Bilingual people are lucky. Not just in all of the usual brain-expanding ways, but because they have options.
Sometimes, English just doesn’t cut it, and I wish I could effortlessly sort through my mental rolodex for a more helpful way to express myself. Code-switching, or flipping back and forth between languages in a single sentence or conversation, is something common to bilingual people, big and small.
My bilingual four-year-old just did it about five times in the last two minutes:
These are my favorite chausseurs.
I can danse très bien avec these.
Mon ami à l’école doesn’t like them.
Je veux…ummm…I want le marqueur to make le dessin!
You don’t even have to be truly bilingual to reap the benefits. Jacomine, from Multilingual Living, gives this example: “When I talk with an [Arabic speaker] in the Netherlands, we might both use Dutch and I might sometimes use some Arabic words in order to identify myself as a person who knows some Arabic, even though my Arabic is very poor. Code-switching is a powerful tool for identification.”
That’s more my style, because while I wish I was a “balanced bilingual,” it will never be so. I can function in French and Spanish, but I think and dream in English. Unfortunately, I’m stereotypically American in my relative monolingualism. However, after three years in Congo, there are several French phrases I appreciate for their descriptive power. I will share three of them, but with the disclaimer that I may have invented my own understandings in the midst of my adult-language-learner’s fog. I also acquired all of my French in Africa, not France. Apologies, and please feel free to laugh.
#1: On est là.
This phrase sort-of-literally means “we are here.” I hear it a lot around Kinshasa, usually from people who want you to be extra aware of their presence and help. I like it because it feels more subtle than “at your service,” but still demands a certain degree of recognition. It seems like a way to point out that you are offering time, skills or attention that deserves appreciation. I’ve been thinking about this a lot after reading The Confidence Gap last week. Women of the world: on est la!
#2: Ça va un peu.
Sometimes you just aren’t okay, and it’s fine to say so. I say, “Ça va?”, about fifty times a day. The conversation often goes like this:
Jill: Ça va?
Other person: Ça va un peu… (“I’m a little okay…”)
Jill: Ohh? Pourquoi?
Other person: (long story about worries, illness or other trouble)
When I ask someone if they are okay in English, the response 99% of the time is, “I’m fine”. In French, although I sometimes I dread the explanation, I believe in the opportunity to truly express yourself. I find that I’ve been embracing emotional honesty more often au français.
#3: Bon courage!
This is an important one. I can’t think of a way to tell someone in English with equal sincerity and brevity to “take heart,” “be brave,” and “have godspeed” all at the same time. This simple phrase gets the job done neatly and concisely. People have said bon courage to me at some of my most tender moments; when my child was hospitalized, when I was facing a tough decision or when I felt tired and sad. Somehow, the phrase bon courage never seems trite.
I always think it would be the perfect thing to say to a woman in labor – somehow expressing, “You can do this, but you have to do it yourself. No one can help you, but you will be okay. Have courage.” All that in just two perfect words.
Some things just sound better in French.
What do you think? Can you think of any phrases in languages other than English that use less words to express so much more?
Photo credits to the author.