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My Language and My Personality

I have been thinking about this for a long time: Am I different when I am speaking English from when I am speaking Serbian? Does my personality change along with the language I use? Is it maybe that I switch to a different cultural identity? Or maybe both change, my personality and my cultural identity (or the mixture of the two).

A few days ago I read this article on the Psychology Today website: Life as a Bilingual by François Grosjean, Ph.D. In the article the author references his book Life with Two Languages, where he says “that what is seen as a change in personality is most probably simply a shift in attitudes and behaviors that correspond to a shift in situation or context, independent of language. Basically, the bicultural bilinguals … were behaving biculturally, that is, adapting to the context they were in.”  This might be a good scientific answer to my question based on specific studies. I can see how the type of situation we are in affects who we are, or rather who we decide to be in a particular situation in order to better match the current environment linguistically, intellectually, and culturally. This answer provides the bone and muscle of the answer to my dilemma.

But the blood of my answer has to come from my heart. And that answer is different. I think when I switch from one language to the other, the change that comes with it  goes deeper than affecting just my attitudes and my behavior. It feels to me like every time I change the language, I turn into someone else. Fully. Fundamentally. Maybe that’s why switching between the two languages is so hard for me. So disorienting. Every time I make the switch, it takes me a minute to shake off and quickly forget the old self and to quickly adjust to the new self. That’s why for many years I simply discarded Serbian. It was so much easier, but deep in my heart I knew I discarded a part of myself too.

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Who am I when speaking Serbian? I feel like a Slav. I feel like the “Slavic soul” we Slaves like to talk about is bubbling in me at 100⁰C. My emotions and my mind feel all liquid and soft and meandering, flowing in all directions. I feel like I am the one whom you could make cry in a second. My words come in succession, and keep coming, and coming and coming, and there is only a meaning to be extracted on every tenth word or so, the rest of the words have just a supporting role.

When I speak English, I feel like I am this independent and strong and decisive woman who treads the world in big steps. I feel my strength, not my sensitivity. I am unbreakable, just like my sentences that are not heavy on words, but rather substantial and dense with meaning, where every word that comes out of my mouth has weight. Maybe this correlates to my tendency to use a lot of nouns and verbs (content words) in English. You don’t have these “thin” places in a sentence that are comprised of conjunctions and other auxiliary words that don’t have a meaning per se.

I tried, consciously and subconsciously, to bring the properties of one language into the other. It didn’t work very well. I tried to bring my long windy adjective- and metaphor-heavy sentences into English. I still sometimes do. The sentences feel cluttered and require heavy editing. I started transferring the syntactic rules of English in Serbian. My Serbian felt stifled and queer.

It looks like it’s best to keep English English and Serbian Serbian. I am comfortable being in either one of the two languages. I feel like I am both my Serbian and my English selves. At different times. What makes me uncomfortable is trying to be both at the exact same time. To walk that fine line dividing the two. I guess I have the feeling I might slip any moment. And I know that if I do, I’ll be fine, but knowing it might happen and trying to prevent it from happening makes me feel like I am working too hard.

Does my personality change along with the language I use? I feel like it does. I feel like I become a different self. Like it’s not just my adaptation to a different situation, but more a switch to a different self that I can feel flowing in me in a different way, to the rhythm of the music of a different language.

  1. Bob DiNardo
    November 30, 2011 at 4:45 am

    Since it would be impossible for us to have a conversation in Serbian, I have yet to notice any change in your personality. You are always your delightful self. And your recent observations of Andrei’s behavior were very moving. You have no idea how grateful I am that you’re well within viewing distance.

  2. A Frog at Large
    December 11, 2011 at 9:25 am

    I really like this post, especially when you talk about how you feel different depending on which language you speak, I feel exactly the same when I go to France. The way I speak to people, how I express myself and how I behave changes a lot. I would describe it as a shift in emphasis in my personality, rather than a complete change. But to the world, it does look like a strong change, my husband has commented on the fact that I am still me but different. It’s going to be especially interesting when my little girl starts talking in a year or so, as she will be bilingual from the start…

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