Bilingualism and Other Passionate Diseases

MizubayashiAkira Mizubayashi: Une langue venue d’ailleurs (A Language From Somewhere Else)

‘This is too semblant to others.’ ‘There is no good explication for that.’ ‘I got 19 on 20 for my French test, I’m such an intello!’ are sentences my children regularly come up with, while I patiently try to correct their English. (I’ve given up – temporarily – on improving their Romanian.) But I remember I used to speak a mix of languages (within the same sentence) when I was a child. It hasn’t stopped me from being able to enjoy watching films, reading, conversing in each of those languages (separately) as a grown-up.

Besides, languages are much more than a practical tool. They represent the gateway to a different culture and mindset. Which has always been one of the most enticing things in the universe to me: learning how others think, why they behave in a certain way, what they believe, what they hold dear… How can it get any more interesting than that?

Japanese writer and professor of French Akira Mizubayashi seems to share my fascination with language as an entrance point to a whole new culture. Except, in his case, he accessed it of his own free will at the age of 19 – thanks to a passion for Rousseau and Mozart’s Susanna in the Marriage of Figaro. Much more admirable than all those multilingual children out there, as it’s so much harder to learn a new language at an advanced age.

This book documents his journey into French culture: his years spent recording French lessons on the radio and playing them over and over, imitating the accent and tonality; his first study trip abroad in Montpellier and his awkward attempts at making polite conversation; meeting his French wife; attempting to raise their own daughter with both languages. But it’s much more than an autobiography. It is a declaration of love to the French language and a fond remembrance of some of his favourite teachers. It is also a highly readable, personal way of presenting the rather dry subject we had to study at university: theory of linguistics. Thirdly, it is also an elegant meditation on language and identity, with the author finally admitting that he is both at home and yet a stranger in both languages.


However, what I enjoyed most were those little nuggets of insight which made me smile. For instance, Mizubayashi remarks how much French conversation relies on vocative appellative expressions, i.e. ‘mon petit chou’, ‘mon poussin’, ‘ma poule’, mon grand’, ‘mon vieux’ and all of those other terms of endearment sprinkled liberally in a conversation with friends. I might add that even in formal contexts, on the radio, I hear this direct address: ‘Sachez que…. mesdames – messieurs’. It’s also considered somewhat abrupt and rude to enter a boulangerie or post office and just say ‘Bonjour’ instead of ‘Bonjour, madame or monsieur’. The author contrasts that with the Japanese language, where you almost avoid naming the other person, by deleting the ‘I’ or ‘you’ from the dialogue (it is implied in the verb forms). The relationship between two speakers in Japanese strikes him as two beings who sit side by side and look at a landscape together, while in France they would sit in front of each other and address each other.

This book managed to sneak into my TBR pile but I am so glad it did. Mizubayashi writes like a Frenchman, but he observes like an outsider. An anthropological and linguistic treat, a must for anyone struggling with bilingualism, as well as a fun memoir!



24 thoughts on “Bilingualism and Other Passionate Diseases”

  1. Struggling with bilingualism? Replace bi- with tri- and that’s a struggle. Horrible quand tu cherches un mot dans une phrase et tu ne le trouves dans aucune langue. Mehrsprachige Sätze versuche ich zu vermeiden.

    1. Hee, hee… You should see me with plant and bird names. I know each of them (vaguel) in each of the languages, but can never translate them from one to the other. Beech? hêtre? Buche? Fag? Whatever! Some kind of tree with light-coloured wood…

      1. Add different sexes for nouns. Why is a car in French female and in German a neuter. Some rivers are male and others are female. Milk, male in French (?), female in German.

  2. That really must have been an interesting book, Marina Sofia! And it shows clearly that just learning the words of a language is not enough to really understand either it or the people who speak it. All languages are situated in culture. So learning a language is learning its culture, and vice versa. I find those insights fascinating.

    Oh, and about code mixing (using more than one language in the same sentence)? Studies show that it’s a very common (not to say effective) tool for negotiating communication, especially if one is not fluent in one (or perhaps both) of those languages. Like yourself, most people who code mix do learn to use both languages fluently.

    1. In my trilingual household, language mixing is usually due to some words that seem to belong more to a language than to another. Examples: 1) Where is the colapasta? 2) Qualcuno ha finito gli Haferflocken! 3) Mein Bruder [name omitted] ist ein people person.

      PS I bought the book.

      1. Haferflocken – goodness, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to translate it into other languages… sounds so apt in German, you’re right! My mother (whose German is not great) persists in calling raisins ‘Rosinen’, to the point where she has forgotten the Romanian name for them!

  3. This sounds an absolute delight. Sadly, I’m one of those useless monolingual British people but I admire those of you who are able to slip in and out of different languages. Have you read Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation? She writes so eloquently about losing her native language when she moved from Poland to Canada as a teenager

    1. That’s a good tip – thank you. I have heard of that book, but haven’t come across it yet. Ah, well, soon I will find books in English far more easily…

  4. Fascinating post Marina. My sister is fluent in Irish as well as English and used to always find Irish words much more descriptive in certain situations.

    1. Absolutely! I find swearing much more refreshing and imaginative in German than in English; and really struggle to swear in Romanian, almost impossible for me – perhaps because it is too graphic.

        1. I only studied it for three years in school and found it incredibly difficult. She had a flair and did Irish at University and worked for an Irish Language TV company. She lives in New Zealand now so I’m not sure how fluent she is anymore but my Irish only stretches to a few phrases!

  5. I’ve never had that problem as the only other language I’ve had anything to do with was French at school – I was pretty good then but it’s slipped. However, some of my children were doing two languages at once at high school, often French and Spanish, and they did get confused on a regular basis….

    1. Ah, when languages are as similar as Spanish and French, it can be even more of a problem. I sometimes pretend to speak Italian, but it’s really Romanian with a bit of a melodic cadence to it and some Mamma mias thrown in for good measure!

  6. The book sounds excellent, a timely read given everything that’s going on right now. Have you ever read any of Diego Marani’s books? If not, I think you might enjoy them – they all explore the theme of language in slightly different ways.

  7. It makes me curious about what he says about the French culture and the difference with the Japanese culture through the language angle. I struggle with Japanese lit, perhaps it would help me. What do you think?

  8. I now got my copy of the book. I just started it and found the excellent “Heureusement on peut choisir sa langue, ou ses langues”. I’m looking forward to reading the rest. Thank you!

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