David Madore's WebLog: My relation to English, bilingualism, and this blog

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My relation to English, bilingualism, and this blog

For a change, this blog entry will be in English, and will be about this very fact; or rather, about the fact that it is unusual, because I very rarely write in English here nowadays. Even though I had started this blog (in 2003) with the intention of making it bilingual (in the sense that some posts would be in English, others in French, and still others translated in both languages), I really can't say I kept this “promise”, and the present entry is a kind of apology, excuse, or at least, explanation, for that fact. Yesterday I rewrote the introductory blurb displayed, before the content itself, at the top of various pages (e.g., the page listing the most recent entries), and the last remnants of this old pretense of bilingualism have been swept away. But why?

Before I get into this, I need to say something about my personal relation to English, how I learned the language, and how well I speak it. I had written something about this in this other entry, also in English and also about English, but I should elaborate a bit. And by elaborate a bit, I mean make an epic rant of it.

Well, it's Complicated®. One tends to classify speakers of a language into “native” and “non-native” categories. The Simple English Wikipedia (there is a kind of irony here) suggests the criteria for being classified as a “native” speaker are some combination (logical conjunction?) of the following:

  1. the speaker learnt the language in childhood,
  2. mastery of idiomatic forms of the language,
  3. comprehension of regional and social variance,
  4. fluent, spontaneous production and comprehension of discourse.

I think I can tick all four boxes, but each time with a slight caveat.

How did I learn English? My father is an English-speaking Canadian (he was born in Saskatoon and grew up mainly in Ontario), who moved to Europe in the early '60's, and learned French there, and also met my mother, who is French and whose native language is French. I have dual Canadian and French citizenship. For some reason (which they themselves are not able to adequately explain, but which is certainly related to the way society has evolved in how it considers bilingualism), my parents only spoke French to me when I was a toddler. However, when I was 8, we moved to Toronto for the 1984–1985 academic year, and I attended third grade in (the English-speaking) Cottingham public school, Summerhill, Toronto. I remember there having been some discussion as to whether I would attend a French-language school, an English-language one, or a bilingual one: I was offered the choice, and I opted for the English one, which was mere minutes' walk away from where we lived, after we had ascertained that the schoolteacher had some knowledge of French and that she was able and willing to help me learn English. (And I owe a lot to Mrs. Marr, who, indeed, made a lot of efforts getting me to speak English very quickly, and also realized that I didn't need any of the math classes she taught and let me use that time to improve my English instead. It also helped that my fellow schoolchildren were very welcoming toward the stranger that I was and readily accepted me as one of their peers. Perhaps the only time I regretted my choice of going to an English-speaking school was the very first day of class, when the teacher had forgotten that she had a French pupil in class, I realized that I understood almost nothing of what was being said or asked of us, did not dare walk up to the desk and ask, and ended up just crying on the spot. But once this slight initial trauma had passed, all went well.)

I did have some slight exposure to English before the age of 8, not only because I must have heard my father speak the language (just not at me), but also because, in preparation to the move to Toronto, my parents enrolled me in a private English class in Orsay. I guess the teacher must have been British, my memories are obviously quite vague on the subject. Anyway, I had very rudimentary knowledge of English before then[#], but I only really learned it in 1984.

[#] There was a point when — I must have been around 6 — someone asked me whether I spoke English, and, ever the logician, I answered my German is better. Which meant that I must have known two words of English and three words of German, so it was technically accurate (the best kind of accurate, they say).

Is 8 young enough to be considered childhood in the sense of the aforementioned first bullet point? Probably, but with a caveat to the effect that English is still only the second language I learned.

When I look back upon that time, it seems that my transition from “not speaking English” to “speaking English fluently” was astonishingly fast[#2]. I don't know exactly when the school year began, but I understood very little English at this point, yet by the time of Halloween, so a mere two months later, it seems I was getting along fine trick-or-treat-ing in the neighborhood.

[#2] I should mention at this point, however, that I am fully unconvinced by the theory that, in identical circumstances, children learn languages much faster and more easily than adults. I may seem to be contradicting my own evidence, but the crucial qualifier is in identical circumstances: not only do children have generally more time to devote to the learning of a new language, but also, when they make what prescriptivists would call mistakes, adults step in and correct them, or their fellow children make fun of them, and they are forced to learn quickly: this is simply not the case when adults learn a foreign language, because it is impolite for other adults to constantly interrupt and correct them (and the other adults generally have other things to do than help them learn the language). See also this video, which makes a number of good points, for various bits of evidence against the idea that kids learn languages faster than adults.

