March 9, 2013
Last night I saw someone I hadn’t seen in a few years. We spoke English with each other. After a while we switched into our other common language.
I was reminded that as you switch languages you switch personalities.
In English we struggled a bit for a topic to discuss. In Slovak it flowed smoothly. In English we spoke about more banal topics – at least for a while. In Slovak we jumped to central issues of identity.
In bilingual contexts, I’ve been told that some people don’t like my English language personality. Others don’t like my Slovak language personality. The awareness of these differing “lingual personalities” is something I seem unable to recognize, just as naturally as I am incapable of recognizing my own accent.
In English some topics are more comfortable, certain conversation styles more comfortable. In Slovak other topics are more comfortable. This is a concept I call lingual personality. Others have called them “language personalities” though they tend to focus more on the superiority of ones native tongue here and here. Others refer to it as “culture frame switching” or CFS – here and here (pdf).
Last night, very clearly, I was reminded that such a gulf exists. I know the gulf is there, I can clearly feel its presence, yet I have no knowledge of where it is, where it ends, how large it is – except when I accidentally stumble into it awkwardly enough to soaking myself with water and remember the exact moment of stumbling.
I switch naturally between the two languages and have little cognizance of their differences, their limitations, even my limitations in each of those languages. Those limitations are there. I just don’t know where most of them are.
Thousands of people read these pages, people with feet in between at least two cultures, sometimes more. I think that a few who read this are likely to have some insight for me about this phenomenon of lingual personalities. If you do, please share.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.