Does Speaking a Foreign Language Change Your Personality?
My high school English teacher used to say, "Learning a foreign language changes you forever."
Despite being an obvious attempt to make us passionate about her subject, her words made sense to me — the kid who quoted obscure Buffy the Vampire Slayer lines, and treated Alanis Morissette’s lyrics like the word of God.
Learning English strongly affected my habits and interests, but was I really profoundly changed by it? No, not until I moved to Germany. Oddly, as an adult in Berlin I started speaking and writing more English than I had ever done before. The more I spoke, the more my teacher’s prophecy took an unexpected shape. I wasn’t only changing — my Italian-speaking self and my English-speaking self had become two different individuals.
Split of the online self
Blogging is where the signs of this metamorphosis first showed. Every time I write something in Italian, my mother tongue, darkness falls on my glittery intentions. I reread my old posts and imagine myself writing from a semi-dark basement, lip syncing to "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables.
Whenever I blog in English, on the other hand, it’s a different story. I feel like my mind is riding alpacas, sliding down rainbows, and on a sugar rush from a six-layer wedding cake.
The persistent vegetative state of the party
Does the expression Life of the Party have an opposite? If it does, that’s probably an accurate way to describe my role at Italian-speaking parties. I drag myself to the host’s flat, usually moved by guilt from missing previous social happenings. I silently mingle with the wall, unless the chips run out and I need to demand a refill. I’m the persistent vegetative state of the party, and every Italian word that mistakenly comes out of my mouth seems heavy and strangely out of place.
Surprisingly, I don’t have this problem at English-speaking parties. It has nothing to do with the people or with my language skills; it’s just that I feel more free, and more funny whenever I speak English.
“Either I am possessed by the devil or I am crazy,” I thought when I started questioning my mental health. I imagined my personalities diverging more and more over time, until the horrifying moment in which I would insist on putting pineapple on pizza, traumatizing my Italian self, and leading to a mental breakdown.
Not crazy, I guess
Luckily, in the midst of my delirium, I stumbled on this interesting article from the New Republic. Over the past several decades, scientists have studied whether speaking different languages makes us intrinsically different. In the late ’60s, Susan Ervin tested a group of Japanese women living in the US and had them answer a set of questions both in English and Japanese, with staggering results. Whenever answering in Japanese the women gave conservative, reassuring answers, whereas the English answers made them sound like a gang of anarchists who throw molotovs for fun. (DISCLAIMER: this interpretation of the test is personal, and powered by too much cheap wine).
Since then, more studies followed and they all seem to suggest that bilingual or trilingual people’s personalities slightly differ depending on which language they are using, but we don’t know why. Is it something inherent to each language — as the article suggests – or does it have to do with the different circumstances in which those languages are used? There are certain situations I never found myself in during my first 26 years in Italy. I have never asked for a raise in Italian; I haven’t requested a credit card, or quit my job, and — weirdly enough — I have never told anyone “I love you” in Italian either.
Maybe languages have no special powers after all, and it’s not the terms we know (or don’t know) that shape our personalities. Maybe we can have the whole Oxford Dictionary in our brain, or be constantly learning new words on language learning apps like Babbel. But maybe it isn’t until we pour all of what we know into the ear of someone who’s willing to listen, react and respond, that language really has an impact on who we are.
Federico Prandi (he/him) is a human love letter to the internet. He's into social media, online marketing, and destroying his own reputation through a blog. His favorite offline activities include lowering his life expectancy one kebab at a time and listening to very sad music.