Coming back to one of my all-time favorite topics – linguistics! I’ve written a slightly adapted version of this for the newsletter of the company Smart Coos. They are a provider of children’s online language learning tools, supporting families and caregivers in their endeavors to bring up children with more than just one language. Basically, just my kind of thing! They were kind enough to let me write for them and fill their newsletters and website with all sorts of articles for the last few months, which has been a lot of fun. I love anything to with promoting multilingualism and people’s awareness of its benefits and necessity for human interaction. So thank you, Smart Coos!

Someone asked me the other day if I preferred speaking English or German. I was thrown for a minute, and then started to seriously think about this question. Do I have a preference? Do I feel more “me” speaking one or the other? I am not a true bilingual; born and raised in Germany, I learnt English at school, not from birth. However, having studied the language extensively, and lived in English-speaking countries for the biggest chunk of my adult life, I have become a “late bilingual.” I have definitely noticed how the two languages have shaped me and given me another dimension in life that I wouldn’t have had as a monolingual. But how have they shaped me? I am “me”, regardless of the language I speak. Or am I? Do I have a German personality, as well as an English one? 

There has been a lot of research on this in recent times, and it seems I’m not the only one to think about this. Between 2001 and 2003, linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Aneta Pavlenko asked over a thousand bilinguals whether they felt like a different person when they spoke different languages, and nearly two-thirds said that yes, they did.

I have always felt that in some strange way, switching to another language is a little bit like acting; by speaking “foreign”, you get the opportunity to become someone else, adopt a new persona. It is absolutely true that you can express things differently in different languages, depending on the character of the language. I have heard people say they were using their hands more when speaking French or Italian, as opposed to English, or be more “wordy” or flowery in their descriptions. I find, for example, that I can be more concise and to the point in English, and also show more confidence, more of a “can-do” attitude than in German. In German, I feel softer, less confrontational, which is funny, because that’s not how people perceive Germans.
Indeed, quite a few people have mentioned how they envied the fact that I could speak German, because “it would make being strict with the children so much more impactful.” (I’m not kidding, people have really said that.) While this is also a very cliche-laden statement, feeding right into the “German is such a harsh, strict language” stereotype, it is also utterly untrue. In fact, I have noticed that I switch to English when I’m really mad at my kids! First of all, they instantly notice something is wrong when Mama speaks English. Second, there is nothing, to my ears at least, that sounds as stern as a clipped, cool British accent when scolding someone. And third, and interestingly, I seem to find it easier to exhibit anger in English. I definitely swear more in English! This might be because by speaking a language that isn’t my mother tongue, I can distance myself emotionally. And that’s a really interesting observation. Does that mean that the feelings expressed in my non-native language are less real? This doesn’t seem to make total sense, yet I do think there’s a grain of truth in it.

Research supports this, claiming that when putting bilingual adults to the test, they tend to make more rational, utilitarian and economic decisions in a second language, especially when judging risk or when faced with a moral dilemma. The reason for this, according to researchers, is reduced emotionality when speaking the foreign language as opposed to their mother tongue. All subjects were asked how they would solve the following problem: A train is about to kill five people, and the only way to stop it would be to push another man in front of it. This would kill the man, but save five. Half the subjects were asked in their native language, the other half in a foreign language. And indeed, more participants selected the utilitarian choice when using the foreign language rather than their mother tongue.
In a recent study published in Public Life of Science (PLOS), researchers also found that their bilingual subjects emphasized different character traits, depending on which language they spoke. A group of women who spoke both French and Portuguese equally well had to compose stories with female main characters. Interestingly, the women described in the stories written in French tended to be strong characters who were more likely to stand up for themselves, whereas those in the Portuguese narratives tended to be more submissive and give in to others’ demands. The women who wrote those stories also mentioned how they felt their personality change when switching from one language to the other. One noted that she sounded like “an angry, hip suburbanite” when speaking French, but like “a frustrated but patient, well-mannered bank customer who does not want to draw attention to the fact she is an emigre” when she spoke Portuguese.
Another case in point is Noam Scheiber, the bilingual dad who published his story in the NY Times last year. Initially bringing up his daughter with the OPOL (One Parent One Language) method, he stopped speaking only Hebrew to his daughter, as he felt that she needed to also know his “English self,” feeling himself to be too restricted as a parent speaking only Hebrew.

I would go so far as to say that even books and films change personality when presented in different languages. Things do get lost in translation. Some things are humorous precisely because of the way the language is used to express them – they wouldn’t be funny in translation. This is why literary translation is a true art, and also why dubbing movies into another language is rarely very successful. I sometimes read a book simply for the pleasure of the language the author uses, even if the story might not be as good as another. I hardly ever recommend a book to someone who would have to read in in translation. Things do get lost along the way. My mother once lent me a book written by an English author, but in German translation. “This is a really great story”, she said. I fought my way through the book, but couldn’t enjoy it because the translation was so poor that I could detect what it said in the original in every sentence. The German translation was too close to the original, not managing to stand on its own, which in my view is essential for literary translation. When it comes to movies, the same applies. I’ve recommended movies that I’d seen in the original version to my parents and friends, only to have them come back to me after they had seen it (dubbed into German) and give a very lukewarm review. Trying to determine why exactly they didn’t like it, it often transpired that the language used obviously didn’t convey any of the suspense and feelings the original version evoked. I can barely stand watching anything in a dubbed format, as the unsynchronized lip movements bother me enough to get distracted, but mainly because it completely butchers the original acting. There’s so much in an actor’s voice that simply can’t be re-created in a dubbing studio. I think dubbing anything should be a criminal offense!

Of course everything also depends on the context. The situations in which we are required to speak one or the other language can have a huge impact on why we feel a certain way speaking it. I might feel more confident as the English “me”, because most of my adult life has happened in an English-speaking environment, i.e. I’ve managed work, house buying, having children, sorting out bank issues, etc. mainly in English, and not as much in German. And for someone emigrating to a new country, speaking their mother tongue might always evoke more nostalgic feelings, or feelings of oppression and fear, depending on their life’s journey.

What we can say with absolute certainty is that speaking more than one language makes life a whole lot richer and more interesting, with more dimension and insights. We might not gain a whole new persona, but we do gain glimpses into something else, and definitely some new perspectives. To use the words of Salman Rushdie, who writes in Imaginary Homelands: “It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation. I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.”

Sources and tons of further reading if you’re interested:

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