The Jekyll and Hyde of Language

There is a strong belief that people’s personalities change when they speak different languages, and there is probably something to this.  But it is not a simple something.  The feeling that we are “someone else” in Swedish versus Spanish is probably most accute during actual language acquisition, and when we have mastered the language (which in my estimation takes at least four years of constant effort when one is an adult),  it may be a different thing altogether. 

What educators know is that you can’t learn a language without at least two things: acceptance of the culture and embodiment of the entire corporal expression of the language.  Imagine that you wanted to learn Italian but you didn’t want to use your hands.  My disseratation advisor, who was very interested in these things, told me the story of an old, blind, Italian woman.  If she was speaking and her son suddenly took her hands in his, she ceased to speak.  The hands are part of the language output.  When I was learning French, I always tried to be my friend Marie-France.  Beautiful, lively, expressive, funny, Bordalaise; she was (is) the person I wanted to embody in France.  Her voice is neither much higher nor much lower than mine, so it wasn’t too much of a struggle to match the sound.  And she always smiles, which is immediately reinforcing.  You get the feeling that she is smiling because your French is so good, and that conversing with you is just a sheer joy.

But the thing is, no matter how you try, you cannot be as subtle, as charming, as funny, and as concise in another language at first.  When I met my Portuguese friend Guida, she was speaking in English, and she said to me pleasantly, “Just so that you know, I do not sound like a very small child when I speak Portuguese.”  For the record, she sounds at least thirty-five in Engish, and maybe forty in French.  I suppose that when I initially conversed with Psychology colleagues in France, they worried they had accidentally hired an idiot that the United States had deported for some reason.  Or perhaps they thought I knew how to write but could not speak.  When I gave talks in French at French universities in my first three or four years in the country, I clutched sweaty pages of full sentences and read them, haltingly, hoping that no one would stop me to ask a question lest I never find my place on the page ever again.

So, if you are not charming or clever, and you are reading off sweaty pages of words the meanings of which you have already forgotten, people treat you like you the unpleasant person you are being.  Indeed, one important way that we know who we are is by tracking others’ reactions to us.  They lean toward us, squinty-eyed, brow furrowed, and ask us to repeat the stupid thing we just said, and we know, just know, that we are uncharming and unclever and may be just so for the rest of our lives.

At the beginning of language acquisition, this means, we feel like a different person because we really are not the same person.  We are simpletons.

Now as things go on and we can speak these other languages, I think it is a slightly different matter.  People still respond differently to us because we have not mastered everything about the language (the corporal expression, the prosody, the culture, the content, the nuances), but we are no longer simpletons.  Here comes the problem of registre as we say in French.  The problem of registre is the problem of hitting the right intensity or connotation in our language use.  My husband, who appears to speak accent-free and perfect English, makes errors of registre.  At least initially, for instance, he translated j’en ai marre de ça (in French: “I am tired of that”) as “I am completely fed up with that.”  Normal speakers of English are not fed up as often as my husband seemingly was at first, and it had me in knots until I realized that it was a translation error of registre.  I also had problems along these lines when my first son, Sebastian, was born.  French people used to see him cry and lean over him saying, oh là, il se fâche, which actually means “ah, he’s upset” but which I heard, in my error of perceived registre, to be something along the lines of “whoa, is your son ever angry!”  I would back off wondering how they could attribute such a strong and adult feeling to a six-week old baby.

Anyway, problems of emotional language use, problems of registre, can lead to interactions in which people treat you with vague concern about the intensity of your response or about the lack of intensity of your response, and in general they continue to create a new personality for you that you didn’t know you had.

At the end of language learning, you know the culture and the word meaning and appropriate reigistre, and you know when there is no translation at all into another language of some things that you can say in one.  Or there is no reason to.  You are embodying the culture and the meaning at that point, and in this sense you may feel like a different person.  But I think that deep down you are still there, and that there is no Jekyll and Hyde.  It is just that a different part of you can come out in a nuanced way in English or German or Danish.  That is, at the end of the language day, like my kids who now speak four languages fluently, you are one big mass of internationalism. 

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 4:57 AM JUL 15, 2011