In Paris, I am always thinking about words. Words in French that I don’t recognize on the street, words in English I keep forgetting, words that make me sound more local in both spaces, French or American: du coup, like, ouais, literally, c’est ça, lowkey.
I’m almost halfway through my semester abroad in France here and I can confidently say that immersion is not working. The fantasy of jumping headfirst into a completely new country and culture and being a little sponge of a brain, absorbing anything and everything around me, fell apart after the first week. I feel more like a concrete brick that’s slowly being chiseled away by the French language—I’m barely taking anything in, and, often, feel like I’m losing bits of English. In my classes, I rarely talk, scared to expose myself and my French to a room of native speakers.
In my class on translingual literature, my professor calls this “linguistic insecurity.” The experience of not only not being able to speak a language perfectly, but of being conscious of that inability. We’re discussing writers who chose to write in their second languages despite all the challenges that come with it: Nancy Huston, a Canadian anglophone who writes in French, Jhumpa Lahiri, an American writer who recently moved to writing in Italian, and Yoko Taweda, a Japanese writer who works in both Japanese and German. All these authors deal with linguistic insecurity on the page—the feeling of never truly being able to own, or belong to, a language.
Even though I’m not sure how my relationship with French will change and progress, I am grateful that it gives me the opportunity to interrogate my relationship with language in general. Nancy Huston describes the experience of linguistic exile and expatriation as a lesson in constantly being a child. Yoko Taweda connects the sounds and shapes of German words in the context of Japanese ones. Jhumpa Lahiri talks about the triangulation of language that happened when she began to learn Italian, and how it offered her a different view of her two mother tongues, English and Bengali. Each discusses how their choice to learn and write in a new language has deepened their understanding of themselves and their lives.
Reading their words (in both English and translated French) has been a rare grounding force during my time in Paris. Especially as I’ve been experiencing linguistic alienation not just with my surroundings, but also with myself. Before coming to Paris, I had devoted ten years of my life to learning the French language. All I wanted to do was speak it fluently. It was only after arriving in France that I really questioned why I had chosen a language that I had zero personal ties to in seventh grade. It seems that I was elitist at age eleven. I bought into what my professor calls the “imaginary” of the French language as beautiful, intellectual, and somehow sophisticated. Why else would I choose it over Spanish while growing up in the practically bilingual state of Texas? And that initial interest carried me all the way to now, reading, writing, and speaking French in Paris at age twenty-one.
In French, the use of the term “mother language (langue maternelle),” is still much more common than “first language.” There is still a general assumption that the language of your mother is your primary language, an assumption that doesn’t allow for the complexity of immigration, exile, and expatriation. I have never known how to explain my langue maternelle—my first language was Korean, but the language I now feel most fluent in is English. Still, like for many immigrant kids, Korean remains to me a more personal, familial, in many ways, more meaningful language, while English seems to be more of an assignment, a skill honed by time and experience, not by choice.
When I began writing, whether that be fiction or essays, I never questioned the choice of writing in English. It was the language of most of my education, and of almost all the books I read growing up. It was only recently that I realized the choice to write in the language you are most comfortable speaking in is not necessarily an obvious one. Translingual authors discuss the space between speaking and writing: writing in another language allows for more time, more deliberation, more choice.
Before this year, I had compartmentalized my languages in relatively clear boxes: Korean was for my family, friends, for consumption (through books, TV) but not for creation. French was for my classes, for my intellectual endeavors, and, to be honest, for saying I could speak French. And English was for everything else, for my life, my writing, my future and my art. I had never questioned these choices before. I had never even thought about them as choices. Spending time in Korea over the summer and taking this semester abroad in France allowed me to separate myself from what I now see as a very American perspective on linguistic dominance: English before all, to the point it’s never really considered or debated in any substantial way.
All the translingual authors I read for my class were writing from their primary language to a secondary one (for example, Jhumpa Lahiri’s English towards Italian). They faced unique challenges of impostor syndrome and of linguistic insecurity, but their objectives didn’t fully inspire me. I did not feel a calling to start writing stories in French, even in my French creative writing class. Then, for a different course, I read Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language by Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
In this essay collection, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o details his choice to no longer write in English, the official language of Kenya and an obvious inheritance of British colonial rule, and to rather write in his first language, Kikuyu. Ironically, the work was published in English, perhaps with the hopes of accessing a wide readership particularly in other anglophone African countries. He calls upon all writers from previously colonized countries, and, therefore, colonial languages, to interrogate their choice to leave their native languages behind. For him, the future of Kenyan literature depends on the maintenance of native Kenyan languages, just as the future of international literature depends on the maintenance of all minor and disappearing languages.
For all intents and purposes, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s declaration seems like an illogical one. Most Americans would see the decision to write in a native language as illogical, with writing in English being a choice for more profit, more press, and more relevance in the global literary world Yet, to me, it seems to be the most fundamental creative choice of all– reclaiming the agency of how and for whom to tell a story.
This summer, I wrote a short story fully in Korean for the first time. I am not equating my one short story to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s incredible decision; for starters, I would not consider Korean a minor language by any means, especially in modern pop culture. If I continue to write in Korean, there is a great likelihood that I will have access to translation and publication resources many minor languages do not have. Nevertheless, the writing process was incredibly difficult, and most of the time I wanted to punch at the walls of my brain for not coming up with the words I needed. But the story was set in, written in, and was about Seoul. In Korean, I didn’t have to think about explaining, about what might be over-exoticizing, and if I would be able to do justice to these characters in English. Though it was difficult to recategorize this familial language to a creative one, it made me more excited to write than I’d felt in a very long time. For the past year or so, many of the most inspiring works I’ve read have been in Korean, and it felt like I was slowly able to speak to those writers and those books with my own language.
I can’t say my relationships to these languages have changed overnight. I am still struggling with French, still pushing the limits of my Korean. And as evidenced by this essay, I am still writing in English. Sometimes it still feels most natural to a story, and it is undeniably the language that comes to me with the most ease. But more and more, English doesn’t feel natural for a story, or an essay, or even the works I choose to read. As scary as that is, I am so incredibly excited by the uncertainty, the difficulty, the possibility of writing in Korean. I am also unexpectedly grateful for the French language bringing me to these questions and these new horizons. At the end of the day, it is less the specific languages that matter and more the possibilities of expression that each of them opens up. What matters is that these writers and these languages have given me the greatest gift a writer could ask for: the power of choice.
Header art credit to Hazel Flaherty.