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Saturday, January 1, 2011

French: a Passport or a Citadel?

“For any speaker of it, a given language is at once either more or less his own  or more or less someone  else’s, and either more or less cosmopolitan or more or less parochial - a borrowing or a heritage;  a passport or a citadel.  The question of whether, when, and for what purposes to use it is thus also a question of how far a people should form itself by the bent of its genius and how far by the demand of its times.”
Clifford Geertz
The Interpretation of Cultures
My Frenchlings are bi-lingual by birth;  I am bi-lingual by choice.
When I arrived in France in 1989 I was a mono-lingual American who had taken French classes in high school and university but who was incapable upon arriving in Paris of ordering a baguette in a bakery.  Surviving a job interview was out of the question.  Writing the thank you notes after my wedding was pure torture.  My first job was with an NGO in Paris where the working language was English.
At the time I perceived French as this enormous hurdle I would have to overcome to be able to function normally in this country.  Today I see French as the vehicle, my passport, through which I can move freely though worlds I never knew existed.   This poem by Robert Desnos, for example, which has the power to move me to tears every time I read it: 
Or the excellent novel, Les Bienveillantes by Jonathon Littell which had such terrible reviews in the Anglo-Saxon press that I questioned  the competence of the English translator.
Beyond the world of the arts, French has made friendships and business relationships possibIe in places far beyond the borders of the Hexagone.  Every day, I meet,  work and study with people from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.  It was in French that I discovered Quebec, Canada.  It was French that gave a new dimension to my all too brief relationship with my French-speaking great-grandmother, Celestine Amans.
And if that were not sufficient reason to make me a proud Francophone, here are three more I came up with over my morning coffee:  
Primo - it is the most beautifully precisely imprecise language I have ever encountered.  Why do you think it was the language of diplomacy for so many years?  
Secundo - its demise has been greatly exaggerated and it is more widely spoken than many people think with more than 200+ million native and bi-lingual speakers.
Tertio - since I do speak it, I feel I own a part of it even if I am not French. 
The citadel (the Academie Francaise) be damned - a language is living thing that is lovingly created and re-created every day by those of us who use it.  All of us:  African, American and European.  

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