There is a popular Czech proverb that says, “You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once.”
Language is such a powerful concept because it has the ability to shape our identity. It’s not just words and phrases, but it is presentation, posture, emotion, voice, and ultimately, personality. If you learnt a language at school, you’ll know that one of the best pieces of advice a teacher can give before a speaking class or exam is; “Just become a French person. Embody their characteristics and you’ll perform better.”
Ross, our co-founder, speaks French, Japanese, and English. When he speaks Japanese, he says, he feels more empathetic, self-aware, and precise when creating sentences:
“I think the personality I embody when I speak Japanese reflects the Japanese culture of respectfulness, humbleness, and humility. You have to make sure that you choose your words carefully, that your forms of address are appropriate and respectful, and that you are showing you are actively listening and engaging with your conversation partner. Casual Japanese especially can have a lot of implied meanings that need to be carefully extracted from the speech of the other person… you have to be aware of their personal context and emotions in order to respond with sensitivity and insightfulness.”
Similarly, Bliss, who grew up speaking English and Italian and went on to learn Spanish, says that when she speaks Italian, she feels “confident, talkative and passionate”. Her knowledge of Italian people and culture? “Expressive, generous and good-humoured.” This begs the question: can a language be separated from the cultural values that are weaved into it? Luckily, there has been a lot of research on this subject.
Have you ever had a conversation in your language with someone who has a different accent? After some time, you’ll notice that you start to mimic their accent. This is a real thing, and science says that you’re actually a nicer person for doing it. According to a 2010 study by a research group at the University of California, Riverside; people subconsciously mimic other accents due to a phenomenon called “The Chameleon Effect”. This describes our human instinct to empathise and affiliate with people, and to bond and feel safe with others in social interactions. This also explains why when we spend a lot of time with someone, we have the tendency to copy their gestures, tone of voice, and the way they speak.
“I find myself using a softer voice when I speak Japanese” explains Ross.
“As someone who usually is very expressive with my hands and gestures, I am also aware of myself consciously toning these down when speaking in Japanese. From my personal experience, Japanese people tend not to gesture much while speaking and their body language is more controlled. It’s fascinating to subconsciously find yourself emulating another culture’s communication norms when speaking in a foreign language.”
So maybe you have learnt different languages for different reasons and uses. Many people learn English for their professional and business life, so the vocabulary and syntax would be of a higher register. In turn, you would behave in a more formal way and act more serious than if you were speaking a language that you learnt informally to be able to order food and drink on your holiday. This is the same way that we speak differently to a best friend than we would a superior at work – different contexts and domains trigger different impressions, attitudes, and behaviours.
In terms of the actual language itself, the structures can differ drastically which is bound to have an effect on the way we speak them. Comparing English and Spanish verb tenses, in Spanish there is the subjunctive mood, which isn’t technically a grammatical feature in English. The subjunctive isn’t a tense as such, but a “mood” that portrays emotions and desires. Someone who is multilingual may find a difference in their personality when they use this feature in Spanish, providing a new trait and expression in comparison to their English characteristics.
As you learn a second language, you simultaneously learn about the culture of said language. If you’re fortunate enough, you’ll spend time in that country and be able to immerse yourself in their customs and lifestyle, naturally noticing how people talk and behave. Interacting on the same level as speakers of the language becomes instinctive. It’s not hard to see how, for example, French and English cultures differ. If you feel more suave and sassy speaking French, it’s probably because that’s the experience you’ve had with French people. So, when we say we “feel different” when switching across languages, it seems that these changes are strongly connected with having been exposed to the cultural norms belonging to the languages spoken, which are activated when that linguistic switch happens.
“I am definitely louder and more open when I speak Italian,” says Bliss:
“It’s all I’ve ever known how to be in that sense, whereas my English self is quieter and more reserved. I think I prefer my Italian side!”
So, as a bilingual, bicultural, or multilingual genius, the traits are always there, it is just that each language uncovers and triggers them in ways that another does not. Maybe you’ll feel inspired to learn a new language to find out what other personality traits you can uncover about yourself.