Are we the same person when we speak another language?

I have always felt different when speaking another language.

My native language is German. And while I feel different when I speak English, I feel like a toddler when speaking French. 🍼

Most people around the world switch between languages pretty regularly. When they travel for work, watch foreign movies, or fall in love with someone from a different country.

Today we ask what it feels like to speak another language.

Spoiler: It might not be the new-world-acid-trip you were hoping for. However, being able to speak multiple languages comes with benefits.

We ask why you might feel like another person when switching to Spanish or Chinese. And what it is like to say “I love you” in a language you only learned a couple of years ago.

Enjoy the read!

Or Viel Spaß beim Lesen! 😉🐒

What It Feels Like to Speak a Second Language

For my part, it has always felt different to speak another language.

Multiple language personality disorder? Yup!

Linguistic schizophrenia? Sounds about right!

I have felt like a different person when I speak English or switch back to German many times. Even though English is my second language, I feel more social, fun, and weirdly, more confident when speaking it.

Speaking English gives me a break from speaking German and – in a way – from being German.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my Sauerkraut like the next gal, but sometimes speaking German feels like wearing a shirt that had shrunk in the dryer.

Many people feel differently when speaking another language. This is what the linguist Jean-Marc Dewaele found out. Over the last few years, he has been talking to thousands of bilinguals and multilinguals.

In one of his papers, he collects statements from people who feel different when speaking another language. Like this one from a Finnish linguist:

“In Finnish I am an honest, straightforward, homely, down-to earth person, occasionally digging into the politer layers of a wartime military substratum of language. In Swedish, I am pedantic and, alas, sound precisely like the academic administrator I used to be.”

The difference we feel when switching from one language to another is not just a personal thing, but we are also perceived differently by other people.

If you feel more outgoing, chances are the people around you also perceive you as a gregarious person.

How Language Influences Our Perception

We might feel differently when speaking another language. But does that influence our perception? And if so, how?

In his TED Talk, John McWhorter presents a fascinating example: people in France were asked how they would imagine a table would sound like if a table could talk.

To understand why that is interesting in the context of language, you have to know that “table” in French is “la table”, with “la” indicating a feminine form.

French speakers are more likely to say they would imagine this table talking in a high pitched voice.

If you would conduct this experiment in German, where “table” is “der Tisch” and masculine, people might come up with the opposite answer and say that the table sounds like Barry White.

language table

There are many more examples like this which show how language influences the way we think.

But does it really?

Does Language Shape Our Worldview?

Before we can answer this question, let’s take a step back.

Everyone who is doing research on language will sooner or later meet this guy: Benjamin Whorf. He already died in 1941, but man what a great name!

He said the following:
“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.”

This sounds so great, I would print that on a mug. ☕️

Now let’s examine if it is actually true.

language whorf

Whorf or Whorfianism says that language affects the way we think.

Different language = different worldview, right?

Hold your horses for just a moment, though. There has been a lot of discussion about this topic.

Just to give you an example, let’s look at the titles of these two books, which are describing the exact opposite:

  1. Guy Deutscher, “Why the World Looks Different in Different Languages” (2010)
  1. John McWhorter, “Why the World Looks the Same in Different Languages” (2016)

Almost the same title, exactly opposite view.

John McWhorter is convinced that differences do in fact exist, but are minor. And according to him, minor differences don’t really count.

He claims that

“language’s effect on thought is distinctly subtle and, overall, minor”

While we can’t solve this question just yet, we’d rather ask today if our values change when we switch from one language to another.

Just think about your political view for a moment.

Do you think if you spoke another language you would have voted differently? Can you imagine voting for Trump, or rather – Trümp – if you spoke French.

I can’t.

Even if you think of the table as feminine and feel differently when speaking another language: would you have really voted for Trump if you spoke French? Spanish? Chinese?

Hard to imagine.

Differences in perception clearly exist. There are lots of color studies done in linguistics which show that people really perceive color differently if they have other words for different colors, or have a combined word for blue+green, etc.

