Barry Whittingham relates his own experience. Barry has been living in France since 1972 when he came as part of an official teacher exchange scheme. He has been in a serious relationship with his French partner, Renée, for the last 38 years.
My recent reading of Louise Wiles’ blog ‘How Has Expat Living Impacted on Your Sense of Who You Are?’ at http://www.successabroadcoaching.com) recalled to mind the words of my old university tutor (himself a former French schoolmaster) who often used to say that his ability to speak a foreign language fluently had enabled him to lead two distinct lives. In my own case, I would go even further and say that 41 years of uninterrupted expat living in France, has transformed me into two almost distinct people: for I don’t perceive the French version of Barry Whittingham as being quite the same as the English one – so much so that it gave me the idea of writing my book ‘François Théodore Thistlethwaite’s FRENGLISH THOUGHTS’ which looks at the French and English – especially in their everyday lives – through the eyes of a split-identity ‘Frenglishman’, each of whose extremes can take control of the identity of the whole. This same article prompted me to reflect on some of the reasons which might go to explain why a long-standing expat Brit like me doesn’t have the same perception of himself in France as he does in England.
I think the main explanation can be found in the fact that the initial challenge I set myself on settling in France was to immerse myself so totally in the everyday life, culture and language of the country as to become as much of a native as I possibly could. One of the things this meant was having the least possible contact with my countrymen. But don’t get me wrong. This in no way stemmed from a desire to deny my English origins (which I have always been proud of, and which I’ve always found to be an advantage in France), but from what might be called a sense of adventure which filled me with an irresistible urge to give myself another dimension by becoming part of a culture perceived as being excitingly different to the one I knew, and for which I had felt a constant attraction from the age of 11 when I had begun learning the language at school. In addition, the year I spent at a French university as part of my studies in French Language and Literature had left me with a feeling of intense dissatisfaction. For a number of reasons (see my blog ‘Some Lost Illusions’ at http://www.frenglishthougts.com), the original aim of making spectacular progress in spoken French had fallen far short of my expectations, and had left me with the frustrating feeling of having let a golden opportunity slip by. And I had promised myself that if ever a second chance were ever to come my way I would do all in my power to succeed. And a second chance did present itself when my application to spend a year as an exchange teacher in France was accepted.
On reflection, however, perhaps the word ‘adventure’ is not entirely appropriate. I know it has connotations of courage and audacity, but I can sincerely say, without false modesty, that I don’t think these notions are really applicable to my case. For I’ve always thought that courage should have a sustained, consistent form, and involve fighting mentally against the permanent temptation to give in to adversity rather than meeting the specific, short-term, physical challenge of climbing a snow-topped summit, or hacking your way through a steamy jungle. And since my freely-consented choice to go and live in a foreign country was the result of a desire so overwhelmingly invasive that I couldn’t resist, real courage for me would have meant making the constant effort to endure what I considered to be barely tolerable – the conventional, routine English schoolteacher’s life I was leading, and which I would probably continue leading, in one way or another, for the rest of my working days.
The concept you have of your inner self is, of course, determined to a great extent by the environment in which you evolve, and your perception of the image others have of you. In this respect, language – that verbal garment we are obliged to don in our self presentation to others – plays, I think, the most important part. For nothing says more about you than the way you express yourself. Even though I did set myself the perfectionist’s task of speaking the language like a Frenchman, I think that, in spite of my best efforts to reach it, in the absolute my goal was an unattainable. For though I’m frequently told I could almost (it’s the little words which hurt the most) be taken for a French native speaker, I’m convinced that, with the exception of the highly gifted, speaking a foreign language without a trace of accent requires you to live in a bi-lingual environment from your very earliest years. Since I began learning French at the relatively advanced age of 11 and, in addition, was subjected to old-school, translation methods more adapted to the teaching of a dead language than a living, spoken one, I’ve never been quite able to rid myself of an accent which, though I’m told is ever so slight, is enough to make me frustratingly aware that I never have, and never will completely fulfill my initial aim. For, despite the fact that it doesn’t readily betray my English origins, my accent frequently prompts strangers to politely enquire whether I’m Swiss or Belgian. And only the other day someone even asked me if I was French Canadian! So in my experience, once you’ve been tagged as English (even though for me this has always been an advantage), you’re never really allowed to forget it.
And I can’t help thinking that, when conversation goes beyond the repetitious banalities of everyday life, what is expressed by me in French could be better expressed in English, and I’ve finally had to resign myself to the reality of the fact that the former is a language I have gradually acquired. As a result, it requires a greater effort of concentration and attention, not only in regard to what you yourself are attempting to express, but to what your conversational partners are saying. For in discussions of a more cerebral nature thoughts get cluttered with questions like ‘Is what I’m going to say grammatically correct?’ ‘Was that the right word I used?’ ‘Is that noun masculine or feminine?’ ‘Did I pronounce it correctly?’ ‘Did I really understand all he said?’ And you frequently have to rely on the judgement of the native speaker with regard to the standard of your own linguistic efforts. When I’m speaking English, on the other hand, since I myself am able to judge the quality of my language, my mind is freed of all these niggling linguistic doubts; language and ideas flow much nearer together so that I can talk, and at the same time think ahead about what I want to communicate. So speaking an acquired language for lengthy periods of time can get a little suffocating, and going back to England now and again – even if it’s only for a week – gives me the opportunity not only of seeing my family (I’ve long since lost all contact with my English friends), but re-finding my roots. And somewhere in my own eyes this refreshing breathe of native air resuscitates the stifled Englishman in me.
Barry A. Whittingham is the author of François Théodore Thistlethwaite’s FRENGLISH THOUGHTS. For more details please consult his blog and websites at frenglishthoughts.com and frenglishthoughts.com/frenglishfranglaisnews