A Linguistic Outsider

I returned from Orly Airport in the late fall afternoon, after accompanying my French former-college roommate to the plane that would return her to America. I emerged from the metro station at St. Germain and strolled slowly along the boulevard, looking in the store windows. I loved the French word for window-shopping—laîche-carreaux: licking the windows. I could read French, I had a large vocabulary, and I knew my irregular verbs. My difficulty in speaking French fluently and naturally worried me constantly. I knew the reason: For three months, I had been in the company of Hélène, my elegant, petite friend who had invited me to spend the summer as guests at her aunt’s hotel near the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Wherever we went, Hélène did the talking. It wasn’t that she was selfish or inconsiderate; she was so vivacious and sociable that people turned to her as a sunflower to the sun. Even on the ship coming over from America, the waiters had deferred to her, expecting her to order for both of us. I felt clumsy and inexperienced next to Hélène in her silk dresses, coiffed hair, and high heels. I was tall and thin and—well—American-looking. I practiced dialogues in my room: “Du fromage, mademoiselle?” “Non, merci, j’en ai dejà eu.” But when I was actually in the restaurant, or at a sidewalk café, I was suddenly mute and shy. I couldn’t even joke in French. I answered “Oui” or “Non” and felt miserable.

I wondered what to do with myself that evening. I knew I would have to leave the hotel in a few days, since I could no longer take advantage of the hospitality of Hélène’s relatives. I would find a petit hôtel on the Left Bank. Suddenly, “Annie! Salut, cherie!” cried a voice. And there on the sidewalk in front of the Café Deux Magots was Joan, an American friend from Berkeley, with her French husband, Bernard, and another man. I embraced Joan and Bernard in the French fashion, kissing them on both cheeks, and faced the garçon. “Vous désirez, Mademoiselle?” “Un coup de rouge, s’il vous plaît,” I said.

As my friends introduced me to Jean Claude, a documentary filmmaker, and began chatting about current events and Hélène’s return to America, I realized that I was speaking French—fluent, colloquial French. I ordered another glass of wine and dared not stop to analyze the situation. All I knew was that my awkwardness, my shyness, my feelings of inferiority, my dreaded inhibitions— my refoulements—about revealing who I really was, had fallen away. I was in Paris with people I liked; I was speaking French naturally. I no longer felt tall and thin and out-of-place; I felt pink-cheeked and blonde and, almost, pretty.

I couldn’t help noticing that Jean Claude was directing his attention to me. If Hélène had been there, he would have gravitated to her dark hair, tanned skin, perfect makeup, and soigné dark glasses. He was describing to me a documentary film he was making at a studio in Gennevilliers, a banlieue outside of Paris. “Tell me the plot,” I said. “Oh, but it is charming,” he said, “about a young Frenchman who goes to Morocco to teach school to little Arab children who have never before sat in a chair.” But, alas, he explained, he had reached the stage of production in which he was looking for someone to do the subtitles. The English subtitles. I looked at Jean Claude with my most engaging half-smile of interest, purposefulness, and native-English-speaker skills. “But is it possible that you . . . ?” he asked.

The metro ride to Gennevilliers was long and the car crowded, but I was blithe and happy. My days were better than I could have imagined. The studio was large and beautifully outfitted; the crew was well mannered and amusing; the staff shook hands with me every time we met during the workday. The group adjourned at one in the afternoon for a long lunch at an adjoining café. Best of all was Simone, the cutter. To me, she was as beautiful as a movie star. She had perfect skin, dark, pixie-cut hair, and lovely slim fingers that rapidly clipped and taped the little fragments of film. She and I sat together at lunch, giving me the warm feeling that we were chums.

I did not think I could ever again be so happy as I was during that period in Paris. I was intoxicated with what was to me a high-flying existence. I was going to work every day with French people. I had a best French girlfriend. I spoke French without thinking. Nothing could get any better—but it did. One night, on the metro, Simone, who descended from the train before I did, kissed me on both cheeks and said, “Bonne nuit. Je te verrai demain.” Goodnight. I will see you tomorrow. Simone had called me by the familiar tu: she had tutoyer-ed me. My heart sang.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The advice inherent in this story for consultants working with multilingual writers is fivefold: to encourage them to try to relax when they speak English and not to be self-conscious about what they perceive as their accent; to think in English and not translate from their native language; to smile to themselves as they struggle—and succeed—to use a newly learned word; to keep good notes about what areas need work, such as new rules or new vocabulary; and not to be shy about reading their work aloud, which is imperative to their hearing the way English sounds.


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1 Comment »

  • mendezboothn says:

    I LOVE this! The descriptions are so true and the feelings so real. It reminds me to think of my own struggles, and triumphs, when working with MLWs.


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