Changing Languages Changes Your Personality

Lingual Personality

March 9, 2013

Allan Stevo

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.

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Comments

  • English is a work language for me. I had a teacher who was Slovak, but we talked shop in English. Problem solving, exact reasoning and technical topics just flow better in English. I gave a talk in Slovakia about my work, in Slovak, and it was awful.

    Slovak is my native language, and it’s the language for human connection. Stories about emotions and human interaction find easier expression in Slovak, as does poetry of small and intimate things, and of negative emotions. The poetry of the grand, the exhilarating and of positive emotions, works better in English.

    Also, I find the more flexible morphology of Slovak somethings enables humor and shades of meanings impossible to translate to English. It might be illuminating to consider jokes that just won’t work in one of the languages and try to see why.

    Of course it’s a personal view.

  • Tomas,
    Thank you for sharing those limitations that you feel in your experience with each language. Really fascinating. Slovak – human connection, small things, intimate things, negative emotions, flexible morphology. English – work, problem solving, exact reasoning, technical, the grand, the exhilarating, positive emotions. Beautiful list. I bet there are some who would express feelings that are the exact opposite of yours, which I hope I might here in these comments. For example, I know a Greek speaker who insists that English is so confusing that it could only have been developed by design to restrict the mental bandwidth of the speakers of that language. I wonder if there is something structurally about Slovak and English which supports what you are saying or if it is entirely an issue of personal experience. Thank you again, Tomas.
    Allan

  • I was told that my English is different when speaking to my Nigerian boyfriend from the English I speak at work :)

  • Interestingly, as I have observed my sister she also uses more gestures and body language when speaking Italian. What she says (the content) sounds (to me) more like blah-blah compare with Slovak and English. Basically, the other two languages would probably select more direct words to express the message. However, I think that if you can speak both (or several) languages properly (whatever it means and it may take ages to get there by the way:-( you find out that both or all contain some kind of limitation which has something to do with culture and different environment where these languages were developed. Great idea for a PhD project. Anyone?
    Thanks Allan

  • Very good blog! I find this to be an interesting topic as well. I speak fluently both Slovak and English, but I do not use them for same things most of the time.

    As Tomas said, I use English for my work and it feels right. On the other hand, trying to explain to somebody what I do in Slovak just does not feel right. It’s not only because I just don’t know how to translate many words and expressions, but I think it is due to the fact that I learned to work in English. In addition, most of the terminology was first used/described in English too.

    At the same time, I prefer Slovak for personal conversations. I feel I can express myself much better in Slovak. Maybe because it is my native language and often I use less common words, which is much harder in English.

    I also observed another interesting fact about languages, this time connected to reading. For some reason, I really don’t like reading fantasy/sci-fi books in Slovak. I don’t think the language is made for it :) On the other hand, I feel like Czech is just perfect for this genre. Even better that the language the book was originally written in. This probably highly personal though.

    Michal

  • I first met my relatives in Bratislava in 1970 when the country was still occupied by Russia. I quickly found my Slovak not fluent enough to adequately express myself and their English was non-existent. But over the years we managed to communicate reasonably well. I totally agree that there is a personality change with language change. I found I was taking on Slovak attitude and concepts. The younger generation now speaks fluent English but I have lost touch with them to see if their personality changes with the language change.

  • Is there anyone bilingual from his/her childhood? His/her perception could stir our discussion to the new levels. What about you Allan. When did you start learning Slovak?

  • Danica,
    I learned Slovak as a child since both my parents spoke the language. My older sister taught me English before I started school. I would describe my Slovak as a sort of “pigeon” Slovak, a hybridized version because of the melding of the two languages in our household.

  • Michal makes an interesting point that I happen to agree with.

    There are books that I read in English, Czech, and Slovak, and there are a few gems that are *better* in Czech than their English originals, while the Slovak translation seems inferior to the original.

    I concur this happens most frequently in sci-fi. Notably the (first?) Czech edition of the Hitchhikers’ guide is hilarious beyond the original, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, already incredibly deep, feels even deeper in Czech.

  • I am an interpreter (English/Slovak – mother tongue)
    My Slovak boyfriend finds me more sexy when I speak English. It’s not the language, but the melody he likes :) The fakt, that in English you must slow down to be understandable. (I speak quite fast in Slovak).

  • I think the people above me summed it up pretty well. I am a native Slovak but I have to use English daily. Most of the time the language I am “thinking in” is Slovak but sometimes I find myself switching to English in my head without realizing it. It happens with work-related things (though like someone mentioned, that could be because the terminology of my field was English first) but also with abstract things. I don’t know if abstract is the right word, I find it hard to describe, but I guess I could say that I find the English language better for thinking and the Slovak language better for describing and actually “feeling”. I admit that maybe I just don’t know the English vocabulary well enough but to me it seems that Slovak language has much more words for emotions, the most common example could be the verb love – there are three different ways to say it in Slovak. Add all the declensions, relatively free word formation and almost non-existent word order in Slavic languages and you end up with tons of different ways to say something, each with small nuances that offer you to express yourself exactly the way you feel. Basically, Slavic languages seem a bit more “free” (which is of c ourse not good for everything). I noticed this for example with my Russian friend. We are both fluent in English, Slovak and Russian. We use all three languages, sometimes switching them without realizing it, sometimes even mid-sentence. You could really say that English is our “work” language (used for things like planning, doing business…) while Slovak and Russian are the “personal” languages.

