Comments on My relation to English, bilingualism, and this blog

JML (2019-12-26T14:01:50Z)

Wow, lots of interesting things in this entry!

I easily talk about my emotions in English while I'm a lot more shy in French (my birth language). My model for this was that since I need more of my brain to use English, there's less brain available to perform inhibitions. Am I about to say something cheesy? rude? dumb? that will have bad consequences? Well, this can't be processed so I just proceed to the saying part.
But N's experience tells there's a lot more to this. Perhaps my brain thinks English is safe: after all, I've almost only spoken English in recreational contexts with low chances of bad interactions happening.
Whatever the case, my personality is somewhat different depending on the language I'm using.
So whoever I am, I'm not my personality :)

What I find frustrating with English: I'm just dumber in that language. And it seems there's no hope of that ever changing. Thanks to internet by English improves over time BUT there's no noticeable progress on my reading speed, understanding and remembering. As long as it's not a most simple text, if I read it in French instead, then I read 1.5-3x faster, understand more things and remember more. It's like I need more brain just to process English and thus have less brain available for the rest. I don't feel dumb though; I feel perfectly functional, with 100% understanding, but realize I was wrong if I get to read a good French translation, because then I get to understand more things (and make more links with other things I knew etc.).

I've read about the learning window of foreign languages: it seems it's still possible to perfectly master a language learnt at 14, but impossible if it's learnt at 18 or maybe 20. I only got somewhat serious with English at 18 (when I realized trusting school wouldn't work and just started to read books) and I suspect it was indeed too late for my brain to efficiently hardwire the language. So about the criteria to be a native speaker, I suspect the "learnt as a child" one is incorrect and should be replaced with a criterion of performance that must be about the same as the language(s) used since infancy (no dumber effect). Unless other people's brains don't have this kind of hard limit?

You realize adults don't learn foreign languages in the same way that children do right?
Youg children have an amazing oral memory. They just naturally remember lots of phoneme strings and love to spit some back out whenever the context feels right. You can get them to remember and sing long songs in a foreign language even though it's just a long stream of meaningless phonemes to them (well, the meaning is "fun activity with dad"). I once learned a simple Japanese song. About 40 syllables. Well, I had a *HARD* time.
Adults don't have that oral memory anymore, but they can learn and painstakingly use grammatical rules and vocabulary lists as a kind of shortcut. So in a sense they're quicker at producing reasonably well-formed sentences. But the goal is to not have to think about grammar rules or word retrieval anymore: the goal is for the brain to do all that tedious stuff naturally. This comes with training.
Well, I think the children's way gets more directly to the goal. After all, there's a neural network to train: children feed it big data, while adults feed it humanly curated samples. Children should win. Grammar rules are only good for seldom used corner cases.

About the inside voice, I suggest a totally different model:
** Everybody thinks in concepts, but 90% have an ILLUSION this happens through a voice talking. **
Some people "hear" this voice talking at normal speed even when they're reading. But they're reading much faster than normal reading speed, and if they need to talk about what they've just read they realize they don't know how to pronounce some names. So there's only an illusion of a voice.
A simple model for this is that there are neurons responsible for "someone's talking": as long as these neurons are firing, a voice is perceived. Whatever concepts are it's close to words which is close to "there's someone talking", so it's reasonable that those neurons would get some level of stimulation while thinking. By contrast the neurons responsible for detecting "aah it's talking very fast I have a hard time to follow" have no reason to get triggered since there's no actual voice processing happening, which is why the "voice" is perceived as talking at normal speed.
tl;dr Depending on what was happening in your brain when all that concepts/words thing settled down, you get to perceive your thoughts as a voice or not, but it's just a question of a single light bulb switching on or not and (until further research) doesn't tell a thing about the rest of how thinking takes place and whether different people think in the same way or not.

It's a very simple concept yet I didn't see it on the @LanguageMIT twitter thread. Am I missing something? (I'm in dumb mode after all…)
If not perhaps someone ought to submit it to them.

I wonder if some people have a suboptimal thinking process because they use slower brain paths, just like some people have a suboptimal reading process because they use physical subvocalisations.

