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?

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Self-Monitoring

Recently, I read ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain, it isn’t the sort of book I usually read but it was recommended to me. The book is somewhat a guidebook, it gives a whistle stop tour through many of the specific issues faced by introverts and real-life examples of situations where introverts overcome the problems. I wish someone had given me such a book to read as a teenager, it would have made my life much easier!

Personally the most interesting issue is the concept of ‘self-monitoring’. Self monitoring seems to be the process by which people change their behaviour to suit the social situation and the people they meet in these situations. The book suggests that people are on a spectra for this trait, from low to high. Low self-monitors don’t adapt their behaviour very much, whereas high self-monitors can be different people in different social situations. It is suggested that introverts tend to also be low self-monitors. This seems to fit and helps explain many of the difficulties I have had.

The difficulty for me, as with examples in the book, is authenticity. I think it is important to be honest with myself as with other people. I do adapt my behaviour to suit social situations, to be polite and respectful of the occasion, however sometimes I seem very close to a line where I begin purely acting a character and stop being myself, this I find very uncomfortable and it just seems wrong to do in real life.

When I was a teenager, my escape was in a youth theatre group, in this group we spent a lot of time improvising. I love both acting and particularly improvisation, I have been on the stage many times, we even did a sponsored 24 hour non-stop improvisation (rolling with breaks), which was marvellous. People have often been confused by my ability to act with such energy, busy interacting with a large number of people for long periods of time, but am unable to do it in ‘real life’. Real life social situations make me much more nervous than going out to perform in front of hundreds of people, because they aren’t judging me, if they do judge it is my performance rather than my inner self that they judge. Then I am not acting for myself but for the good of the cast and theatre in general.

Confidence, plays it’s part. In social situations I know well, i have learned how to be myself in those situations, so am more confident being myself as I’ve worked out how to be myself in that situation. For example I know what kinds of music concerts it is acceptable to get and up and dance and when it isn’t, I am happy to make the compromise not to dance when others generally find it distracting, at a first concert of an unfamiliar genre I may have wanted to dance but not known if it was ‘allowed’. I’ve ‘got good’ at this, and am often the first person to start dancing at a gig.

The other correlation identified in the book is between introversion and having a preference for low levels of stimulation. It is adaptable though. I never used to like heavy metal, because perhaps I found the genre over stimulating. Then one day, i got into Heavy Metal, i had learned to focus in on the music in a similar way, learning to cut out the ‘noise’. I found a way into it, to begin by appreciating elements of the music and then work up to enjoying the whole thing. This was much the same methodology of gettign into classical music, one element sparks the interest and over time you learn about the other elements until you appreciate the whole. Really it is perhaps learning how to cut out unfocussed on elements. Perhaps introverts simply need to learn to work up to high stimulation situations, whereas perhaps extraverts learn to work down to low stimulation activities.

It is, I think, the authenticity issue. I enjoy acting, because the whole point is not to be yourself, to experiment being other people, to try and get into other ways of thinking and act accordingly, it’s very interesting to do and a lot of fun. I am happy to portray flawed characters, but I don’t wish to do this in ‘real life’. The thing is that I really don’t want to do bad things, I don’t want to be part of a problem. Of course, I know that I make mistakes and will always make mistakes, it is impossible to be perfect. The real issue is perhaps not being wrong, when you know that you are in the wrong, I don’t want to act that way in real life.

I began overcoming my real life anxiety about eight years ago. I had this irrational idea that there was something wrong with me. For example my ‘ ethically sourced’ diet was something adopted by <1% of the population, the music I like is obscure, generally, it is the case that whatever is popular or the social norm is something I will be uncomfortable with. Being a minority does predispose oneself to question you it is yourself that is wrong and not wider society, however, wider society and popular opinion is often wrong. I simply accepted that I was different, and wasn’t prepared to compromise my own lifestyle and beliefs, unless someone can make it very clear to me I’m wrong, I’m always open and listening for that, it usually never comes. I am now much happier to be myself and not be concerned about it’s affect on other people, I always thought it affected other people more than it actually does. I can now happily say to people such things as “I can’t stay as I’m going to a concert of Renaissance Polyphony, you are more than welcome to come along, but really I am more than happy to go by myself in preference to company.” I no longer feel a social pariah for doing so.