From that point on, and even after we had returned to France, I spoke English with my father, at least when my mother wasn't around. I also read a lot in English, both fiction and non-fiction, and learned a lot of vocabulary by reading.

But there are two issues with learning new vocabulary through books. One is that, since English has essentially no relation between the written and spoken form, I often didn't know how to pronounce the words I learned and generally didn't bother to check in a dictionary (and my guesses were occasionally wildly wrong: for example, for a long time I thought genuine was pronounced /ɡəˈnaɪn/ instead of /ˈdʒɛnjuˌɪn/). Another issue is that I only learned whichever words were likely to come up in the books I read: since there was a lot of heroic fantasy, I learned a lot of quaint or obsolete words, sometimes with a faux medieval flavor (Tolkien's The Lord of the Ring and its second-rate epigones use some deliberately archaic manners of speech, whence I learned nouns like liege, conjunctions like lest, adverbs like hither and so on). But only few of the “normal, everyday” words which most native speakers learn in the course of their daily lives beyond third grade level: to this day I'm still not comfortable with the names of kitchen utensils in English (and as for the names of trees and various categories of animals, in my mind they are lumped in big categories like, well, tree). To give a random example, I learned the very common word bollard only very recently. Similarly, since I didn't attend high school or university in an English-speaking country, I'm unfamiliar with many of the terms specific to this context beyond the basic ones like test, grade and homework (which I guess are common to elementary school anyway).

Films are probably better than books in this regard: for one, they don't just teach you words, they also teach you how to pronounce them (spelling is rarely the issue, and subtitles can be used when it is); and for another, the language used tends to be more idiomatic than that found in print. But before DVD's came long, it wasn't so easy to watch movies in their original language, and even once DVD's existed, original language subtitles were rarely available.

Learning English after French, I've also had a number of difficulties with “false friends”. Not so much in cases where cognate/analogous French and English words have completely different meanings (deception vs. déception, for example, or injury vs. injure), as these are noticeable enough that one inevitably ends up learning them, but rather in the far more numerous cases where the two words do indeed have a similar meaning but with a slightly different nuance or connotation, which can cause subtle and hard-to-detect misunderstandings (to demand vs. demander). Perhaps even more delicate is the wealth of French words which sound like they exist in English, which do exist in English (because English, you know, is a hoarder and has all the words), which do have the same essential meaning as in French, but are exceedingly rare or sound very pedantic: so even if I'm careful and look up the word in a dictionary, the dictionary will tell me that, yes, the word exists, then I go ahead and use it and it sounds weird to English speakers because, who says that? (there are probably much better examples than this, but remuneration has essentially the same meaning as rémunération in French, but the latter is fairly common whereas the former is about ten times rarer if I believe Google Ngrams; the same is true for ludic versus ludique: apparently ludic is so rare in English that someone on Reddit thought it was a typo).

So we move to point number 2, mastery of idiomatic forms. Well, my English is fairly idiosyncratic… but so is my French! There is a lot of English that got its way into my French, and there are imports from mathematical terminology, from computer terms and geeks' jargon, from memes and private jokes, and so on; I also like to deliberately jump from one level of formality to another, sometimes within the same sentence, just to break expectations about formality; generally speaking, my French is a bizarre mix of everything I can get my hands on, and in a state of permanent redesign. And the same holds true for my English. Sometimes I'm being unidiomatic because I'm not sure what the most common way of phrasing something might be: but often I'm deliberately using an unidiomatic turn of phrase because I like it, because it appeals to my sense of logic or creativity, or simply to piss off grammar nazis. Because no matter how well or how little I speak a language, I always like playing with it. For example, if English has the word insofar, you bet I'm going to feel free to use the analogous question inhowfar (= to what extent), not caring if it's an unidiomatic calque of the German inwiefern (in the same way as insofern corresponds to insofar): I love that German word and there's no way I'm not importing it into my English. Similarly, you bet that if hitherto exists in a temporal sense, you can bet I'm also going to use thitherto and whitherto (or from hencefrom: thencefrom and whencefrom). You get the picture. Anyway, reading this entry will give a broad idea of how I express myself in English.

Can I be idiomatic if I try? To some extent, certainly. How much exactly, I'm not sure. English idiom is a fickle thing, not only does it vary from English-speaking country to English-speaking country but there are so many non-native English speakers who bring their own language's phrases into the mix, that I end up being confused about a great many things, and I wonder if everyone doesn't feel the same. Even more so for English than for French, when I start hesitating about the most idiomatic phrase (e.g., in the circumstances or under the circumstances?), the more I think about it, the more confused I become (and often it turns out that neither dictionaries nor Google Ngrams can offer a clear answer).