While I'm at it: why is it said that animals can't think?
A cat wants to go somewhere. It makes simulations of the routes it could take, the jumps involved, whether there could be danger etc. It all happens using senses (vision, motor senses etc.). It can't use words to think "wait, if I go there I might run into that dog", but while it's picturing itself going through the neighbor's yard it can very well recall many things associated with that yard at that time of the day, including the dog, and run simulations of the possible interactions with the dog etc.
We humains do the same. There's no need for words to do all that.
My hypothesis is that we think exactly like animals do. The difference is that animals are limited to concepts tied to concrete physical experiences, while we also have access to more abstract concepts.
Many of us are under the illusion that thinking = using words, but in reality thinking is just thinking and only needs words when we're simulating conversations or recalling information stored in oral memory (something we were told).

Québécois bêta (2019-12-15T17:29:38Z)

@Ruxor: au Québec, on distingue le "yogourt ferme", fermenté en pot, du "yogourt brassé" fermenté en cuves, puis brassé et empoté. C'est en effet le yogourt brassé (quand j'étais petit, c'était écrit "yogourt brassé a la suisse" sur le pot d'une certaine marque, et ça suscitait en moi des questions qui n'ont toujours pas trouvé de réponse) qu'on retrouve dans tous les supermarchés; pour le yogourt ferme, ça se trouve mais il faut aller dans un magasin spécialisé en aliments naturels.

jonas (2019-12-12T10:12:55Z)

You should probably tag this with "meta", since it talks about your blog.

Ruxor (2019-12-11T16:43:16Z)

@egan: Le problème des langues en science est quelque chose sur lequel je me promets depuis longtemps de ranter sur ce blog. Même si je ne sais pas vraiment quoi en penser, je ne suis ni convaincu de l'attitude des gens comme mon ancien directeur de thèse qui défendent la survie du français, ni par celle de ceux qui considèrent que c'est un anachronisme et qu'il faut accepter une bonne fois pour toutes que l'anglais est la langue de la science. En tout cas, je trouve que les uns et les autres ont vraiment trop tendance à ignorer les énormes difficultés et l'hypocrisie intrinsèque de leur position (et l'énorme merde linguistique dans laquelle on se trouve dans tous les cas, dans laquelle il s'agit au mieux de trouver le moindre mal). Ma préférence provisoire va dans le sens d'un anglais ultra-simplifié et codifié style Basic English, avec des marqueurs pour aider la traduction automatisée, mais je n'ai pas les idées bien arrêtées, et il y a beaucoup à dire.

@jonas: To clarify, the “inner voice” criterion is not one to decide whether the speaker is a “native speaker” but is rather meant to replace the (IMO fairly arbitrary and uninteresting) “native speaker” notion by a more relevant one. Concerning the use of English in education, this is also something I know I have to rant about (cf. my answer to egan in the previous paragraph).

@Canuck Alpha: Ah yes, “plain yogurt”. But there is still the problem that (perhaps independently of the “plain”/“unflavored” part) this always seems to refer to a kind of yogurt which is not at all what we get in France: in North America, yogurt always seems to be what the French call “yaourt brassé” (with a creamy texture) and, in the extreme case Greek yogurt. I don't even know how to describe the non-“brassé” kind of yogurt in English (or, for that matter, in French).

@Mauvaisours: Let's not mention the distinctly #ClubContext-y fact that “hard disk” is usually spelled with a -k while “compact disc” is with a -c.

@Natacha: By coincidence, shortly after reading your comment, I stumbled upon <URL: >. There are some obvious FMRI experiments to be done here (and maybe have been done) regarding whether people who self-report as having an “inner voice” actually do activate different regions of the brain when thinking about a problem in logic (say) as people who don't. Maybe it's related to the visual/auditory memory distinction I was mentioning in <URL: > (my inner voice serves, inter alia, as a kind of short-term memory to store intermediate goals and results when thinking about a problem: I suppose anyone who attempts some intricate thought process needs some form of intermediate storage). Anyway, even if the “inner voice” criterion can serve only for people who indeed have some form of inner voice, it can still be useful in that it gives some rough estimate of what level of mastery one needs to achieve in a given language for that language to be usable for internalizing thoughts.

