My high school English teacher used to tell us stuff like, “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. After all, without a basic understanding of the English language I couldn’t have done any of that, and all those beautiful imaginary friendships would have never blossomed. It might sound a bit over-the-top, but it really is true that learning a new language can change your personality.
Then I made it to adulthood (I think) and experienced first-hand the perks of speaking a new language: hitting on exciting men (while still using Buffy references as pickup lines) and weaseling my way into more office gossip than ever before.
The Language Split Forms Online
Learning English strongly affected my habits, but was I really profoundly changed by it? Not until I moved to Germany. In Berlin, I started speaking and writing 10 times more English than I had ever done before. (Why not German? I blame the aforementioned exciting men for that.) 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 very different individuals.
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, leading to emo poetry and crepuscular thoughts. I reread my old posts and imagine myself writing from a semi-dark basement, drinking cheap wine and lip syncing to “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables, putting special dramatic emphasis on the bit that says, “My life has killed the dream I dreamed” (of course the cheap wine part is true, and I’m pouring myself a glass right now).
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, having a sugar rush from a six-layer wedding cake. I don’t know what this language does to me, but I know that the casual reader probably thinks I’m on my seventh espresso.
And it certainly seems weird — this personality divide — but who isn’t weird in the online world? From time to time we all look up photos of Mary Berry thinking they’d make for good desktop wallpaper; we also Google our name to make sure we are the most successful among our homonyms and develop delusional relationships with people found on LinkedIn. We do.
My linguistic bipolarism looked perfectly fine until the day I realized the offline world was affected too. It started to show in different social situations, especially in the most stressful of them all: the party.
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’m dressed in camouflage so I can mingle with plants and fly under everyone’s radar, careful not to make eye contact with strangers, deadly silent 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 tremendously heavy and strangely out of place.
Surprisingly, I don’t have this problem at 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, more funny and so very close to having sober fun whenever I speak English.
“Either I am possessed by the devil or I am losing it,” I thought when I started questioning my mental health. I imagined my personalities diverging more and more over time, till the horrifying moment in which Spencer Glinston (the name of my English personality) would insist on putting pineapple on pizza, traumatizing my Italian self and leading to a mental breakdown.
Not Losing It,I Guess
Luckily, in the midst of my delirium, I stumbled on an 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 1960s, researcher Susan Ervin tested a group of Japanese women living in the United States 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 à la Betty Draper, whereas the English answers kinda made them sound like a gang of anarchist truck drivers who throw molotov cocktails at cars for fun (DISCLAIMER: this interpretation of the test is personal and powered by too much cheap wine).
More studies followed and they all seem to suggest that — indeed — 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? I’ve never lived certain situations during my first 26 years in Italy. For example, I have never asked for a raise in Italian; I haven’t requested a credit card, debated over obscure IKEA instructions or quit my job; I haven’t apologized for losing someone’s keys and almost killing their cats; I haven’t rejoiced for winning a pub quiz; and — weirdly enough — I have never told anyone “I love you” in Italian.
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, but it isn’t until we pour all that into the ear of someone who’s willing to listen, react and respond, that language really has an impact on who we are.
This article was originally published on November 10, 2015.