Helen or Hélène. The actual quote that touched me is "few language users are poets.""/> InCultureParent | How Francois Grosjean Broke My Multilingual Heart

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Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

How Francois Grosjean Broke My Multilingual Heart


Francois Grosjean broke my heart with an article he wrote recently, “Helen or Hélène.”

The actual quote that touched me was not from him but from Uriel Weinreich, who was a language researcher in the U.S. It goes “few language users are poets.”

The idea is that if you are multilingual, you are trying to be more efficient with your communication. Based on whom you are communicating with, situation or other factors, you will use whatever language best gets your point across. Kind of a real-life example of “function over form.”

Hm… so what if you are writing for a blog? Or if back in the days when you were monolingual, you really appreciated beautifully crafted text? Is it possible that because you are now multilingual, your ability to communicate with style has actually suffered? Is your head so full of languages that you are not able to excel in any of them? That is quite a frustrating thought. And it touches a deep-lying fear that I didn’t even know I had!


Thinking about it now, I did worry about my German in the recent past. The two issues I saw were code-switching (or rather failure not to) and situations where I used slightly inappropriate language.

When I am speaking with Germans, I often find myself using words borrowed from English and French. I am sure this annoys the heck out of them and makes me sound like a pretentious idiot, but I can’t help it–it’s how I speak now.

Most multilinguals code-switch in their daily life. As Francois Grosjean points out, one reason is that we pick up language for new life circumstances as we live through them. I never needed to learn language describing all aspects of being a parent while I was in Germany. And my vocabulary around buying a house is entirely English because we bought a house in the U.K.

To aggravate things, we do not speak a common language at home. While I speak German with my daughters and some colleagues, my communication is dominated by French and English (not sure which one is more present, actually). Plus, I basically code-switch all the time, because most people around me do understand and it just is more efficient.

I’m afraid I have very little motivation currently to develop any of my languages. This strikes me as a terrible thing! I used to love language and playing with it. I used to be a snob about it, to be honest. I used to have a fairly good active vocabulary. My mother used to run a bookshop and I read pretty much everything she brought home. I rarely had to look up grammar and I conservatively decided to stick with the old rules when Germany adopted new spelling and grammar rules in 2006. Yeah, that snob.

These days I find myself in business meetings rummaging through memory in search of the appropriate thing to say. I often feel I am lacking a certain finesse. I have at times said completely inappropriate things because I just couldn’t remember a sophisticated way of saying what I had to say.

It’s not bad news, of course. I didn’t actually lose anything. I merely shifted my attention to foreign languages. What I lack in refinement in German, I can easily make up for with an eclectic English vocabulary. Every German word lost, I replaced with a French or an English term, sometimes both.

So can I get my German back?

I think I can. It will involve reading more German books and more importantly using my German more often. I have to write more too, I suppose. And the more I write, the better I’ll be at it. Nothing beats experience.

You can read Francois Grosjean’s response to this article here: www.incultureparent.com/2012/01/francois-grosjean-responds-cherishing-the-multilingual-heart-not-breaking-it/

© 2011 – 2013, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

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Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

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1 Comment
  1. CommentsFrançois Grosjean Responds: Cherishing the Multilingual Heart….Not Breaking It | InCultureParent   |  Sunday, 29 January 2012 at 5:25 pm

    […] the end of last year, the title of a post by Jan Petersen on InCultureParent caught my attention: “How Francois Grosjean Broke My Multilingual Heart.” I was troubled at first as I have defended bi- and multilinguals most of my academic life, […]

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