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Have you ever wondered if you have an alter ego? By learning other languages you can find a new identity!
That’s right. Learning another language gives you a new personality. If you already speak other languages, you might have noticed this for yourself.
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you’ll end up like the case of The Mind of Billy Milligan – the first person to ever be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder.
So, what does it mean?
Speaking a New Language is a Lot Like Being an Actor
I used to play in the theatre when I was in high school, still (sadly) being monolingual. That is when I discovered that I had to observe people in order to play a particular character.
When I was 15 I faced a hard choice. I was so emotionally involved in theatre that I gave serious thought to entering the Academy of Theatre in Moscow. However, my plans were confronted by my parents who couldn’t imagine their daughter acting on the stage. In my turn I was utterly opposed to entering a standard teaching university as I had very vivid images of teachers who despite being called teachers couldn’t add any value beyond the curriculum. At high school, I had found that soon as I started out poetry in Russian literature class, our teacher got aghast by my creative initiative.
The aftermath of my vigorous dispute with the parents was taking the entrance exams to Moscow State Linguistic University. This was on the advice of my school English tutor. It made me frown a lot.
But there during my modules on inter-cultural communication and the history of linguistics that I discovered my passion for languages, cultures and communication.
Let’s look at the theory of how that works…
The Language You Speak Influences How You View the World
Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt (yes, that was the name of the guy the Humboldt University in Berlin is named after) states that our worldview reflects our language and culture. Speaking a foreign language gives you a new perspective and allows you to see the world from another point of view.
Another linguist V. I . Malakhov states that our reasoning and superstitions are determined by the language we think in.
There are already neurolinguistic studies proving that the structure of the language matters and really influences the way we think. The latest comparison between English and German grammar structures has shown this. We use vocabulary to describe the world around us. And quite often a dress is white and gold for us, when it’s blue and black for our friend. While we can’t change our physical vision settings, we can change our thoughts and then our vision.
Think about your native language, your culture, your social environment – are you superstitious about number 4 if you weren’t born in Asia? Have you become more sensitive towards this number if you happened to learn Mandarin or Japanese?
Another pair of great linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf investigated the question of linguistic relativity. Notably they addressed the “mystique of the language”. They believed that the language reflects the fundamental values of the given culture and at the same time forms them. Living in big cities you may notice a gap between your system of values and of your neighbours. And when you learn a new language you may experience a contradiction with your own values when you dive deep into a new culture. So, what to do?
At the time of my discovery of academia I spoke Russian, English and Spanish. After going to Europe, I noticed the difference between opinions and values of different nations and cultures. Especially, I noticed how they each had different impressions and perceptions.
How I Taught Myself to Become Culturally Spanish
When I went to Salamanca, Northwestern Spain, in 2010 I was taken for an Italian or Argentinian as according to people I met I was very eccentric and used my hands a lot in an Italian way. At that point I didn’t know that Russian and Italian phonetic systems were very similar. And Argentinian Spanish had an Italian phonetic scale.
Being in Salamanca I observed and started copying the locals not only in their intonation but also in their manner of moving, and furthermore even the schedule of their day. I was preparing for a role of a Spanish girl from Salamanca.
Eventually in 2012 when I arrived in Santiago de Compostela to study I was taken for a Spaniard quite often. I even managed to emerge into a local group of Galician students and professionals. This was my moment of triumph and acceptance.
Each Language Has its Own Personality
I also noticed that it was much easier for me to speak my newly acquired Spanish than English, although I should have been more expert in English. I was constantly wondering about this until I was told that, like people, some languages are extroverted and some are introverted. English is an introverted language that makes it harder to speak.
Can you identify the personality of your spoken languages? Are they introverts or extraverts? And how does it influence your speech and behaviour? Have you noticed any changes in yourself when you speak them? Do you become more awkward or more of a chatterbox?
In 2011 I learnt Italian and went to Italy discovering a new world. This experience opened up for me the phrase that a language is a door to culture. If you want to unwind your personality and get slightly more optimistic, you should go to Italy, like the writer of “Eat, Pray, Love”. If you happen to be learning Italian now, look into all phrases dedicated to food. This explains a lot about the Italian lifestyle.
