Panos Athanasopoulos wrote beautifully about bilingualism in April 2015 in The Guardian Weekly, a piece that moved me to write my first public love-letter and reflect on the language of love.
I spent six months in France to immerse myself in a culture I have loved forever and a language I haven’t spoken for 35 years. The mental workout your brain derives from travelling back and forth between two languages can be likened to the beneficial physical effects of regular visits to the gym: increased flexibility, stamina and occasionally the overwhelming desire to have a lie down and a sleep afterwards.
The mental gymnastics of learning French are not just about vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.
They are about observing the societal niceties of the spoken language. There’s a little verb called ‘tutoyer’: to use the familiar form of address ‘tu‘ meaning ‘you’. To ‘vouvoyer‘ is to either address more than one person regardless of the level of the speaker’s familiarity or to address someone formally. The rules for crossing over from one form to the other are hard to convey and highly personal to each individual. They are also a source of anxious preoccupation on the part of students of the French language.
I was thinking about this the other day after a 3-way phone call to my son and his partner. When it came time to sign off I found myself in a minor dilemma. I am a fan of the L-word, said out loud and often to those that I’m fondest of. Of recent times this circle has widened. This is not just due to the physical distance between us. It’s also because I have allowed myself to acknowledge the love I feel for people other than immediate family. This includes the partners of my children.
Signing off the phone call with ‘Love you’ doesn’t quite cut it in English.
The Australian equivalent of ‘Love youse’ would do the trick, but from 16000 kilometres away I didn’t want them thinking I was joking! The French phrase Je vous aime leaves no doubt in the minds of the listeners that they are all being included, but I hesitated to use it. My nearest and dearest have labelled as pretentious my habit of throwing French phrases like confetti into all my verbal and written utterances. This has been going on long before my time in France. Pretentious? Moi? In the end I settled for ‘Love you guys’ – and followed it with a 3-word text message:
Je vous aime.