“If I’m in Australia, having people around me speaking English makes me more comfortable speaking in English as well…when I was growing up hearing my mum speak English to me at home I hated it, because I felt so French. I hated her speaking to me in English.”

I sat down with my flatmate – a 22-year-old bilingual female born in France, raised by a French father and an Australian mother. In 2015 she moved to Sydney indefinitely to study and then work. I wanted to gain more of an understanding of how she felt living in an environment dominated by English speakers when she had spent a good part of her life living in Paris, surrounded by French speakers.

The people that will be mentioned throughout the post and the languages they speak:

  • Myself: monolingual (English)
  • B (my flatmate/interviewee): bilingual (French/Australian), proficient in Spanish
  • B’s mother: first language is English, fluent in French and German
  • B’s father: first language is French, limited English
  • B’s brother: bilingual (French/Australian)
  • C (our previous flatmate): first language is French, second language is English, proficient in Spanish
  • D (our current flatmate): monolingual (English)

It was really interesting in interviewing B to notice recurring references to identity and image based on the languages she speaks in different environments. As a bilingual speaker, adapting to an environment dominated by English speakers was a somewhat easier process than it would’ve been for someone like C who only speaks English as a second language. I think the difficulty, however, was in her ability to continue to speak French comfortably in the home environment where not all members of the household knew the language.

Me: How about speaking a language not commonly known by others in the home? How did that feel for you?

B: I felt uncomfortable about it because I felt like it was rude for us to have you in the room and for you to not understand what we were saying. I think it’s better now that I don’t speak French at home anymore because I was scared that you were going to feel excluded in some way because you can’t be part of the conversation.

Me: How would you feel if that was reversed? If other people were speaking a language in the home that you didn’t know?

B: I would hate it. I would constantly be scared that they were talking about me.

It was interesting to learn that even in the home environment, B was uncomfortable speaking in French when I was present and I couldn’t understand the language. Even though she could more naturally communicate with C in French, she felt more comfortable speaking to her in English to ensure that all three of us understood what was being said.

We then went on to discuss what evidence of the French language remains in our household now that C has moved out and D has moved in. It’s a completely different linguistic environment because English is now the only language spoken, apart from when B is speaking to friends and family back home.

“B: I think pretty much everything is in English. Every show that I watch, every movie that I watch is in English. You guys speak English, ads that I see outside are in English. People that I talk to in stores are in English. My computer’s in French but I don’t even think about that anymore. But my phone’s in English.”

Upon hearing this I realised how easy it was for me to notice that B’s computer was in French, and that sometimes she’ll use French subtitles for English shows. This probably comes down to the fact that I only know English, so seeing and hearing words in French seems unnatural to me. For B, however, it’s often just a blur of the two languages. When she speaks to her mum on the phone, she will usually talk to her in French and her mum will respond in English. This is another thing that D and I are very aware of, but seems to go almost unnoticed by B.

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Laptop set up in French

 

TV show with English dialogue viewed with French subtitles
iPhone set up in English

To wrap things up, we spoke about her identity in a few different linguistic circumstances.

“B: If I’m in Australia, having people around me speaking English makes me more comfortable speaking English as well. Things have evolved, so when I was growing up hearing my mum speak English to me at home I hated it, because I felt so French and I was like “why do you speak to me in English? I don’t want people to think I’m a tourist, I want people to know that I’m French”. I hated her speaking to me in English. Now that I’m here [in Australia], when I go back [to France] I’m okay with her speaking English to me. But I still hate being in an environment where other people are speaking one language and we’re speaking in a different language. I’d rather speaking French in France, English in Australia.”

However when B’s family came to visit her in Australia late last year, they stayed in their own private house and she had no issues with speaking French every day. This led me to assume that perhaps the identity issue here was not one to do with B’s physical location and what that meant for her linguistic choices, but rather the people that she is interacting with and her desire to fit in with those people, whether it is within the walls of a household or in a public space.

“B: I think I’m just scared of what people think. I don’t want people to think I’m from overseas. I want people to think I belong here.”

Meg Anderson

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