Before returning to Paris for work almost four years ago, I kept my French in my back pocket. I pulled it out when I needed it, but kept Italian as my “main” foreign language for over 10 years. Nowadays, I have to juggle both French and Italian, and on a daily basis. I speak to my beau and my colleagues in French, I speak to my friends in Florence in Italian, and I write in English. It might not sound that difficult, but being fluent in two foreign languages is like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. It takes concentration, effort, and a bit of fumbling around.
I try to keep things organized by speaking French when I am in France and Italian when I am in Italy. Of course, I speak a little bit of English, but usually only to native English speakers. I also generally pick a language per person and stick with it. I speak to my beau in French, for example.
What is odd to me is that just a few days before my departure (in either direction), the foreign language that I pushed aside decides it’s time to come out and play. Just the other day, an Italian word popped out while I was talking to my beau. I don’t know why the Italian word came to me when the French one wasn’t missing. For the entire time I was in Paris, it never happened. It only occurs when I’m about to take off.
The airport is the most difficult place for me because I have to try to pick a language for each person and stick to it. Today when I went to the ticket counter, I said “bonjour” to the woman before handing her my ticket and Italian carta d’identità (identity card). Sometimes when I show a person my carta d’identità, he/she assumes that I don’t speak French. Then, we both end up stumbling through a sentence because it’s unclear who speaks what.
Afterwards when I went to the security area and was placing my things in different containers on the conveyer belt, the guy asked in French to see my boarding pass and Italian carta d’identità. I barely blurted out “bonjour” to him before he started speaking to me in English. I was completely lost all of a sudden. I wasn’t expecting him to speak to me in English so I responded in a mix of Italian and French. The last word I said to him was, “grazie.”
It takes me at least a day to completely switch over to one of my foreign languages. I’m like a fish that has to flop on one side or the other. I can’t speak both at the same time and certainly not in the same sentence. It’s much easier when there is just one language per person. My brain seems to manage that more easily. I can handle speaking to someone in my mother tongue and a foreign language, but if I have to mix two foreign languages, I’ll certainly be groping my way around the conversation.
Some people ask me if I want to learn another foreign language, but I always joke that my brain can’t handle another one. And while I’m certain I could learn another language, it’s being able to keep the other two (French and Italian) still strong that would be tricky. Like a juggler who juggles two balls in the air, the third one might not be too difficult, but a fourth requires even greater skill and practice.
For me, speaking another language isn’t just about being able to communicate with someone else; it’s about going deeper into the culture and mindset of the people around me. I love being able to understand people better which in turn allows me to understand myself better too. And even though I have to juggle French and Italian in my head, it’s so worth the few moments of fumbling around to communicate with my friends and loved ones.
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