at once? Though I must have done so many times while living under their roof, I don’t remember the situation ever registering as odd. Perhaps I spoke to both parents together so seldomly because the wall of separation between French and English served a pacifying purpose. When the four of us had a substantive conversation it never failed to turn into the next battle of our family culture clash.
To inform both my parents of something, I would usually tell one with the expectation that the other would overhear or that the information would get relayed—a roundabout system that usually failed but which I kept on using. Perhaps none of this bothered me because the family cocoon, constricting though I might find it, was a space where I was safe from having to explain the ways in which I communicated, a space where nothing was complicated.
Once I was a college student everything became more complicated. When I had to email both parents about what time I was getting to Union Station for Thanksgiving, there was no neutral language in which to express that information. I couldn’t just do what I did in person and face one parent as if speaking only to them while both listened and understood. I ended up contacting each individually, which felt like undermining the existence of a parental “unit.” But such correspondence was so brief and infrequent that I gave it little thought.
I only became fully aware of the language discrepancy when my parents came up to visit me early this October. The two nights before had been a nearly-all-nighter followed by a full all-nighter, which made everything more frustrating. This compounded the reality that I had been losing my command of French in a series of tiny atrophies. I just couldn’t figure out how to speak to both parents at once. I tried to alternate eye contact with both, but it was useless. Anything I said in French seemed to exclude my father; anything in English, my mother.
Awkward though this was, at least we could all understand each other. The real problems start at the point of contact with the outside world. Speaking a foreign language in someone else’s space can be a form of intrusion. Neither in Francophone nor Anglophone spaces am I immune from dépaysement, that feeling of not being where one belongs. For example, I am never more culturally uncomfortable than when speaking American English in France. My hyperawareness of real or imagined Francophobia and anti-Americanism makes me feel like an invader in my own country. Maybe I am imagining it sometimes, but I know that there are times when I am not. An Anglophone relative from my father’s side once admonished my mother and me while driving us somewhere in her car, telling us to speak English. It was shocking because it is not her native language and when I am talking to her it does not feel like mine, either. I know this because when my mother and I speak to a group of Anglophones, the only thing stranger than addressing her in English is hearing her reply in English. But when I think about it, I cannot hold my relative’s reaction against her: it was her car, her comfort zone. My parents and I always have an inescapable choice between making ourselves uncomfortable and alienating other people.
There is no neat conclusion to this because I have found no solution. There is no space in which my family is not at least partially out of place, in which all of us are precisely in our element. Every family is heterogeneous, and has gaps in mutual understanding with children bridging the differences. But the language discrepancy within my nuclear family unit is like a fault line that runs through my brother and me with one parent on either side.
Neurological studies have found that native bilinguals have both languages active in their brains at all times. I would add that they also have both identities active at all times. For all the enjoyment I have gotten out of being able to read both Of Mice and Men and The Little Prince in the original language or listen in on conversations that people didn’t think I could understand, I can’t just stop doing the balancing act. It is both a permanent immersion in, and a permanent exile from, both identities.