I teach Spanish at Eastern Mennonite University. The other day while awaiting for all the students to arrive, a few began to engage me in some small talk. “Do you know that you are different when you speak Spanish?” one student asked. “You are more laid back; funnier. You seem to be more serious when you speak English.”
I asked other students who had arrived if they experienced the same difference in me. I was a bit non-plussed at how vigorously several students nodded their heads. Now, I had been told before that I act differently when I speak Spanish, but this was back during a time when I was struggling with faith issues and had become quite cynical. My responses to questions in English tended to be dripping with biting sarcasm. My Spanish persona wasn’t as hard edged, perhaps because I used it mostly in teaching situations or social encounters.
When I was in high school, I was a class clown. I was knocked for not taking anything seriously. That silliness was replaced by cynicism through the severe realities of poverty and oppression that I witnessed in Latin America where I learned my Spanish. I have worked hard at overcoming my cynicism and snide remarks and thought that the class clown and cynic had resolved their differences. I guess the class clown still resides in the Spanish side of my brain while the cynic still influences the English speaker.
I know for a fact that it is easier for me to give compliments in Spanish than in English. Part of the reason is that I never received many compliments in my own upbringing, while I was overwhelmed with compliments when living in certain parts of Latin America. Another reason is because giving compliments in English, especially to someone of the opposite sex, depending on the recipient, can be seen as harassment. In Spanish, a compliment is always accepted with huge grins, unguarded thank yous, and often a hug; from either male or female.
I am also more polite in Spanish. I use more words to express my thanks; many that would be too flowery in English. I use more hand gestures and touch more while speaking Spanish. Do these examples make me be more laid back and funnier in Spanish?
I have known quite a few multi-lingual people over the years, but I can’t say that I observed a wide variance of personality in them when speaking different languages. One, a native speaker of English, has converted his way of thinking and use of language completely into the mindset of the second language he had learned. Another is exactly the same in all three languages. Each language is pronounced with the same cadence and the same personality comes through no matter which he is speaking.
I do know of one example of a woman who speaks Italian and a rural dialect of German. When she speaks Italian she seems to be a fashion model, but when she speaks the dialect of German she comes off as an ordinary farmer’s daughter. This example seems to be more like the differences my students were pointing out in me than others I have cited.
So this begs the question, do I have two distinct personalities depending on whether I speak English or Spanish? Wonder if I would score differently on the Myers-Briggs scale if I took it in Spanish. I have not even addressed the fact that I have to deal with a third reality, Swiss German, the language of my wife. Do I act differently when I speak in Swiss or is the German more akin to English so that not such a drastic difference in personality can be detected?
Will the real me please stand up? I really don’t think twice about how I am acting when I speak a certain language. Whatever I speak or however I act, it is me. I am not two-faced. I do not have a split personality or an evil twin. I am not Jekyll and Hyde. I think I am simply emphasizing certain aspects of my personality as I embody the cultural and linguistic nuances of each. My soul, stamped with the image of God, is just reflecting more of God’s wonderfully diverse mosaic of people.
The real me stands up no matter what I do or say.