Why I Can’t Talk Philosophy in Italian
Have you noticed your mood changes when you switch languages? Or maybe you prefer speak a different language depending on your mood?
In 2012 in Salamanca I conducted a test study on decision-making of international young people in the field of NLP – Neuro Linguistic Programming. Students from different European countries took the test in English using the words of possibility and uncertainty in their answers. What was interesting apart from the NLP, that the nations from the Southern Europe seemed to be more optimistic than their neighbours. Was it just the good weather, I wondered?
When in 2011 I went to study to Poland I learned Polish and realised that I was using different languages for particular purposes. I adored Spanish and it warmed my heart, while Italian was for my soul – my interests, my passion. Russian was for poetry as I wrote poems since I was four years old. English was only for work. And Polish was for everyday life.
Then I started noticing that I thought about particular spheres of my life in different languages. Or, more precisely, I simply didn’t know equivalents of words or phrases in other languages. For example, I studied economics in English and I had no idea how to talk about it in a language other than English.
On the other hand, emotions that were really natural in Italian and Spanish, I was unable to explain in English or Polish.
I used to keep my diary in Portuguese while being in Spain. It just felt in-between, emotional but more relaxed.
Then I came to the point that I started writing poems first in Italian, then in Spanish and then in English. If in Italian all poems were passionate and rich with allegory, in Spanish it was more lyrical philosophy, and in English it was pure philosophy and dry thoughts. And I couldn’t write on philosophy in Italian or Spanish, it just wouldn’t dawn on me.
“It’s a Small World” or “The World is a Handkerchief”
Then I noticed another thing, while talking to my friends or partner I would tend to switch into Spanish or Italian to make a conversation more reciprocal, vivid, intimate and full of emotions rather than stick to English or any other languages. And it still feels right. Just to compare expressions “The world is small” or “El mundo es un pañuelo” (the world is a handkerchief) – I definitely prefer Spanish!
When I took up French, this was purely for reading as I conducted a research on Pierre Bourdieu’s theory on habitus (or how our habits get formed on the social level). I had to read hundreds of books in French, then discuss them in Italian with my Italian supervisor, in Spanish with my Spanish supervisor, and eventually write in English.
I still use French mainly for reading French literary masterpieces…and you will notice me debating on sociolinguistic topics in French.
Your Personality Will Change When You Switch Languages – and that’s a Good Thing
Your personality will change with the language you’re speaking – so let it happen! It’s a good thing. It’s all about imitation and acceptance. If you behave like the main social group into which you’re trying to integrate, most likely you’ll be accepted.
If you don’t make smalltalk with a British person, you may seem rude. And if you can’t cook or talk about cooking, you will be left out of an Italian conversation quite often. If you don’t ask your Chinese colleagues what they had for breakfast, how good their sleep was and other health details you will never become their 兄弟 xiongdi (a brother). It all comes to the minimum of cultural norms established and accepted by a particular society.
I call this process developing a secondary linguistic personality. The aim is to achieve a point when a foreigner can communicate in another language without being taken for a foreigner. Practice makes perfect, and it’s not only about your accent, vocabulary or intonation. It’s about your body language, your manner of leading a conversation, asking questions and sharing views with the locals.
This type of assimilation can take months or even years for a foreigner. Eventually, the personalities you explore through other languages will become habitual.
When we learn a new language – a new way of expressing our thoughts – a new way of looking at the world, we also should think about preserving our identity.
I prefer to use variations of my name in every language, like Catarina in Spanish, Katerina in Italian, Catalina in Portuguese, Kate in English (and never Katie!), Kasia in Polish, Kat in German, Katrin in French( although the pronunciation of this name is still challenging), Katya in Russian and Kata in Chinese.
What New Personality Will You Discover?
In every language I speak, I let my alter ego amuse herself and others. My desire to become an actress now expresses itself in all the languages I speak. I have obtained multiple personalities – and you can too.
What is your language alter ego? Have you released it yet?