Language Personality

One of the most fascinating things about learning a second language is the phenomenon of seeming to have a different personality in a second language. I do feel a different person when I’m using Welsh and I know other learners who experience a similar thing.

There are many possible explanations for this phenomena. Firstly there is the possibility of the language structure being different, that things are expressed differently in other languages, so this may have some bearing on feeling different, that perhaps languages themselves have different personalities. Indeed we often talk about how people from different countries in general have national personality traits and a part of this may be due to the native language.

However, I feel that other forces may be at work, related to the process of language learning as an adult. Learning to use a second language is not just learning the language itself, it is a re-working of social skills. The language learner is thrust into communicating with a considerable lack of vocabulary and an ignorance of the many nuances of fluent speakers. So, these basic skills have to be re-learnt, explored again. It is like being a child again, having the freedom to experiment, to find what works and what doesn’t. It is just an awful lot of fun, without the feeling of having to demonstrate competence, to conform to sets of rules and be a lot more free. The language learner, whilst nervous about speaking in their new language also relishes opportunities to practise communication in the new language and a part of that is learning through experimentation.

So, in a sense, in the new language as people we are largely letting go of our systems, of our social rules, there is a sense that we can be who we really want to be. We no longer have to act a role, or rely on acting as ourselves and can be more just ourselves. We can allow facets of our personality that are suppressed in our native tongue to flourish and be played with again. Learning allows us the chance to play.

Someone said to me recently that they are an introvert in English, yet in Welsh they feel like an extrovert. I get this, I too, feel more like an extrovert in Welsh. The question is how much is this a product of wanting the practice in the language and to speak to lots of different people that otherwise I would perhaps be less inclined to chat with, that we are more happy about being sociable with people for extended periods to live in the language, rather than in ourselves. We are not yet capable of being fully ourselves in the new language, as we lack enough experience of expressing all our everyday thoughts and feelings, so as we explore the language we also explore ourselves. It’s like we have to re-build our personality for the new language. So, perhaps we wish to play at being an extrovert.

It is very much like being a child again. We desire expressing ourselves. Indeed we want to talk about our joy in simple pleasures, even if it’s just doing an everyday thing like buying somethign in a shop in the second language. Doing anything for the first time is always a thrill, which becomes more routine and everyday when doing things for the umpteenth time. So learning a second language gives us a huge number of opportunities to do things for the first time. I recently got drunk for the first time in Welsh and it joyful to make myself understood without feeling obliged to speak in proper sentences, to make more jokes and laugh, an experience akin to when I got drunk for the very first time.

So, the question is whether the increased extroversion is simply a product of seeking social experiences in Welsh, whether it’s a more fundamental desire to be more of an extrovert or do we simply have different personalities in different languages. It is such a fascinating question. I now have friends whom I have never or rarely speak in English with and I don’t really know if we would have exactly the same relationship in English.

Please comment below if you have any thoughts on this as I would be really interested to know. I would be especially interested in hearing from bilingual people in other languages; does using a different language change how you behave?