Written to the song: I Like It — Cardi B ft. J. Balvin

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world” — Ludwig Wittgenstein

Madrid, Spain

Many people who speak a second language admit to feeling like they have a “different personality” when they speak another language. Have you experienced this before?

I ran an informal Instagram survey, where out of 58 participants, 76% said that they feel different when speaking another language. One bilingual speaker that I interviewed admitting to feeling “more lively, less introverted and sassy” when speaking Italian compared to their native English language. Another bilingual speaker admitted to feeling more “timid and bland” in Hungarian as it is a slower-paced language. A few people responded to feeling like they are “less funny” in their second language, as their humour doesn’t translate well.

Professor Susan Ervin-Tripp of University of California Berkley, held an experiment on bilingual Japanese-Americans. The participants of the study were given sentence starters, and had to complete the sentences in both English and Japanese (Ervin-Tripp, 1964). In Japanese, the participants gave more submissive, collectivist and family-oriented answers. For example: “when my wishes conflict with my family — it is a time of great unhappiness”. Whereas in English: “when my wishes conflict with my family — I do what I want”. Bilingual participants speaking their second-language of English admitted to feeling like “wearing a mask” when speaking English, as they had the feeling of freedom to express their personality, which is often concealed in your native language. A few participants from my “study” admitted to the same, where they felt more open with their words as they did not have a “reputation to live up to”.

Is there a relationship between culture and how you feel when speaking a language? When I speak my simple Spanish, I feel more open, out-going and bubbly. When I speak Hebrew (and my survey responders felt similarly), I feel more bold, pushy and honest. In both of these cases, I find that my speaking style changes, to express a more bold and confident self. In Hebrew, I am more direct — eliminating my apologetic “sorry”, “if that’s okay with you” or “excuse me” language. This type of language is acceptable when speaking Hebrew, but is beyond shocking in English (who doesn’t say sorry in Canadian English???).

Vocabulary shapes the way we speak. We have all experienced moments where we know the perfect word to use in a language, which doesn’t have the same impact as a word in another language. Vocabulary restricts or maximizes our expression. One of my participants spoke about the Russian vocabulary as being “more emotional”, therefore shifting the way you perceive yourself in the language. Another Russian example, is how “no thank you” does not exist, rather a simple “no” is stated. Therefore someone speaking Russian may perceive themselves as being not as polite in Russian compared to a language like English, where a “no, thank you” is expected.

Context and environment influence behaviour. The specific language that we use and the way we act changes if you are talking to your sibling or best friend, versus someone who is interviewing you. Therefore your French will be more formal when speaking to a senior colleague, and will most likely feel more free, including more slang and short-forms when speaking to a good friend.

Finally, I believe that people interacting with you shapes your speech patterns. For example, when learning French as a child my grandma would always say “speak softer” — shaping my speech patterns and my perception of people who speak French (European French, not Quebec French). Another example, is getting corrected at the market in Jerusalem when I would say “excuse me, I would like a pound of strawberries”. I was corrected and taught to say simply “give me a pound of strawberries”, in my mind making me sound pushy and impolite.

Author of “Q & A a Day for Travelers”. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-frenkel/

Author of “Q & A a Day for Travelers”. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-frenkel/