@f3et: Il serait intéressant de comparer le niveau des traductions fr→en et en→fr. Je ne sais plus où (mais récemment) j'avais commencé à recommander à des anglophones de lire les entrées de maths de mon blog à travers Google Translate, puis je me suis rendu compte en les lisant moi-même que c'était vraiment exaspérant.

@jst, @N: Cf. <URL: >

mummy (2019-12-11T09:16:20Z)

Petites précisions : tu as entendu parler anglais dès ta première année, car c'est au Canada chez ton grand-père (exclusivement anglophone) que tu as fêté ton 1er anniversaire. Autour de nous en France beaucoup de personnes parlaient en anglais (amis, collègues), puis tu as fait des séjours réguliers dans ta famille anglophone au Canada . Comme tu avais très tôt appris à bien t'exprimer en français (ex : à 2 ans tu as dit : "David ne veut pas que Jonas vienne s’asseoir là", déjà emploi du subjonctif…)tu refusais de parler l'anglais que tu ne maîtrisais pas assez bien ! Et même tu te fâchais si tu ne pouvais pas participer à la conversation en anglais…Mais au Canada, pas de problèmes !

N (2019-12-10T10:42:20Z)


Good point.

I should have said:
“That is not proper French!” is used against you in France, even by waiters in a restaurant, cashiers in a shop or against anyone really. The French love giving away their advice on how/when to use 'subjonctif', the plural of 'journal' or the correct use of 'un ciseau'. That is considered quite rude everywhere else. You would never hear that in the US from a cashier!

Sometimes indeed, someone is impossible to understand or is ambiguous, so the usual reaction here is: “what do you mean?” or “can you repeat?”. Certainly not: do you reckon this sentence of yours would be approved by the Académie française? Who does that but the French?

Another example: the whole shebang with Ribéry in France is quite shameful in my opinion. I'd rather have a room full of Ribérys than a room full of Macrons -- I understand Ribéry quite well in his poetic variations, and I never get the point of Macron's speech, because his game is to hide behind rain-checks.

This ever-correcting French attitude is considered very rude by all foreigners i know, and I have never heard such thing in Italy, in the USA, in Germany or England, 4 countries i have good knowledge of. In many parts of the world, non-standard variations occur without batting an eyelid, especially if they are unambiguous.

Bref, the French take pride in publicly castigating non-standard usual variations in their own language. And that is wrong. We praise authors who never tried to stick to grammar rules (or at least: not all of them), so why does a cashier take pride in his 'standard' French?

Because this is France. With dictées (and 0/20!), Académie française, absurd spelling, 'centralisation', and so on.

jst (2019-12-09T23:17:51Z)

@N :
> “Was this proper French?” is a regular question we ask ourselves -- a similar question in English is quite rare, at least on TV no one says “sorry that was not English”

Do you never hear English-speaking people say something in the lines of "wait, that's not a sentence"? Granted it's less self deprecating that "c'est pas français ce que je dis".

Subbak (2019-12-08T17:27:24Z)

Natacha : j'ai le même genre de problème que toi sur la SFF en français. Je pense que c'est parce que le vocabulaire typique de la Fantasy (et, dans une moindre mesure, le vocabulaire typique de la SF) en anglais, je l'ai rencontré en premier dans des romans, alors que en français je l'ai rencontré à l'école avant. Du coup quand je lis par exemple "suzerain" ça m'évoque un cours sur le système féodal mais "liege lord" ça fait Fantasy épique où des armées sont assemblées pour vaincre le seigneur des ténèbres. Il se peut que la musicalité de la langue joue.

