People’s personalities come across differently in different languages. At least I noticed this when I began to speak in French with French friends whom I’d first known in English, and I would detect something true regarding their individual character when they expressed themselves in their native tongue, something that had escaped me before.
A couple of months after my arrival in Paris, I spent a weekend in Montpellier, the bustling medieval-era university town that anchors the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France. I was invited by my friend Gilles, a professor of French linguistics who taught at the University of Montpellier (he now teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris), and his companion, Michel, who leads the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.
I’d met both of them through my friend Edmund White, when I’d stayed for a few weeks with Ed at a house that he’d rented for the summer in the Maritime Alps, an hour or so north of Nice. Gilles and Michel had stopped there for the night on their way to catch a ferry in Marseilles for their vacation on Corsica, where Michel had relatives.
This was a few years before I’d begun learning the French language and living part of the year in France. So we all spoke English. Gilles had taught in the United States, and his English was decent, and so was that of Michel, who traveled frequently to English-speaking countries for his work.
Ed referred to them as “serious but fun” people, which is how I saw them, though the serious side seemed to carry more weight then with them.
One night after dinner, as night lengthened and stars began to spread across the sky (in a part of France untainted by light pollution), Gilles and Michel asked me to accompany them for a hillside stroll to observe the constellations.
As we maneuvered the shifting gradations along the rocky paths around the house, they chatted in French to each other and then either Michel or Gilles, realizing that I’d been left out, would repeat their comments to me in English, an approximation of what they’d said to each other in French. They were as inclusive as you could be, considering that their default language was one I didn’t comprehend.
One of them would point at a region of the sky and they would discuss, in all earnestness, where Jupiter and Venus were in relation to each other after sunset, and where to spot Saturn. My knowledge of planetary positions or alignments was as negligible as my French, so I simply listened, keen to the tone of their conversation, in which naming the planet and spotting the astral grouping was important business. It wasn’t pretentious, far from it, but instead demonstrated the kind of solemn playfulness in which serious-minded, academically inclined people might indulge at the start of a vacation.
Some three years later, I met up with them again, this time in Montpellier, two months after I had begun to study French. With the eagerness of a star pupil, I asked them if they would mind if we spoke French. (More accurately, if they would indulge my wish to try to speak to them in their language.) Over dinner at an open-air restaurant in the old part of the city, I was surprised, and even delighted, to find that in French, Michel seemed so much more lighthearted than I’d remembered him. Less academic, perhaps, and more carefree.
I’d spoken and seen Gilles a few times before that, and to me he seemed to have the same donnish whimsy in both languages. But I noticed that he too let his guard down from time to time in French, making a few somewhat ribald comments here and there, the kind that I’d never heard him attempt in English.
Something similar occurred to me with my friend Daniel, whom I had also met in English. He encouraged me to speak French with him in France, and as my French improved, I could see that his manner of expression was, naturally, more subtle in French than in English. In speaking of his work helping disadvantaged youth through teaching martial arts, Daniel had sometimes waxed rather philosophical in both languages. In French, however, close observations regarding character or situation were more evident than what I remember him saying in English. This is normal, of course. He could be his philosophical self in France, while his philosophical self struggled, just a little, in a language that he had not grown up speaking.
I’m not sure if people whom you meet in a language that isn’t their own hold back in terms of letting you know something more about them, either through cultural reticence, linguistic shyness or a self-imposed barrier that prevents them from expressing themselves as they are. We may not be in control of how we say what we mean when we don’t know exactly what it is we mean to say in another language. Or we may know what we want to say but we can’t arrive at expressing it.
I’m not sure exactly how I come across in French to French-speaking people who knew me first in English. I haven’t asked. I’m less likely to jump into the middle of a conversation with French friends than English-speaking ones, although I do participate more and more in French. I just don’t contribute with the same offhandedness as I do in English. I’m getting better at it in French, however, and I think my friends here sense this too.
One of my happiest memories in learning French came about a year ago when a friend of mine, also named Gilles, said to me after dinner at restaurant with two other friends, “You’re getting dangerous, you know. You’re now making jokes at our expense in French.”