Just read this beautiful New Yorker piece about language. As someone who is multilingual, it helped me reflect a bit on the constant negotiation between three languages.
Find the piece here:
"Thanks to the Normans, who invaded England in the eleventh century, somewhere between a quarter and half of the basic English vocabulary comes from French. An English speaker who has never set foot in a bistro already knows an estimated fifteen thousand words of French."
The excerpt perhaps explains why I initially found English exciting, fun and easy to learn as quickly as I did as a child. But just the same, it explains the debilitating way that being multilingual trips me in my writing. If my writing sometimes suffers from clarity, it is because of the conflation between the Germanic and Frankish roots of English. I've often substituted longer words (French) for simpler, shorter words (Germanic). According to Strunk & White, for more effective prose, writers should employ the shorter words. However, on my end, an abundant use of longer words stem from my francophone background. French, by reputation, is often considered "fancy" or is thought to reflect sophistication. But as I've always tried to explain to readers who may be frustrated by my writing on that front, I don't simply lean towards the French in English for pretension's sake. It is more that sometimes I think first in Francophone, then write in English. And yes, this can prove cumbersome as I am often translating between languages.
The more I write, the more I realize I naturally gravitate towards the French words. This has always been true of me since middle school. French is familiar and aesthetically pleasing to my ears, and thus becomes my first choice. The challenge, of course, has been to find a balancing act: how to not be mislead into thinking "Frenchified" English words actually conveys what I intend to communicate. To complicate matters, I sometimes feel a sense of loss (or am at a loss for words) when trying to sort between three languages in my head, with similar or dissimilar meaning of the words depending on context.
What's more, this triangulation becomes irritating when I cannot converse in either Haitian (French) Kreyol or French with as much ease as I can now in English, my third language in this order. This would make sense given the fact that linguists argue that Haitian Kreyol's superstratum is French, with West African languages constituting the substratum of the language. French is believed to make up 90% of Haitian Kreyol's vocabulary. But it does not follow that their relative grammars correspond, or for that matter their semantic evolution in the last 300 years. Both languages are etymologically rooted in one parent language (French), but have different meaning in the current cultures of the two societies, especially after severed ties with France in 1804. That is because Haitian Kreyol's infused French retains its vocabulary from the 17th and 18th century French spoken on the island. Mainland French, however, is not as frozen in time, regardless of the regulations imposed by l'Academie Francaise. In short, as a writer I can be lost in translation. This is true in spite of the fact that Kreyol and English are significantly influenced by French; I speak in three tongues that are at once the same and different, historically bound by evolving and diverging into mutually unintelligible parts.
Is this a Gift or a Curse: After 18 years, English appears to have supplanted Haitian-Kreyol as my first language. One way I know this is the fact that it has been gradually appearing more in my dreams. I tend to settle to speaking English more and more with siblings as it seems to be more convenient and less difficult to recall words. In English, my vocabulary is much more expansive in part because I can fold the other two languages into it. I also estimate that I spend some 75% of my life (especially since college) conversing with others in English. Meanwhile I am still more likely to dream and count in French (since it comes to me naturally). But I've often had to search in Kreyol to find and make sense of somethings that are initially incomprehensible to me in French.Read More