Pour de la fiction ancrée dans le réel (et même pour des romans d'anticipation sur le futur proche, ou pour de l'urban fantasy), ça me gêne beaucoup moins de lire en français.

f3et (2019-12-07T20:28:24Z)

Juste une remarque: Google translate a fait des progrès, et DeepL commence à pas être mal du tout : voici ce qu'il donne sur le début de ce texte :

Ma relation avec l'anglais, le bilinguisme et ce blog

Pour changer, ce billet de blog sera en anglais, et portera sur ce fait même ; ou plutôt, sur le fait qu'il est inhabituel, car j'écris très rarement en anglais ici de nos jours. Même si j'avais commencé ce blog (en 2003) avec l'intention de le rendre bilingue (dans le sens où certains articles seraient en anglais, d'autres en français et d'autres encore traduits dans les deux langues), je ne peux vraiment pas dire que j'ai tenu cette "promesse", et la présente entrée est une sorte d'excuse, d'excuse, ou au moins d'explication pour ce fait. Hier, j'ai réécrit le texte d'introduction affiché, avant le contenu lui-même, en haut de diverses pages (p. ex. la page énumérant les entrées les plus récentes), et les derniers vestiges de cette vieille prétention au bilinguisme ont été balayés. Mais pourquoi ?

Avant d'entrer dans le vif du sujet, je dois parler de ma relation personnelle avec l'anglais, de la façon dont j'ai appris la langue et de la façon dont je la parle. J'avais écrit quelque chose à ce sujet dans cette autre entrée, également en anglais et aussi en anglais, mais je devrais développer un peu. Et par élaborer un peu, je veux dire en faire une diatribe épique.

Eh bien, c'est compliqué®. On a tendance à classer les locuteurs d'une langue dans les catégories "natifs" et "non natifs". Le Simple English Wikipedia (il y a une sorte d'ironie ici) suggère que les critères pour être classé comme un locuteur "natif" sont une combinaison (une conjonction logique ?) des éléments suivants :

le locuteur a appris la langue dans son enfance,
maîtrise des formes idiomatiques de la langue,
la compréhension de la variance régionale et sociale,
production et compréhension fluides et spontanées du discours.
Je pense que je peux cocher les quatre cases, mais à chaque fois avec une petite mise en garde.

Comment ai-je appris l'anglais ? Mon père est un Canadien anglophone (il est né à Saskatoon et a grandi principalement en Ontario), qui a déménagé en Europe au début des années 60, où il a appris le français, et il a aussi rencontré ma mère, qui est française et dont la langue maternelle est le français. J'ai la double citoyenneté canadienne et française. Pour une raison quelconque (qu'ils ne sont pas en mesure d'expliquer eux-mêmes, mais qui est certainement liée à la façon dont la société considère le bilinguisme), mes parents ne m'ont parlé français que lorsque j'étais un tout-petit. Cependant, quand j'avais 8 ans, nous avons déménagé à Toronto pour l'année scolaire 1984-1985, et j'ai fréquenté la troisième année à l'école publique (anglophone) Cottingham, Summerhill, Toronto. Je me souviens qu'on s'était demandé si j'allais fréquenter une école de langue française, une école de langue anglaise ou une école bilingue : On m'a offert le choix, et j'ai opté pour l'anglais, qui n'était qu'à quelques minutes à pied de chez nous, après avoir vérifié que l'institutrice avait une certaine connaissance du français et qu'elle était capable et disposée à m'aider à apprendre le français. (Et je dois beaucoup à Mme Marr, qui, en effet, a fait beaucoup d'efforts pour me faire parler anglais très rapidement, et a également réalisé que je n'avais pas besoin des cours de mathématiques qu'elle enseignait et m'a laissé utiliser ce temps pour améliorer mon anglais. Le fait que mes camarades d'école aient été très accueillants envers l'étranger que j'étais et qu'ils m'aient accepté comme l'un de leurs pairs a également aidé. La seule fois où j'ai regretté mon choix d'aller dans une école anglophone, c'est peut-être le tout premier jour de classe, lorsque l'enseignante a oublié qu'elle avait un élève français en classe, je me suis rendu compte que je ne comprenais presque rien de ce qui se disait ou de ce qui nous était demandé, n'osais pas me rendre au bureau et demander, et finalement j'ai pleuré sur le coup. Mais une fois ce léger traumatisme initial passé, tout s'est bien passé.)

