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Talking to myself in French calms me down as the new normal settles in.
“Stay home and avoid unnecessary travel.”
Ce n’est pas si mal. Chez moi c’est tranquil.
“It’s not that bad. My house is chill.”
“We have to let you go until further notice.”
J’avais besoin de faire une pause quand même.
“I needed a break anyway.”
Getting laid-off from my first, real writing job (after 5 days), it took me a second to regain my composure.
I was in the pharmacy section of Walmart. Scanning the rows for sinus medicine, my phone rang. My editor never called without asking if I was available to chat. I drew in a breath — between sneezing fits from pollen — and answered politely.
Whenever anyone begins with “this conversation isn’t going to be easy,” there’s going to be some emotions, especially when you’ve pushed yourself beyond full-time hours and because being in Walmart is the last place you want to be when you get fired.
All of a sudden, the world felt so different.
But rationalizing in my second language helped me to interpret the changes more sensibly.
My second language tones down my pandemic anxiety by keeping me informed about multiple angles of the situation, and, of course, allowing me to stay in touch with friends overseas.
When I started thinking about how people who speak more than one language could experience the pandemic differently, I polled my friends on my Instagram account to test the theory. Some people mentioned their open-mindedness in being able to tap into new feelings between two languages, while others did little in the way of masking their optimism and summed it up in one word: depression.
Can your native language trigger anxiety spikes?
Can you depend on your second language to escape noisy opinions and depressing predictions about the world?
What are the different realities for bi/multilinguals as the pandemic forces us to adapt to unprecedented foreignness?
These questions bubbled in my mind for weeks.
Why Certain Words “Feel” More Intense Than Others
For background research, I contacted a Professor of Language, Communication, and Cultural Cognition at the University of York. She explained how physiological responses change when bilingual speakers hear words in their native and second languages.
Dr. Majid cited a 2003 Boston University study where native speakers elicited a higher response to words with emotional connotations such as reprimands and taboos (Harris, 562). The researchers explored how aversive, or unpleasant, words like death caused participants to report a higher level of anxiety in their native language.
On the other hand, the study also found that speakers felt more comfortable saying taboo words in their non-native tongue.
Dr. Majid’s explanations help me make sense of the reason it’s easier to talk about un décès de personne atteinte du Covid-19 in French than “a death caused by Covid-19” in English.
Reading about Covid-19 news in French, I walk away feeling informed, like I’ve done my duty in keeping up with global news; reading about Covid-19 in English, my heart drops into my gut, and panic washes over me. I tell myself that someone I know is next and they’ll become another statistic in the media.
Different Realities In Different Languages
English is my everyday language. During the pandemic, I use English at the grocery store and online to read the news. I survive because of the English language. It seems pretty self-explanatory as I write this, but there are hidden implications when I consider that French doesn’t perform the same functions in my life as English does. Of course, this has to do with where I live — an American majority — but perhaps my French isn’t as useless as I thought in a situation such as a pandemic.
For one, now that staying home is the norm, I’m more accountable for noticing when my anxiety starts to spiral. Millions of people understand the symptoms: chest tightness, immobility, and recourse to doomsday thoughts and hopelessness. The medical symptoms aside, it’s easier to translate anxiety in these terms: someone’s stuffing a couch cushion into my lungs, and oh my god, how much helium can my brain withstand?
In the past few weeks, my emotions ricocheted back-and-forth; reliable guidelines about the virus trickled out at a snail-slow rate.
I applied for unemployment benefits and checked in with the IRS about the status of my stimulus check — all in English.
Navigating through poorly-designed government databases and confusing instructions, I wondered how difficult it must be for non-native English speakers in the United States.
Trying and struggling to fill out forms that don't make much sense in English, it must be twice as hard for people who don't have a native-level fluency.
A counterargument to the positive use of a second language is that beginner-level skills may not be helpful for everyone during a crisis.
It would be a matter of uneasiness for those trying to translate unemployment benefit applications with poor English reading skills. With little information available in Spanish — at least in South Carolina — applying for unemployment may be an obstacle for people who speak English as a second language.
Rationalizing And Keeping Calm In My Second Language
This insight makes me realize how being bilingual may be a privilege during the pandemic — a privilege because I use French for entertainment and distraction — nonetheless, a skill that I’ve nurtured and worked at for eight years.
I’m grateful for my second language now more than ever.
French swooped in during the pandemic to help me deal with anxiety.
It’s a pastime that I don’t have to feel guilty about.
Reading social media updates from the Château de Versailles or flipping through old college notes about Baudelaire in literature qualifies a skill that I'm confident about. Days and weeks of feeling unproductive during the stay at home mandate are less stressful knowing I can pick up French and fall into its culture.
There is a German word that sums up a lot of people’s concerns right now: freizeitstress, which means “free-time stress or stress related to one’s leisure time.”
In English, this feeling is best translated to “restlessness” or “cabin fever,” but moving between languages reveals a curious phenomenon.
Emotions are often untranslatable.
As Dr. Majid explains, bilingual speakers “can struggle to find an exact equivalent of an emotion word if they have to convey their experience from one language to the other.”
This happens to me all the time.
I’ll jot down thoughts in French, sit up, and reread the words wondering who wrote them. Me? I sound like another person. The tone reads enlightened, blissfully confident.
Compare this to the English thoughts on the other side of the page, the words sigh in downtrodden resolve to another day in Covid-19 crisis.
Detach Yourself From Panicky Emotions
The perks of thinking, writing, and speaking in French during this experience keep me grounded; my writing advances, French eBooks sustain my reading skills, and my daily translation challenges work my French language muscles.
All the downtime I’ve had in the past two months reminds me to stay focused on my language goals.
There’s an excellent guide called Write in Another Language: 10 Easy Steps by Helena Halme. The author is Finnish and writes novels in English. She advocates writing in a second language as an effective tactic to add emotional distance and foster a unique writer’s voice.
The emotional detachment the author talks about is interesting when I look at my journal entries. I alternate between English and French. While the entries feature similar topics, there are noticeable differences in tone and word choice.
For instance, in French, I write:
“Le monde traverse un temps difficile mais on fait ce qu’on peut faire pour nos proches.”
My English translation:
“The world is going through tough times but we’re doing what we can for our loved ones.”
Rereading the second sentence, my emotions flare-up more than they do in the French version. I picture my family more vividly in my native language than in my second language, naturally, because those are feelings I’ve absorbed as a part of my American identity.
But switching to French, a second identity takes shape. I’m collected, rational, and less prone to doubt and fear.
It’s exactly what I need, a lifeline to hold on to level headed thoughts and sensible emotions.
Language is Such a Powerful Tool
It’s funny that the limitations of my not being a native French speaker are, for now, an advantage. They say ignorance is bliss, so maybe the communication barrier of not knowing certain words means I can’t feel their meaning as intensely as I would in English.
I wrote this blog post in the hope that other language nerds (like me) can realize how powerful communication is during unforeseen changes.
If your native language feels like an obstacle in the way of your well-being, take a second to remind yourself of what you know versus what you don’t know. Calm down, think about the facts, and set your anxious emotions to the side… in another language! You have a unique ability to magically turn on this skill, so use it for the better.
And if you want to tell me how you’re doing with everything, reach out to me. I’m interested to learn from other people and about their language development.
Harris, Catherine, et al. “Taboo words and reprimands elicit greater autonomic reactivity in a first language than in a second language.” Applied Psycholinguistics, vol. 24, 2003, pp. 561-579.