The Language of Trauma

I was a very late bloomer when it came to talking. If you believe my mum, I did not start speaking until I was almost three. I apparently had too many other things to do, like climbing fences to jump into pools and running away on supermarket car parks (both of which happened on several separate occasions). Clearly, words were not my priority back then.

French is my first language, and for almost nine years, it was the only language I could speak. In my second-to-last year of primary school, I was given the option to start learning a foreign language. It was the first time they were going to offer to teach languages to our year – up until then, only pupils in their last year of primary school had been allowed to learn a language. I was very excited – my older brother, who is two years older than me but was only a year ahead in school, would be starting at the same time. I have always been very competitive, and I loved the idea that there would be one thing in which we would both be at the same level. We did not have much choice, our school only offered English and German. My brother picked English. Because I was a very contrary child, and I had heard that German was much harder to learn, I chose German. Twenty years later, I still cannot resist a challenge.

I loved German lessons that first year. Because so few of us had chosen German (English was the overwhelmingly popular choice), we were all together, last-year pupils and younger ones like me. I was having lessons with some of my brother’s friends, and I felt like I had finally reached his level. To be honest, I had even surpassed him – German was harder, so I had basically won. I loved German, but my parents were pushing me to switch to English, as they believe it would be much more useful.

At the end of that first year, I made the choice to quit German and start English instead. That would mean that I would be behind the other pupils when school started again in September – they already had one year of English under their belt, and I did not.

I do not know if I had a gift for languages back then or if it was my competitive spirit shining again, but after a few months, my level of English matched the ones of my friends. By the end of the year, I had won the English language challenge set by the school, and was given my very first French/English dictionary as a prize. I put it on a bookshelf at home, and did not pick it up again for years.

In secondary school France, you usually study only one foreign language for the first two years, and then start a second foreign language in your third year. The secondary school I went to offered to study two foreign languages (English and German) from your first year – it was part of a short-lived attempt at getting more French people to study German. My brother had only studied English (with the aim of picking up Spanish in his third year), so I obviously decided I would outdo him and join the double-language course.

For years, my German and English were pretty much on par with each other. When we had to declare a ‘main’ foreign language, I chose English, encouraged by my parents. I liked English classes, but it was not until my first year of the equivalent of sixth form that I truly fell in love with it. I had an amazing teacher that year, who was in his very first year of teaching English. He had a passion for the language, and for making us read and write, instead of asking us to learn grammar and lists upon lists of words. I started reading in English, first books and then way too many Harry Potter fanfictions.

That year, I decided that, despite having chosen a science-laden course in sixth form, I wanted to pursue arts and literature at uni, and more specifically English (by that time, my German had become much weaker). After graduating, I chose a language course and, one thing leading to another, I ended up with a master’s degree in translation, with a very marked preference for English.

Two days after my course ended, I moved to the UK and started my new job within a week. Since then, my English has improved a lot (at least I would like to think so), and has replaced French as the language I am most comfortable in.

I do not consider myself bilingual. I think you can only be truly bilingual if you grow up surrounded by two languages, and learn to use them at the same time, so you have similar relationships with both languages. I grew up learning French and for year, English was a language that only applied to specific contexts, like classes, work and dissertations.

I started dreaming in English halfway through uni, but it was always in dreams with an English background. I would dream of something happening in the UK, or in English class, etc. It was not until a couple of years after I moved to the UK that English became the language that I think in. When I talk to myself (and trust me, that happens a lot), it is now usually in English. I swear in English, I cry in English, I work in English. I read almost exclusively in English, I watch TV in English. I cannot remember the last time I read the news in a language that was not English.

As the years went by, I started struggling more and more with French. Phrases, specific words, I keep forgetting them. They sound foreign to me. My phrasing is ridiculous – I use English sentence construction and just use French words instead of thinking of the actual French phrasing. I speak proper French in two contexts: when I speak to my parents, and when I work with French clients (although I still have to double check what I write to make sure I have not used any English).

I am lucky enough that most of my friends from back home are fluent in English, and do not mind me using a mix of French and English when talking and writing to them. To be honest, I switch between the two depending on what comes naturally at the time. I will often start a sentence in French, and finish in English. I will use English words in the middle of a French sentence, and will react in English to their French messages.

I sometimes struggle to identify the language I am reading in, or confirm whether I just used French and English. Honestly, it is not great when part of my job is identifying source languages in documents my clients send. I will confidently start working on scheduling a French to English translation, only to have the translator ask me to confirm what I need, since the source text is already in English. Sorry, my bad.

My English is not perfect, but it has become the language of my daily life.