J'ai eu une légère exposition à l'anglais avant l'âge de 8 ans, non seulement parce que j'ai dû entendre mon père parler la langue (mais pas à moi), mais aussi parce que mes parents m'ont inscrit à un cours privé d'anglais à Orsay en préparation du déménagement à Toronto. Je suppose que le professeur devait être britannique, mes souvenirs sont évidemment assez vagues sur le sujet. Quoi qu'il en soit, j'avais une connaissance très rudimentaire de l'anglais avant cela[#], mais je ne l'ai vraiment appris qu'en 1984.

Natacha (2019-12-06T08:48:06Z)

I'm certainly not a native English speaker, seriously lacking in points 1, 2, and 3 (or is the Oxford comma a kind of idiomatic form or a social variance?).

I learned English through the public school system, and I would probably be as bad as the average Frenchperson if it wasn't for that translation of the Lord of the Rings that was so bad (in my opinion) that I found the English version easier to understand. I have no idea how a few English novels and random technical texts from the internet got me where I am now.

I'm not sure how I stand with the 4th point. Most of the fiction I read is in English (to the point of finding French fiction weird, as detailed in <URL:>), I've never felt rusty when writing or speak (though maybe listeners feel otherwise, I should ask them some day), and yet I can't stand watching a TV show in English without subtitles, because when I'm emotionally invested in a story I hate missing the meaning of even a single word, and when I'm not emotionally invested I just don't watch it, life is too short.

The 5th point is even murkier as apparently I'm lacking an inner voice. The majority of my thinking is not in any language, and the remaining sizeable minority is the conscious serialization of thoughts into words, and the target language is part of the necessary choices to define the serialization (along with the starting point of the listener, the formality level, etc).

So I guess I'm among the few who would happily welcome blog posts in English as well as in French, и я даже интересуюсь записями блога по-русски, хотя я плохо понимаю, потому что мне нужны упражнения. Как насчёт трёхязычный блог? )

I used to have myself some bilingual blogging ambitions at some point, but I could never muster the courage to translate. And now, with the heat death of the blogging universe, I can probably count single-handedly my readers, I'm closer to quitting than to expand it.

In some bouts of arrogance I imagine going for a "blog BD" (is that even a thing in the English-speaking internet?) or an irregular series of comic strips, and using the smaller amount of text to translate it (or explain the untranslatable puns and context). The bout usually fades when I remember how bad I am at anything graphical, I have more of a wordsmith mind than imagesmith (but maybe my User-Agent has already given that away).

Mauvaisours (2019-12-06T08:18:25Z)

Your note made me think of a nice word split that may only exist in my mind :
the word 'disc', for me, refers to the mathematical object whereas 'disk' is the physical thing (like hard disk, floppy disk) and 'discus' would be the object used in sport.

Canuck Alpha (2019-12-06T01:25:57Z)

"Plain yogurt" is the translation you're looking for, and it's common in Canadian grocery stores. Can't say about other North American countries.

jonas (2019-12-06T00:46:55Z)

> […] the most important one in deciding whether a speaker's language is “their own” or feels alien to them: do they think their own inner thoughts in that language?

I disagree with this, on account that I do often think with my inner thoughts in English, but I am not a native speaker of English.

I think a better criterion is that other native speakers recognize that you are a native speaker when they hear you speak for long enough. That may just be a rephrasing of criterion 2 from earlier though.

Anyway, this entry seems like a good opportunity to remind you of an idea you had in 2015 <URL: >:

> I'll have to write something someday about the use of English vs. French in post-secondary education in France, and the debate it causes,

egan (2019-12-05T23:15:44Z)

Un truc intéressant donc tu n'as pas parlé c'est que les mathématiques sont un cas vraiment particulier au sein des sciences en général. Je veux dire qu'on continue à écrire des articles mathématiques en français au plu haut niveau (en particulier en géométrie algébrique et géométrie arithmétique). Certains médaillés Fields on reçu la récompense pour des articles en français (Laurent Lafforgue, Ngo Bao Chau) ce qui est totalement impensable dans les autres branches de la science.
A quoi est-ce dû ? Comment est-ce que toi tu choisis d'écrire en français ou en anglais pour tes articles ? Est-ce que les non-francophones sont énervés par cette situation ? Ça doit être bien galère pour un arithméticien chinois par exemple de devoir apprendre à lire des articles en anglais et en français…