But the question remains if these differences are actually big enough to substantially change our personality, our political views, and what we care about when we switch from one language to another.

For my part, I feel different when I speak English or German. But it is hard to imagine that my values change as well when I switch from one language to another.

On the other hand, language clearly does influence how we think about things.

The best examples I can think about here are from gendered languages such as German, French, or Spanish.

If I hear the word “Doktor” (doctor) in German, I think of a middle-aged man in a white coat. Whereas if I hear the word “Doktor-in”, with the “in” indicating the feminine form, I think of a woman.

language doktor

While in English you have one form of address, in gendered languages you often have two different forms of a title, a feminine and a masculine form.

The feminist movement has been pushing for these two different forms for a while now. The idea behind this is that if you think consciously about using both titles, you can influence people’s thoughts, and as a consequence people’s behaviour towards a more equal world.

A world in which it is normal to think of a woman if you hear words like “professor”, “investor”, or “CEO”.

It might not happen tomorrow, but it might happen eventually.

These differences you feel might when switching between languages might not be so minutiae after all.

It’s Not Just About the Language We Speak.

The feeling of being a different person can also be explained by taking into account a different environment or culture. Whatever language we are speaking: it comes with a cultural framework.

In his book “Life with Two Languages”, Francois Grosjean explains that we are always adapting to the context we are in. This happens not only when we switch between languages, but also when we are in different contexts.

Different contexts trigger different behaviours. You talk differently when you speak to your boss or your grandmother.

You might drop the f-bomb casually in a conversation with your friends. But not when you are having a conversation with your parents or talking to a new neighbour.

language f-word

We use language in different contexts, and these contexts are influencing what we say. It then does not only depend on the language itself, but also on the question of when we are speaking differently.

Grosjean sums it up very well here:

“Different contexts and domains trigger different impressions, attitudes and behaviors. What is taken as a personality shift due to a change of language may have little, if anything, to do with language itself.

Depending on the context, we might choose different words, talk softer, faster or slow down. We adapt to whoever is sitting across from us and listening to what we have to say.

Why Saying “I Love You” Feels Weird in Another Language

As the world is growing closer together, dating someone with whom you don’t share a first language is nothing unusual. You learn how to communicate as spouses, and like those who share a first language, you start developing your own expressions and inside jokes.

But when it comes to saying “I love you”, it might feel different if you say it in your native language or a second or third one.

Jean-Marc Dewaele wrote a fascinating paper on this topic and interviewed almost 1500 bilinguals and multilinguals about how they feel when expressing their love in another language.

Not only saying it, but also how often you are expected to say “I love you” varies from culture to culture. While in the US you practically “looooove” everything and express your love with a romantic stare-in-each-others-eyes “I love you” or a quick “Love you!” on the phone,  it is very different in Asian culture.

Dewaele quotes a Chinese student, who said:

“We do not place so much emphasis on verbal expression of love and affection, because they can evaporate quickly.”

But also in Europe, I have talked to couples who either say “I love you” very rarely (like once a year on christmas) or who have even never said it at all.

I was shocked when I heard that, but I was reminded that the “I love you”, while not being said verbally, is expressed indirectly all the time.

language love

Cooking your loved-one a nice coq au vin or giving them a special gift as a surprise is also saying “I love you!”. Just differently.

Why Should We Learn New Languages?

English is a world-language. It is everywhere.

In his TED Talk, McWhorter says about English:

“Let’s face it, it’s the language of the internet, it’s the language of finance, it’s the language of air traffic control, of popular music, diplomacy — English is everywhere.”

Even though research suggests that the switch to another language is not the new world acid trip we are hoping for, it is still a way of getting to know another culture intimately.

Even if it is not giving us a whole new world to explore, learning another language might give us a different slice of the same world we are not seeing at the moment.

And to semi-quote Woody Allen here: While another language might not be the answer, it is posing some interesting questions in the meantime.

Yes, we might still be the same person, but wouldn’t it be nice if that person could also speak French? Japanese? Or Zulu?
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