Living with a foreign language is a bit like struggling for forgotten words in old age. Perfect fluency is not possible—but creativity helps.
Struggling for words
Back in the day when I used French at work and play it made me feel all sparklyish inside the twinkle and fright of another tongue I carried it off with insecurity and delight getting stuck at times in a gross faux pas committed by my puzzling tone of voice syntax was the crash and curb of another say, another way cartography embedded in the verbs my voice was in a foreign choir floating just a little higher missing the hooks that even dogs and toddlers could acquire Swiss French was a simple song we sang in teams but even dreaming I was the one out of tune In French I couldn’t get the joke or make you laugh or talk of deeper stuff * Now 80 years after I started to speak even my dear familiar words play clumsy tricks they hide and seek but I don’t care—they’re family and now I edge towards an existential foreign place for me and my personal words ~Rachel McAlpine 2022
About struggling for words forgotten or out of reach
I wrote this instant poem after recently hearing several people of 92, 93, 94 and 98 struggle with forgotten words. One said she knew the word but her lips would not say it. The others could not remember the word they wanted—it skittered away out of reach. Forgetting a word happens at any age, but it tends to increase in time. Some of my 90+ interviewees are distressed by this, some are relaxed, some find an approximation or synonym. On the other hand, two of these nonagenarians hesitated over a word or a fact only once in 60 minutes.
I’m reminded of my feelings when I lived in Geneva 60 years ago, using French at work and often when socialising. It was fun and satisfying—up to a limit. I hit that limit after a long weekend of using French for 24 hours a day including in my thoughts and dreams. My (Swiss) French was superficially fluent—but not deep.
Deep in my psyche I think in the Kiwi variety of English language. (This includes a good swathe of Maori.) Living in Switzerland and later in Japan, my own language and thus my very self sometimes felt lonely and almost out of reach.
Of course (as a poet) I see parallels between living in a foreign language and struggling for forgotten words in old age.
A poet’s solution to forgotten words
At almost 82, I see a loss of language looming. I want to flourish regardless. I also see a tempting solution.
I often notice myself deliberately and boldly inventing words like sparklyish. When I wrote sparklyish in the poem above, I knew the correct word. I considered it. But no, I prefer my own word so there it stays. And that’s great: this looks like a useful strategy for when I forget words in future. It also looks a bit like the way my Japanese creative writing students would use an English word that was unusual—and worked delightfully in their poems.
PS This is another instant poem, a quick first draft that at least catches a thought and will be improved or deleted when I’m in the mood.Follow Write Into Life