French - My First Language

French was my first language. I was born of American parents in Geneva, Switzerland and only learned English when we moved to the United States. I was about 5 years old at the time. In my new country, I lost my French completely.

Indeed, as it was the language that my parents spoke when they did not want me or my brothers to understand, French became associated in my mind with all sorts of negative feelings.

Nonetheless, in junior high school I chose to elect French and even opted to stay in school longer hours to take the class of a teacher that was still using traditional methods. The language of my birth, that must have remained imprinted somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain, started coming back as the school year progressed.

Coincidentally, my father announced at the end of that year that we would be moving back to Switzerland. I arrived back in Europe with the confidence that I could speak French and continued to polish my language skills with my new classmates.

About six months later I experienced a moment that I still recall with crystal clarity some 40 years on. Without realizing it, my vocabulary was solidly peppered with slang and a considerable number of what the French call “gros mots”.

I was shopping with my mother and all of a sudden I realized that my speech was not usually considered acceptable in polite society. This just goes to show that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I managed to overcome this moment of embarrassment and now French is my primary mode of communication.

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