I feel sophisticated when speaking French. I know I’m speaking it poorly (And just a handful of words, at that.) but there is an instantaneous suaveness afforded the speaker.
Even the word “suave” is an example of this. The word comes from Latin meaning “sweet” transformed during the “Middle French” period of the 14th through 17th centuries. This was the delightful early modern period beloved for pre-cosmopolitain lush lifestyle icons like Versailles and Marie Antoinette. The French invented the stylish, the refined, the beautiful: their language reflects that.
They’re so beyond words that half of what is sad is thrown away, edited behind the tongue. Simple words like “bonjour” come out as the sleek contraction where the “bonj” collapses with the soft “R” finish. “Oui” becomes a childish “wah.” Even “moi”—Me.—becomes an adorable kiss of a word.
Granted, I am aglow in the afterbirth of an over-a-week trip to France. I got to play-act my being European and specifically French. I got to escape so many American things that annoy or frustrate me by changing my tongue. I have an extremely passing knowledge of français but I hold those words so close to me, to this language that I feel is intertwined with my identity. It is that which I am not but which I could be.
This becomes clear when attempting to speak the language in the country: it is seen as such an adorable act of commitment to them. It’s an act of love, the first few kisses in a very long and passionate romance. You can bungle your way to the bathroom (“Oú est le toilette?” coming out as “OOOoo ay la toilet?”) and someone will respond with a smile and a wink, “The bathroom is to the right.” You’ll say “Merci.” in a swallow and take your break, outed as American, but glowing in your ability to both speak French words that are understood as French. Does that make you French? It does not. But it draws you closer and closer to a people that you so closely feel akin to.
I find this lust for language important because it does something to my mind. It truly does! It’s a cultural intoxication. Studies have proved this too, showing that speaking your non-native tongue can change your personality. This is because the way a society is rubs off on your being by way of the language.
“The language cannot be separated from the cultural values of that language,” she says. “You see yourself through the cultural values of the language you are speaking.” It makes sense that this effect is felt particularly strongly by people who are bicultural, as well as bilingual, because they have a strong grounding in multiple cultures.
It’s also possible that our perceptions of our own personalities change because we notice how people react to us when we speak different languages. After all, identity is “your sense of self, but also how you feel others are perceiving you and how that impacts on how you can project who you are,” says Carolyn McKinney, a professor of language and literacy studies at the University of Cape Town. And so you might see yourself as a confident, poised professional when speaking your native English in front of a crowd and watching the audience hang on your every word—and then feel like a blundering goofball when conducting a meeting in beginner German.
Change your tongue and the body will follow.
My love for the French language is more complicated than wanting to communicate. It’s a wanting to be. It’s one thing to speak another language in your own country. It’s an entirely different thing to be there, speaking the language, confused for that which you want to be. It’s cultural coveting made a reality by going the distance to actually speak the language.
The win is more than communication but being lost and found as that which you want to be. I have months and years of finessing to do before I am permitted to make my semi-permanent leap abroad. For now I attach myself to the few words I know as symbols of a future self coming into focus in French.