What doing journalism in a foreign language taught me about human nature

A news report using the word 'appendix' instead of 'appendage' (because the two words are the same in French) was one of my low points

Clémence Michallon
New York
Friday 31 May 2019 20:43
Breaking news is difficult to handle at the best of times — but doing it in a foreign language adds an extra layer of complexity
Breaking news is difficult to handle at the best of times — but doing it in a foreign language adds an extra layer of complexity

I have been in a committed relationship with the English language for almost 20 years. It all began in primary school, with clips of Muzzy (the animated character created by the BBC in 1986 to teach children English as a second language), the Winnie the Witch books, and group renditions of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” (an international hit if there ever was one).

Two decades later, English is the tool with which I earn my keep as a journalist. It’s the language I speak when I go home to my partner. It’s the pillar of so many aspects of my life, from the most fundamental to the most trivial. I read in English. I write in English. I argue in English. I dream in English. I discipline my dog in English. All this to say: the English language is the most useful gift I have ever been given, and I can barely believe there was a time when I didn’t speak a word of it. It has also taught me a valuable lesson about perfectionism.

I’m French, by the way. It’s hard to remember what English sounded like when I was but a little French kid, though I do remember making up my own words whenever I tried to string together a sentence in English and found myself lacking some vocabulary. Little by little, the made-up words got phased out (although I still do make up new English words from time to time, this is both entirely unintentional and quite rare) – and I am now a French person who writes day in, day out for a British online newspaper.

Doing journalism in English rather than French has obvious advantages: more than 275 million people around the world speak French according to most estimates, versus a comparatively mammoth 1.5 billion for English. It’s also a wonderful exercise in creativity. See, writing in a foreign language is what I imagine it would be like to be a baker and wake up one day to find that the flour you’ve used your entire life is no longer available. So you start using a different kind of flour, and you’re still making bread, sure, but suddenly the dough binds in a different way and the baking times are all off. Oh, and the baker-in-chief wants the loaves to be done ASAP – and why wouldn’t they, since all the other bakers are using this brand new flour, which is brand new to you only, without any issues?

All this was intensified by the fact that I got my start on a breaking news desk, meaning the words had to come fast, and they had to be the right ones. My first months of working at an English-language publication felt like a miracle. I waited to be told that it had all been a mistake, that I wasn’t good enough or fast enough, that some things simply cannot be taught. But I kept going, one word after the other, and I got better. My stories got longer and more complex. I started having a bit of fun, and then a lot of fun. But it wasn’t always a comfortable process.

The thing is, I’m a perfectionist. I’m not sure why – and even if I did, those reasons would be better extrapolated upon in a therapist’s practice than on this respected website. But the point is, I don’t like making mistakes, and I really don’t like making them in front of everybody else.

But guess what? When you live your life in a foreign language, you absolutely will make mistakes, and you absolutely will make them in front of an audience. You will use the word “appendix” instead of “appendage” in a story (because the French word for both of these is “appendice”), and confuse the hell out of your readers and editors in the process. You will stop in the middle of a sentence, because what’s the word again for when you get off a plane and then have to get on another plane? (Ah, yes, “connection”.) You will try to make beautiful sentences and end up with the literary equivalent of what it looks like when a small child dresses themselves. You will work at a local newspaper in Oxford and do your best imitation of an English accent on the phone, because you will have noticed that people are more responsive if you sound like them, only for a well-meaning colleague to (justifiably) ask what on Earth has gotten into you. You will call a coworker “reactive” when you mean they’re “responsive”. You will interview people – politicians, celebrities, artists – and they will use words you don’t know. You will either get it from context, or you will nod and frantically Google approximate spellings of the mystery word once you’re back at the office. Most days, you will have to get creative on the spot, and sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won’t. And you will learn to go along with whatever happens.

I used to be so embarrassed by those little mishaps. This shame, by the way, was entirely self-inflicted: I can honestly say that no one has ever done anything in my professional life to make me feel lesser because I’m not a native English speaker (quite the contrary). I suppose it had to do with my own impostor syndrome, as well as that very human desire to blend in.

But I have learned to laugh at myself. It happened bit by bit. I let mistakes happen and the world didn’t end. I still check the dictionary as often as I need – and I think that’s far from a bad thing. To a degree, I still feel like I got away with something, but look: the language police has yet to come and get me.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped feeling ashamed. If anything, I have fun inserting French phrases in my stories every once in a while – just to add a dash of that special je ne sais quoi.

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