Point number 3: regional and social variance? Another tricky one. I'm obsessed with phonetics, and I've spent a lot of time learning from Wells's series of books on The Accents of English, so as far as accents and regional pronunciations go, I think I have a decent grasp of variations — at least as good as the average native English speaker, say: I may not be able to reliably recognize a Scottish accent from an Irish one, but neither, I'm sure, can most Americans.

My own accent is a strange thing. Logically I “should” have a Canadian accent… except, not really. Part of this probably comes from having learned spoken English at the same time as I was learning written English. For example, I didn't acquire the characteristic Canadian raising (viz., the fact that Canadians pronounce the MOUTH and PRICE diphthongs with a first vowel that is distinctly higher = more closed, when the diphthong in question precedes a voiceless consonant, e.g., clout and price have a raised first vowel whereas cloud and prize do not; this is caricatured by Americans describing Canadians as pronouncing about as a boot which is a completely inaccurate depiction); probably because I could see the written form so I understood clout and cloud or price and prize as having the same vowels, so I pronounced them that way. Later on, when I learned about Canadian raising, I made a conscious effort to acquire it, so now I have it, but you could say I have it artificially. This is the trouble about learning about phonetics: you become tempted to alter your own accent, and then you have to decide whither to take it, which is not an easy decision when—as in my case—there is no really obvious “baseline”. A more bizarre example of idiosyncrasies in my pronunciation is the fact that I don't have the Mary–marry–merry merger which Canadian anglophones are supposed to have, and, in a sense, I don't have a specific SQUARE vowel, I think: I pronounce Mary, marry and merry with the FACE, TRAP and DRESS vowels regardless of the following ‘r’; I didn't try to change this because it is useful, in studying phonetics, to have as few mergers as possible, and I made a conscious effort to revert the cot–caught merger that I had (just like, in French, I reverted the brin–brun merger of my native pronunciation). Similarly, I don't have a full for–four merger, which I think Toronto is “supposed to” have. Add to this that there are a number of words which I pronounced “incorrectly”, or, to use a less prescriptivist term, “unusually”, for a very long time, and there are probably still many more: I pronounced bury as it was written until I learned for most people it is homophonous with berry (but later I realized that my father did the same, so it's probably not a result of my having learned spoken English by the time I knew how to write, but rather a family oddity); I pronounced iron as it is written until I learned that the standard pronunciation is as if it were written iorn (but then, there are native English speakers who pronounce iron to rhyme with Byron: former British PM Gordon Brown does this); and until very recently I pronounced year with the NURSE vowel rather than the far more common NEAR vowel. So anyway, my accent is not really from anywhere in particular, it is a mix of a Canadian substrate with a few accidental oddities and a number of geeky decisions to say things in a particular way. That being said, I think I can make at least a passable imitation of an RP accent (that would probably fool most Americans) as well as of a generic American accent; and even if I speak without any conscious effort to imitate this or that accent, native English speakers generally categorize me as a native English speaker (at least judging from the number of people who have asked me, after a short discussion, whether I was American).

A few things along the same lines can be said of my spelling. I consider color and colour, or gray and grey, or center and centre, or disk and disc to be completely interchangeable and equally correct, so I really don't care which one I use; but since whenever I use a spell-checker it is generally configured for American spelling by default, I tend to favor (favour?) that one. For some words I have preferences, though: I like recognize better than recognise but analyse better than analyze.

As for social variance, I can probably get away with saying that it is practically nonexistent in Canada. I can spot a few social variants in British English, but certainly not up to what is described in this remarkable Wikipedia page.

On to point 4, fluent, spontaneous production and comprehension of discourse. As far as comprehension goes, I feel comfortable saying that I understand English, in written or spoken form, just as well as French: I don't think I have any particular difficulty understanding puns or plays on words, for example. As for expressing myself, I'm slightly more at ease in French, but it depends on circumstances. Whenever I try to write something ever-so-slightly poetic, I actually find English even more natural than French, because English always seems to have just the right word: as I wrote in a previous entry, English is a wanton word hoarder with a fetish for the heirlooms of Papa German and Mama French, so if you view the words as the colors on the language's palette, English gives you much more nuance at a cheap price. In the end, if we compare two of my little fragments in which I chose my words with some care and which are in a similar tone, say this one in English and this one in French, I don't think there's much difference (you're allowed to think that I'm a terrible writer, but I contend to being an equally terrible writer in English and in French 😉). But if I don't take the time to choose my words with care, e.g., if I wish to write something long, then I generally find that the sentences flow more easily in French than in English where I'm constantly asking myself wait, is that really idiomatic?; similarly, when speaking English (which I now rarely have the occasion to do), I can clearly feel, at least during the first hour or so, that my English has become rusty and that my thoughts are annoyingly faster than my mouth can process them.

