Life as a Polyglot Expatriate
I have worked very hard to speak French without an American accent. Now, even after many years of studying and some months of transatlantic living, I do sometimes fail to correctly gender adjectives and properly conjugate my verbs. But my untraceable accent covers my linguistic faux pas.
“Are you from Martinique?” many a French person has asked me. “Oh, I never would have guessed you were from the States!” They exclaim when I reveal the answer, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat.
I grew up with Liberian parents and learned how to mix (or conceal) their creole with a standard accent. In English, I know how to switch between accents and dialects with ease. Not only that, when I was younger I even considered myself something of a language whiz. Looking for a synonym? I can help. Straining to define a word? I have you covered. After this life as a language chameleon, working in France as an English language teaching assistant forced me to consciously distinguish how I use my languages.
I worried that my comments would come out jumbled or, worse, that our contexts were too different and my thoughts would be of no interest to her.
“Did I stutter?” is usually asked as a preamble to a fight. But in French, this is a question I often ask myself. As an expatriate, my occasional stutter is both real and metaphoric. My stutter is every time I have to stop, breathe, and re-knit my English thought into a comprehensible sentence. My stutter is whenever someone corrects a word I have misused. It is also every time I want to talk about a difficult or contentious issue and do not know how to broach the conversation.
A few weeks ago, I rewatched the 2005 film Crash as a chaperone for a field trip at my French high school. I was struck by the scenes of sexual harassment and the constant humiliation heaped upon Terrence Howard’s character. Afterwards, sitting in a colleague’s car, we briefly reflected on the film. “It really shows how being a cultural and racial melting pot is not always easy,” my colleague said. It was her second time watching the film, as it was mine. Still, I noticed that she did not mention the sexual harassment. She did not discuss the strength it takes to choose to forgive or suspend judgement. I wanted to mention them… but there was my stutter. I worried that my comments would come out jumbled or, worse, that our contexts were too different and my thoughts would be of no interest to her.
As an expatriate, my occasional stutter is both real and metaphoric. My stutter is every time I have to stop, breathe, and re-knit my English thought into a comprehensible sentence.
Unfortunately, I was not similarly silent during the Christmas holidays. When everyone else was celebrating Christmas, I was feuding with my cousin’s husband. He had been lauding French cuisine at – from my perspective – the expense of American cuisine. His arguments were not new to me (instead retreading spots made tender from previous barbs and jabs). This might be why I bit back, arguing that, while French food is delicious, there are other delicious and vibrant cuisines that go unrecognized due to French gastronomy’s outsized place in the culinary world.
My assertion set off a firestorm that ended with my honorary cousin storming from the table. It was a revelatory argument in that I saw how I had misjudged, and then improperly handled, the situation. At the time, I was left quite confused as to how something so simple had escalated so very much. I did not have an answer at the time.
Now I realize that – perhaps – for me, every conversation has its language. As an expatriate fumbling in a foreign language and culture, I have to be mindful because I do not truly know my context. An offhand remark that would be ignored Stateside can become a conversational bomb here.
And so, with greater awareness and an ever-present stutter, I’m learning to temper (and embrace) my covert American accent.