    This reminds me of an interesting thing I noticed about me when talking with foreigners who understand Slovak. I find it really hard to communicate using two different languages. For example, I cannot talk to my Canadian friend if I speak Slovak and he speaks English. We must either both speak Slovak or English. Same with the Russian friend who is fluent in Slovak – both Slovak or both Russian. So maybe you are right that changing your language can change your personality slightly and it is easier to communicate when both people are “tuned in” to the same mentality. The only foreigners who I feel comfotable talking to in two different languages are the Czechs. But I guess that is natural, we understand each other more than anyone else and I don’t mean the language.

    I agree that Slovak is not suited for fantasy/sci-fi books, however Czech is even better than English. To add one gem, try Terry Pratchett in Czech. It fits the witty Czech humor just perfectly, even better than the already great original. On the other hand, I find Slovak much better for “raw” realism.

  • I love English, my second language but I miss diminutives (pet names) which are in Slovak. Since acquiring English only speaking boyfriend I speak only English but pet names I use for him are Slovak only (e.g. kocurik, tigrik). He also learned some Slovak pet names which he uses for me.

  • Mira,
    What a nice image – you and your boyfriend calling each other by such sweet Slovak names. Thank you for sharing this detail.
    Allan

  • L,
    Thank you for the insightful comments. Some of my friend are friends who are used to quickly switching from English to Slovak. This makes that almost a foundation of our relationship. It feels good to be in a group where you can switch like that. It’s almost like you have your own private language. Of course everyone around you understands Russian and Slovak and English, but when you are with that group of people, the way that you switch languages probably makes for even a greater feeling of inclusion. Beautiful way that you describe that. Also, Slovak v. Czech – very interesting and English as the Work language. As I said, thank you, L, for your insightful comments.
    Allan

  • Another interesting topic, Allan,
    I am not able to answer to the question whether English for work and Slovak for private life, simply because my English is not good enough to judge. I would say that Slovak language has got a large variety of one word to express the relation or emotion towards a person, an animal., a thing whatever – more than English does.
    For example – a dog, in Slovak pes – psík, psíček, havinko, havo (positive attitude), psisko (negative attitude), or the daughter, in Slovak dcéra – dcérka, dcéruška, dcérenka, mama – mamička, mamka, maminka, mamuška, mamulienka. It is strange than these are mostly the words expressing the positive attitude.
    Except for English I can speak German and this language sounds like “práskanie bičom”. Sorry German, I cant help myself.
    And then there is my second beloved language (after Slovak) – the Czech language. I have been reading Czech books since I was a child, it is literally my second mother tongue ( I decided for this, my origin is Slovak – Hungarian), I love reading Czech books , the colloquial language I love less, especially that of Prague inhabitants. But – I tried to read a book by Vladimir Sorokin in Czech translation and I could not get through – it was awfull. So, never read a russian author translated into Czech. It is not going to work.

  • This is a really interesting topic. Kudos to you Allan for writing so many posts that make for great discussion topics. A friend of mine had observed years ago that when talking to different friends and colleagues I tended to almost ‘change my personality’ by using different specific words and phrases. She claimed it seems like I was ‘acting’ when it fact I had never thought about it. Mind you this was all in English.

    I had assumed that this was human nature, that when we talk intimately with another human being we each use a type of mimicking chameleon-like approach as we relate to one another. Even when speaking the same language, certain words can have special, specific meanings between two people and yet another meaning among others.

    I suppose the types of words a culture’s language uses and how well they lend themselves to different types of communication, are probably very telling of what kind of culture it is.

  • I think that it is based on what language is your native language. If Slovak is your native language, it means that only when u speak Slovak, it is your true real personality. That is you. Slovak language is just a tool to fully express yourself. If u switch to English = your second language, it is still you, but second language is obviously not so imprinted into your brain, like main language. So, this is why you act different way. The same if somebodys native language is English, when he/she switch to second language, suddenly “it is not the same person”. Only people born into bilingual familes can use both languages the same way. Their personality must be the same then, in both languages. Which is not your case. My opinion.

  • I think that it is based on what language is your native language. If Slovak is your native language, it means that only when u speak Slovak, it is your true real personality. That is you. Slovak language is just a tool to fully express yourself. If u switch to English = your second language, it is still you, but second language is obviously not so imprinted into your brain, like main language. So, this is why you act different way. The same if somebodys native language is English, when he/she switch to second language, suddenly “it is not the same person”. Only people born into bilingual familes can use both languages the same way. Their personality must be the same then, in both languages. Which is not your case. My opinion…

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