However, there is one important criterion which the Simple English Wikipedia that I copied above does not mention and which, in my mind, is 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 mean: whichever language(s) your inner voice talks in (whether during internal monologue or internal dialogue), barring any deliberate effort to think in a foreign language, is (are) the language(s) you feel “at home” in. And I don't mean which language you dream in: dreaming is something different, I have dreams in German occasionally, but I've never thought in German except as part of a self-inflicted exercise where I deliberately tried to think in German to see how it went (spoiler: it didn't go very well).

Clarification (): I realize that my point in bringing this up is made very unclear by the way I phrased it, so let me elucidate: this “inner voice” criterion is not supposed to supplement or replace the criteria given above for defining a native speaker, but rather, to define a possibly different and IMO more interesting/relevant category of speakers than native ones, namely those whom I might be tempted to call owner speakers, viz., those who sufficienty feel that the language is theirs that they use it to express their own thoughts. That is: I'm not proposing to use the “inner voice” as a way to test whether a speaker is a native speaker, I'm proposing to use these owner speakers instead of native speakers in any study or statement which might have focused on native speakers. A problem with this definition, however, is that not everyone has an “inner voice”, as is pointed to me in the comments and as this unscientific poll illustrates: so a question would be to find a definition which matches (at least reasonably well) for people who do have an inner voice, but which applies to everyone.

And as far as that criterion goes, I think in English about as frequently as I think in French. But it really depends on what I'm thinking about: abstract thought will generally be in English, so when I'm thinking about math, for example, it tends to be in English (except for mental arithmetic!, which I do in French); this is even more true about computers since most of the computer jargon doesn't even exist in French; but thoughts about my daily life are almost invariably in French, e.g., if I'm trying to remember the items in my grocery shopping list, there's no way they will pop in my mind in English (I'm not even sure how one would say something like yaourt nature in English, maybe unflavored yogurt, but such things are virtually nonexistent in North America). For some reason, if I swear because something angers me, the swearing is typically in English (is this because during my childhood I frequently heard my father swear—in English—and almost never my mother?), except if there's someone else around with whom I've been speaking French just before. Also, my erotic thoughts tend to be in English, which is inexplicable given that I didn't read a lot of erotica in English (nor in any language, for that matter).

All of this having been said,—why did I now more or less stop writing blog entries in English?

Ideally, what I would have liked to do is make everything bilingual: write every single entry in both languages. I tried to do this on occasion, and boy is it a pain. First, I just hate translating in general: once my thoughts have taken form in a particular language, the effort to rephrase them in another language, even one I know very well, is considerable, and always leaves me unsatisfied (if I stick to a very literal translation, it sounds profoundly unidiomatic; but if I try to rephrase my thoughts in a more natural way in the target language, then I think, hey, maybe this is a better way of saying it, and I start back-translating it into the formerly-source language, wash, rinse, repeat). Also, by the time I finish writing a blog entry, and often long before I finish, I grow tired of the subject and, having dumped my thoughts to written form, want to move on to something else: rereading them all over again to translate is just way beyond my patience. But there is another factor at play: oftentimes I will make some corrections, additions or various other small changes to previously published entries (whenever they are substantial I will flag them as addition, correction, update or something of the sort, with a timestamp if relevant; but when correcting minor typos or just rephrasing a thought without any substantial change, I simply edit stealthily): keeping several different languages in sync (the translation/update confluence problem, as I like to call it) is exasperatingly tedious. Merely rewriting the tiny blurb displayed at the top of this blog, while keeping it bilingual, has proved amazingly annoying as I made various edits and amendments and changed my mind a few times as to what I was going to say (although, to be honest, part of the difficulty is that I wanted to keep slightly different versions for the recent entries pages, the monthly archive pages, the index of all entries, and the per-category pages). What I think might help making multilingual pages bearable to write is a process of semi-automated translation, where the author offers occasional hints to the automatic translator (embedded inside the HTML text!) as to how a particular word, phrase or sentence is to be translated, while still leaving most of the work to the computer gnomes.

So, full bilingualism being ruled out, what remains?

