Writing in a Foreign Language


Part 2.2

And as for the language, well I don’t know. English is comfortable, or rather, comforting. A foreign language, for the one who always found himself to be the foreigner. The easy foreign language, so foreign that it is even foreign to most people one encounters in India. Funny thing. And foreign to me, indeed. A safe terrain to express my thoughts. Too much restraint, too much gêne [embarrassment] in French. Perhaps I’ll write a few words in French, or a few sentences, here and there. When the meaning, when the intention is better expressed in my good old language. But otherwise I don’t think so. It’s too polite, too elitist. Recently I realized that when I speak in French my language, my vocabulary, my structures are so posh. So upper-class. So lettered. So bourgeois. So sad. I can’t be popular in French – popular as in ‘popular language’ and popular as in trendy, appreciated. Perhaps that’s why the English-language braillements [bawling] of brainless rappers attracted me so much a few years back. Anyway.

It is only in the fourth year of my stay in India that I started a supplementary diary in English, my second language. Truly, English had become my first language of communication, for the daily life, since many months back. But I was still writing to my family in French, naturally, and also collecting my everyday thoughts in a diary in my native language. The aforementioned introductory lines, written in December 2012, indicated that a shift had taken place. They were meant almost as a message of caution to myself, the French national who had assumed French would be, and remain, his natural language. English was not anymore just a ‘tool of communication,’ unsurprisingly used everyday in an English-speaking environment. It had become, also, the medium of my more personal and reflexive expressions. English had become my own intimate language. Not necessarily above French, but clearly not below it anymore.

line 1

My Français parlé, my spoken French, has been partially lost. It is now rather formal, almost diplomatic. This is certainly the reason why writing in French seems to me easier and more ‘fluid’ than speaking it. The written medium is more prone to a formal syntax: structured sentences, organized paragraphs, thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

line 2

My progressive turn towards an existence colored by English language has taken different forms. My separation from French first took place orally. I can still speak fluently in French, and even with some elegance, but I regularly have to search for words if I discuss with a French speaker. My Français parlé, my spoken French, has been partially lost. It is now rather formal, almost diplomatic. This is certainly the reason why writing in French seems to me easier and more ‘fluid’ than speaking it. The written medium is more prone to a formal syntax: structured sentences, organized paragraphs, thesis, antithesis, synthesis. I also realized, however, that it is while being away from the world of French speakers, either in the US or in India, that I have had the most entertaining interactions in French with occasional encounters. In these two countries, I have met and become great friends with various Frenchmen with whom we literally played with French language, the mix of elegance and rudeness of its vocabulary, its assonances and alliterations, much more than I ever did in France. Nonetheless, contrasting with the structured and diplomatic language used with my parents, through such interlocutors my French tended to fall into another extreme, a sort of clumsy ‘slang’ French, perhaps improvising on what I imagined would be the latest neologisms among French people, since I had left. At the end of the day, either too formal or forcefully creative, my spoken French shows few signs of comfort. This language has lost, for me, its everydayness.

My relation to English must also take in consideration the written form. After four degrees and hundreds of lectures in English institutions in the last five years, English has become for me the language of knowledge. In these few years, I have written more in English – especially in an academic context – than I ever did in French. Writing a paper is much easier to me in English than in French. English provides a fluidity of expressions, of grammatical structures, making ideas easily fit into each other. I certainly think of some French expressions when I prepare a paper, for which I try to find English translations. The influence of French formulas may therefore be felt, but I believe that they appear as a touch on top of a writing following mostly the standard lexicon and grammatical usages of English. This relation to the written is also to be observed in my reading. I may read Levinas or Derrida in French for my curiosity, assuming that the original version would get me ‘closer’ to the original thought of the author – Derrida would probably question that, as we already saw. But for the core of my work, I would stick to English versions. Recently, I have started reading some Levinas in French. I realized enjoying reading Levinas’ prose out loud, almost in a theatrical, reciting mode. It may be that Levinas, more than many other authors, does write in a somehow poetic language. But it is certainly also that the richness of languages and the complexity of constructions are easier for me to grasp in French than in English. While the ‘content’ of a text is equally accessible to me in both languages, the extra-logical and conceptual connections happen faster and more easily in French. If reading poetry in English, I must acknowledge my limitations and recognize that too many lexical nuggets are undecipherable to me. I could get a broad idea of the object discussed, but not of the approach to it, therefore missing the whole point of poetry.

Theoretically speaking, we can connect this situation with Derrida’s supplementation. Indeed, native versus learnt language would be an ideal example of a hierarchical binary between an assumed original and its corresponding secondary. Specialists in language teaching still use the concepts of first, second and foreign to designate the languages to which a user is exposed directly (or not in the case of the foreign language), organized in an order of decreasing fluency. They are opposed to the mother tongue, first language to which the child was widely in contact in her young years. These categories reproduce the dynamics of supplementations mentioned by Derrida. In my case, unveiling the assumption that English is supplementary to my mother tongue, French, it is realizing that language usages may transcend and break the expected linguistic identity of an individual. My subconscious and conscious past have been greatly taking place in French speaking environments. My personality and worldview are certainly influenced by French as a particular way to represent the world. But a new lifestyle, away from French culture and French language, has forced me to adopt not only English as a language, but English as a way of thinking and interacting with the world. A “what’s up?” is different from a “comment ça va?” [“how it is going?”], while they would be used basically at the same levels of social relations in English or French. Finding oneself at home in a foreign land, it is also finding oneself comfortable – perhaps more comfortable – in the language of this country. Discussing the outcomes of his interviews, Madison (2006) remarks: “It is not uncommon for co-researchers to find their values better reflected in foreign cultures and languages rather than in their own home cultures and families” (249). Lewis (1966), paraphrasing Merleau-Ponty, corroborates this view: “we can speak several languages but normally live in only one. Completely assimilating a language requires the speaker to assume its world” (30). Language is never an innocent, coincidental, passive actor within a cultural world. It determines and conditions this world, so profoundly that choosing this world is also choosing its language.


Badiou, Alain. “Thinking the Event.” In Philosophy in the Present, edited by Peter Engelmann, translated by Peter Thomas and Alberto Toscano, 1-48. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Heidegger, Martin. “Language.” In Heidegger, Martin, Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter, 185-208. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie, and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Lewis, Philip E. “Merleau-Ponty and the Phenomenology of Language.” Yale French Studies, No. 36/37 (1966): 19-40.

Madison, Greg. “Existential Migration.” Existential Analysis, 17.2 (2006): 238-60.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. La Phénoménologie de la Perception. Paris: Gallimard, 1945.

Royle, Nicholas. Jacques Derrida. London & New York: Routledge, 2003.

Image courtesy: Henriette Browne