What I never imagined that there would be things I would only ever be able express in English.

I have been asked about my decision to write this blog in English. Was it a conscious decision, was it done in order to increase readership, to give it a better chance of becoming viral? Absolutely not.

English has clearly become the only language in which I can think of my experience, and the only language where I can express my feelings.

There is a reasonable explanation for it. After all, I got my diagnosis in the UK, all my consultations were conducted in English, all my phone calls and appointments were in English. The words the doctors used, I only knew them in English at first. Everything was explained to me in English. Everything made sense – as much as a cancer diagnosis at 27 can make sense – in English.

I never had any issues understanding what the doctors were saying in English. My issue was communicating the same in French.

I struggled speaking to my parents about it, struggled to explain what was happening. The details, but also the bigger picture. I had to look up words in the dictionary, I had to read medical articles in French in order to find the French way of saying what was happening to me. It was not easy. They tell you you should avoid googling your condition too much, that it is only going to add to your anxiety. But I had no choice. I had to do it, in order to be able to tell my family about it.

As a result, I know everything there is to know about womb cancer in both languages. It does not mean I feel comfortable talking about it in French.

A few months ago, a friend made me realise that, even though I spoke to them in a mix of French and English most of the time, I automatically switched to English only whenever I spoke about cancer.

In my head, it is very clear – cancer happened in English. The language of my trauma is English. Is that a way to detach myself from it?

I am very much of the opinion that I have two very different personalities. French Lauriane is self-conscious. She can be moody, tough and sarcastic. She had to tell people ‘that’s just my face’ when they ask her if she is mad. She is pessimistic, she does not play well with others. English Lauriane is more confident. She is more resilient, she has been through a lot, but she is also more open. She is bubbly. She is invested. She says please and thank you. She will smile and give you a hug if you need one. French Lauriane would run away.

It is quite common amongst people who speak several languages. For me, I believe it is also related that there was a clear cut between my life in France, as a child, as a teen, as a student. The moment I moved to the UK, the moment English became my main language was when I became a proper adult.

Because I have these two identities and they are very separate in my mind, I feel like cancer only affected a part of me. It struck English Lauriane, but she can take it. She is positive, she can get through a lot. She has learnt to deal with it. The French part of me was always here, in the background, but separate. Detached. It was not her language, it did not feel as real. A part of me is safe from it, protected by the language barrier.

Whenever I think about cancer, I think in English. I have flashbacks in English. I have panic attacks in English.

I did not realise how obvious that was for a long time. I was speaking about my mental health struggles with a friend, who mentioned finding a French-speaking therapist in the UK. And immediately, my reaction was to say no. If I ever was to share my burden with someone, to find a way to deal with it, it would be in English. The part of me that is broken is the part that speaks English.

But that is also the part of me that feels strong enough to get over it. The only part of me that can express feelings. I have never said ‘I love you’ in French. I have never said ‘I am scared’ in French. I have never said ‘But what if I die?’ in French. Do I feel comfortable doing it in English? Absolutely not. But I have.

Would I technically be able to speak about it in French? Do I have the words for it? They do not come naturally. French might be my first language, but my fingers do not fly across the keyboard as fast when I write in French. I feel free writing in English. There may be mistakes, there may be typos, but it is the language in which I can talk about fear, about depression, about anxiety. Feelings are stronger in English, and they are bubbling inside me, waiting to be put on paper.

There is a story I like to tell. It is about the operation, but it is a fun one.

For weeks before the operation, I joked with friends about not knowing what language I would speak when I came to, when I woke up from the general anaesthesia. You know, these stories about people who have been in horrible accidents, who wake up and have forgotten their first language entirely, or suddenly speak Chinese despite never having studied it? I laughed and told my friends my mum might need to call them to understand what I was saying, if I ended up only able to speak English. Or maybe, I would only speak French, and the doctors and nurses would try and explain things and I would blink in confusion and have to request an interpreter (good thing I have contacts in the business!).

I do not remember much from the first few minutes after I woke up, but I remember my mum looking at me and questions which I answered with confidence, only to see a puzzled look on her face. Apparently, I woke up speaking English, and it took more than half an hour for me to start speaking French. I understood what my mum was saying perfectly, but the words coming out of my mouth were in English and I could not articulate them in French.

Is it a coping mechanism, a barrier that I have built in my mind, which I will ultimately need to take down in order to make peace with what happened? Was it a safe place for me to store my experience, whilst protecting a part of me from the truth? Will I ever be able to express myself in French?

English is the language of my experience, it is the language of my cancer, the language of my trauma. But it is also the language of my hopes and dreams.

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