You’ve all heard about the enlightening benefits of raising a bilingual child. However, I have found in the past six months that being a bilingual person can lead to frequent existential crises and periods of self-doubt.
Remember Freshers’ Week? Typically, the first question anyone asked, after your name, would be ‘Where are you from?’. This isn’t the type of question you would spend ages discussing. For me, however, every time I answered ‘My name is Margo. I’m from France’, I would be looked at with confusion. ‘But where’s your French accent?’
I would then have to explain its absence, and why my English sounded so neutral. The French International School where I pursued my entire education would always pop up in conversation. I’d also have to point out how my parents who met via ERASMUS in the 90s, ended up raising three bilingual children, and having their respective families divided between the Channel. This would somehow justify how I ended up in a British university.
Before coming to Durham, I had never questioned my upbringing, as I had always been surrounded by friends that knew two, three, four languages and had families spread across the globe. However, as I started this new chapter, I could not help but question myself. Amongst people that had solely been born, raised in the United Kingdom or in another country, I doubted my English-ness. Amongst the group of international students who longingly discussed how nostalgic and homesick they were, missing their home countries, I didn’t feel international enough. Then again, when most of my close friends would easily head back to their homes across England, painful bouts of homesickness would hit me.
This sense of ‘not-belonging’ perpetuated itself as I started the new academic year. In my language classes, I struggled to keep up with the students who had received an education in Britain, as for the past six years I’d been translating from French to Italian and French to Spanish. Having to do the opposite became more complicated than I’d ever imagined, and I’d sometimes find myself cursing the education I’d received. When my Art History teachers noticed that my essays sounded French, I felt ashamed of the lengthy, Proustian phrases that I’d been drilled into writing by the French educational system. Was I more French, and could I say that I was authentically English, like my birth certificate showed? And in the end, where did I belong?
This uncomfortable feeling of unworthiness made me go back to this French expression which curiously has the same literal translation in English: ‘avoir le cul entre deux chaises’, or to be ‘caught between two stools’. My older brother, who graduated from a British University and went to work in Germany, had mentioned this expression countless times since he as well had battled with this internal monologue. He now finds that informing new relations of where he has lived in the past is a no-fuss answer to his multicultural background.
Personally, I still find it difficult to answer this question for myself: I have come to terms with the frustration by accepting I will never fit in one category. I will nevertheless be eternally grateful for having been raised in an environment where bilingualism and interculturalism were omnipresent, and never questioned. In the end, this is what I have learnt from an international education: as Seneca reminds us, ‘non scholae, sed vitae discimus’. We learn not for school, but for life.
Image: Département des Yvelines via Flickr