The French Version of Me

Something strange happens whenever I go to France. I morph into a slightly different person.

I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not. I’m not even on my best behavior. No, it’s about the language. I can’t quite be myself in French.

In part, my French is not fluent, so I always feel I’m in a bit of a fog, not completely able to hear, understand, or express myself. But there’s more. My sarcasm and dry humor don’t often translate. I’ve tried, and more often than not I end up getting confused looks or worse, offending people. In French, I tend to be quiet and withdrawn, while in English I am extroverted, confident, sometimes even gregarious. I tend to be much more serious in French; again – my humor doesn’t translate. In English, I tease and joke with everyone and I constantly poke fun at myself. I’m not there yet with my French. Instead, I resort to a goofy, unsophisticated sense of humor that relies heavily on facial expressions and body language, whereas in English I’m known for being so deadpan people can’t always tell if I’m joking.

I phrase things differently. In English, I can be precise with my word choice, allowing myself to be diplomatic or irritated, straightforward or sarcastic, serious or funny. In French, I must rely on my limited vocabulary, gestures, and an exaggerated tone of voice, making me wonder if I come across as dense. It’s so easy to misinterpret what I hear or to say something I didn’t intend to say. Like my wedding vows or the time I announced “Je suis femme !” (“I am woman”) when what I intended to say was: “J’ai faim !” (“I’m hungry.”)

There’s also the inherent cultural aspects of a language. French speakers tend to be more animated, their voices sometimes almost sing-songy. I find myself adopting this mannerism as I speak French. I start doing the French Blow. French speakers tend to repeat short phrases. I say this is because they are always talking over one another, so they have to repeat the same things over and over in the hopes that someone will hear them eventually. In English, I would find this repetition annoying but it seems to be simply  part of the language in French.  I tend to adopt this mannerism as well.

Yet it cuts deeper than the way I express myself, it affects the way I think. Of course, there’s no direct, word for word translation from any one language to another. Getting to the level in a language where you actually think in that language is an exciting milestone to reach. Then, it has become a part of you. Language shapes our minds. So much of a culture is wrapped into its language, and vice versa. When living in a foreign language, our very core changes, sometimes subtley, sometimes more.

14 thoughts on “The French Version of Me

  1. I became good friends with my French teacher at university. We never spoke English to one another. One night, after a few beers, we agreed to speak English for 10 minutes. When it was over, she told me, ‘I don’t like you in English. You’re too confident, you seem too pleased with yourself. I only like your French personality.”

  2. I think I’m different too. I definitely talk less, if I speak French. That’s a good thing. But my French is very bad. I probably give the impression of a humble and stupid person. Humble is good, stupid isn’t.

    • I’m with you – I feel like I come across as really dense in French sometimes. I’ve been treated like I’m an idiot by more than one French person, but I can’t tell if that’s because of my French or if it’s just how French people can be 🙂

  3. I remember of an Italian stand-up comedian who built a ten-minute sketch around the different ways Italian railways requested travelers in different languages not to lean out of train windows.

    Beyond the comedian’s jokes, one could really notice those differences, and relate them to the respective cultures.

    German: “DON’T lean out of the window” (direct prohibition, leveraging German sense of discipline)

    English: “PLEASE, don’t lean…” (polite request)

    Italian: “It is DANGEROUS to lean…” (addressing fears of an emotional culture, as forbidding an Italian to do something would be futile)

  4. It’s the same for me when I speak English or Italian!

    It’s particularly the case in London, I think I am colder in English. I am always a bit too direct/blunt when I speak to other British people: I don’t use “would you mind…” or “I am afraid that…” automatically. It seems artificial to the French woman I am. And when I manage to use these sentences, it seems so strange and fake!

    On the contrary, when I speak Italian, I feel (much) more confident and relaxed, I’m always smiling… And I kind of like this aspect of my personality in this language.
    I sometimes have the impression that I have 3 different personalities (scary!), depending on the language I am speaking… But I am working on it! 🙂

  5. Yes, I understand completely! I taught English in Japan for two years and when I was leaving, my students asked me to make a speech in Japanese. Their reaction when I did was along the lines of, “Aw, you’re so cute!” In English they respected me as their teacher and thought I was much older than my then 21 years. In Japanese I became a hopeless (though apparently cute!) little girl. Lucky I was leaving the country!

  6. Hi there, I know this is an old post but I can totally relate to what you said here: ” I always feel I’m in a bit of a fog, not completely able to hear, understand, or express myself. ” Even though my French is pretty good at this point, I don’t think my humor or true personality shine through. Thankfully my husband’s English is near flawless so at least he knows the “real” me and has since Day 1, but everyone else I meet? I can’t help but feel like they’re only getting 80%. Well who knows, maybe that’s a good thing! Do you live in the USA?

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