N (2019-12-05T22:49:05Z)

«Do i speak this language?» is absurdly ill-defined. I submit here (again?) three limit cases that are my treasures (= I think about them very often):

He was a guy who learned every single word of a Spanish-French dictionary. His son asked him “what's the translation of the French word 'bobèche' in Spanish?”, and the guy answered with the correct word. Then his son asked “what does it mean?”, and the guy didn't know. I didn't as well. (Wasn't this you story? or Qunetin's?) -> bilingual as a job, not as a meaningful thing. Can you be bilingual without being professional? (I do think so.)

Another story: in /Le langage et son double/ (I highly recommend the book), Julien Green tells a good story about a good friend of his. As a French expert in translating Shakespeare, his friend asked him once in London, with fear in his voice : “comment dois-je m'adresser au chauffeur pour lui demander si c'est bien la bonne direction ?” -> What about these bilinguals who barely speak the language? If you're a professional, but unable to speak in the streets of London out of fear, do you speak English?

3rd and last story: I speak English. Years ago, I took an acting class, and this woman could not speak good French, so we did improv together in English. The exercise was simple: we had to argue on a crucial dilemma, should we go on holidays on the shores of Brittany or in the mountains? We had to argue in a specific fashion, saying “yes you're right, your point is relevant, and I would argue further that…”, so that we would not shun each other by saying “no no no no”. But we had to stick with our original choice… Recipe for an endless debate!

But the main part was: Whenever the other had her point nailed (with a specific sentence “hence we should go there”), the other had to argue back, and *switch his emotion* to a new one between these three: crying bitterly, shouting angrily, laughing joyfully. I will remember this for the rest of my life: I realized I was pretty good at laughing in English, but it was difficult to cry, and I was completely unable to sustain deep anger in English for more than mere seconds. The explanation was simple: back then I had never gotten angry with anyone in English. -> I realized later that bilinguals can be more at ease in one specific language for one specific emotion (I asked around, to far “better” bilinguals than I am, including professional ones).


On a side note, the question “what is to speak English, really?” demands a very precise answer in a very specific context: teaching. If you teach, you have to answer that question, because the answers will be in your lesson. Otherwise, I advocate for: this question has no good precise answer. Only vague answers and I would say…

You speak English if you:
* speak (or spoke) English regularly with more than one speaker over a long stretch of time, perhaps… 10 years. (After all, this is what it took for your native language.)

* the subject is (almost never) the fact you speak or don't speak good English (= when you speak, you are understood, you understand what the others say, this is not a lesson, you can relate to people mostly without having to learn new words/grammar first)

* and maybe: there is a variety of emotions/improv involved (this is not “job only”, it's not about reciting poetry or being only technical)

Apart from that, the fact you don't pronounce YEAR like EAR, who cares??! The only “mistake” here is… to be different. Most people will perfectly understand you if you say “I'm 20 yirs old”, the 2 vowels are so closed…


On a 2nd side note, the French (almost) crushed every single other language that existed in France, and despised and spat on anything that was deemed not Parisian enough since Napoleon. We are one of the rare countries with one-language-only policy. Most people in the world are bilinguals. Moreover, as it's impossible to have really only one language for millions of people, the French are obsessed with speaking “proper French”, which is: “let's speak like the rich and despise the poor”. This is the premise of every grammar nazi, of every theatre owners, of many teachers (alas), and the premise of many answers to the question “what is to speak this language?”. People will even think that some dialects can't express subtleties if you don't use the words-of-the-rich, that the words-of-the-poor are of a lesser kind, and so would different-variety-of-grammar.

“Was this proper French?” is a regular question we ask ourselves -- a similar question in English is quite rare, at least on TV no one says “sorry that was not English”, but that is a staple of French TV/newspaper, look at all the fuss about “ognon”… I have personal reason for hating this, and I do think this pattern of despise starts in schools, and actually is one of the roots for blatant racism in many parts of France. Let's embrace our differences, even if it means being different in speech… or different from the rich.

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