Well, there are certain entries that I think would be very strange to write in English, because they concern elements of my daily life that I'm really not used to expressing in English, and sometimes don't even know the words for (or the words may not even really exist). Recently I embarked upon the epic tale of getting my motorcycle driver's license and telling all about it through prodigiously boring blog entries: this is about a French license, and while the general categories (e.g., A2) are standardized in the European union, the details of the practical tests aren't (most EU countries would probably have some form of written/theoretical test, then an off-road test and an on-road one, but the specific code, plateau and circulation tests I was talking about were the French ones); and to an American reader the whole thing would have made even less sense. We may think of English as globish, i.e., the world's lingua franca, but for culturally specific facts and items, it would only work as such by importing a large number of terms from the specific culture being referred to. And, symmetrically, these entries would be most likely to interest French people or at least people who understand French (I admit this argument is flaky since about the same time I complained that I found it hard to get information on driver's licenses in other EU countries; but still, if I try to find information about how to get my French driver's license or read accounts of people who got it, I'm going to google in French, not in English).

Now I could still write a mixture of English and French blog entries, writing in French about things in my daily life which are somehow specific to France or the French-speaking world (or French cultural references) or simply about which I more naturally think in French, and in English for more abstract things that aren't tied to a specific culture, e.g., mathematics, philosophy, linguistics. I guess this was my initial (albeit not so precisely articulated) plan. The problem is, it doesn't work so well with the readership; or rather, I believe on the basis of my limited evidence that it doesn't.

Most people aren't fully bilingual. This is the sad reality of the tower of Babel we live in. I spent far too many lines of this blog post trying to discuss (and agonizing over) whether I should consider myself fully bilingual, but most people have a marked preference for reading in their first language, even if they have a decent command of one or more other languages. This I can certainly sympathize with: even though I can read German well enough to understand the meaning of, say, a news article or a Wikipedia page or a typical blog post, it takes effort (and time!): more effort than I'm generally willing to put into it unless I'm quite certain, from the start, that I will get something interesting out of it. A tweet in German I can certainly deal with. An epic 500-page rant about an obscure technical point, the like of which I am wont to write in this blog… not so much. And I suspect the same holds true for many of my readers whose native language is French. (The actual evidence is limited, though, being based mostly on the amount of feedback I got in the comments back in the time when I did write such entries in English.) As for people who speak English better than they speak French, most of them probably speak very little French or none at all, and I suspect most of those would be put off by a blog roughly half of whose entries would be in a language they didn't understand. (Yes, they can always use Google Translate or various other translation tools, but in practice I think the translator's broken syntax and word confusions rapidly become irritating.)

At various points in my blogging history I made an effort to gain a more diverse readership, but these efforts always failed: empirical evidence always pointed to the fact that most of my readers were French, and these people preferred content written in French, while English speakers who did not also understand French fairly well were very difficult to lure into reading my ramblings about Life, the Universe and Everything.

The Right Thing® to do would probably have been to open two separate blogs, one in English and one in French, written in such a way that one could follow just the one, or just the other, or both, and perhaps post a short summary of entries from one into the other, or some such setup. But not only does this require a lot of effort, it also goes against my natural “brain dumping” tendencies: for the same reason that I don't want to separate my blog into a math blog and a non-math blog (or a scientific blog and a non-scientific one, or any like distinction), because my blog is my personal brain dump, full of cross-domain references and links which are part of my overarching sense of Oneness, I also don't want to split my blog entries by language. I care to some extent about my readership (and making their life easier), but only insofar as it doesn't impede my primary brain-dumping mission or require considerable effort on my part.

So you can see the conundrum, and how it got me to write essentially just in French. The only exceptions being entries that for which I have a specific reason for writing in English (like this one) or which would make little sense in French (e.g., my English pronunciation poll), and also my “gratuitous literary fragments” when they sprout in my mind in English (and nobody reads these anyway ☹️).

So far the same phenomenon hasn't happened on Twitter: I still find myself tweeting in both English and French in roughly similar proportion. (Of the tweets I wrote that are not retweets and not replies, roughly 55% were in English, 42% in French, and the remaining 3% other or undecided, based on the language detection by Twitter itself, which may be unreliable; of replies specifically, including self-replies, roughly 40% were in English and 56% in French, with the remaining 4% other or undecided; and of (native) retweets by me, 62% were in English, 32% were in French, and 6% other or undecided.) But I do notice that the number of my followers whom I suspect of being primarily French-speaking seem to outnumber all the others (this is just an overall impression, not based on any precise stats), so maybe things will change. (Already the stats which I gave in this paragraph suggest that, while I try to start conversations and share content more frequently in English, I get dragged into conversations in French more often than in English.)

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