Are You a Different Person When Speaking Different Languages?

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I’ve been thinking about this idea for a while but finally decided to write about it when I stumbled across a post on Alex Rawlings’ blog. Alex, who is studying German and Russian at Oxford, was named most multilingual student in Britain in a contest. In the aforementioned post, Alex asks whether he and a friend acted differently when they spoke three different languages (Russian, Hebrew, and English) in a video he recorded for the post.

Sometimes I feel like I’m a different person when I speak Russian. I talk more in Russian than I do in English – or rather, I talk more with random people in Russian that I do in English. When I’m speaking Russian, I have no qualms about going up to random Russian speakers and saying hello. To be honest, I don’t often talk to random people when I’m speaking English. (I actually wish I were the sort of person who did this!) In Russian, though, I randomly ask people if they speak Russian and if they do, then a whole conversation ensues. Luckily Russian people really seem to like meeting random Americans who speak their language, so I’ve never had any bad experiences that resulted from talking to random people.

Sometimes, I even think of myself as having a different name when I speak Russian (trust me, it’s not as weird as it sounds). I spent four years in Russian class being called Natasha (which is the nickname for the Russian form of my name, Natalia) and sometimes I’ve even introduced myself that way to Russian speakers.

One important thing I’ve noticed about English-speaking me is that I feel very American. It takes less than a foreign language to make someone feel foreign. I spent an academic year in England and still felt very foreign, even though I spoke English there. British English just has so many odd little quirks that I felt out of place.

Bottom line: even though English-speaking me and Russian-speaking me are obviously the same person, I do behave differently when speaking Russian vs. English. Have any of you noticed this phenomenon? Let me know in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “Are You a Different Person When Speaking Different Languages?

  1. Definitely. My humour doesn’t convey well at all in Spanish – or perhaps I’m not yet good enough to get my humour across in Spanish. 90% of what I say in English is sarcastic or the opposite of what I really mean. I think I’m more boring in Spanish.

    1. Funny, I’m the total opposite! I find myself to be hilarious in Russian, but not that funny in English. 🙂

  2. On the contrary, when I have visited the UK, in some ways it didn’t seem foreign enough. It can seem like American cultural hegemony is everywhere you look: theme parks, fast-food restaurants, even American-style masterplan suburban developments (with less of an emphasis on detached housing, but, nonetheless, the American ideal of homeownership is palpable). I have come to appreciate many of the traditional dialectical features of UK standard English, but I have noticed with some chagrin incursions of American English. For example, I love how Englishmen and women “ring” each other when they want to communicate by phone, but I have also heard some Britons say they “call” people like Americans. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before dustbin lorries get replaced by garbage trucks.

    When I speak Russian, I believe I express most of the same thoughts that I would otherwise produce in English. There are, of course, radically different lexical features, many of them adapted to describing Russian cultural phenomena. (I was having a conversation with my friend the other day about the sport of городки and how it was featured on the classic Soviet-era cartoon Ну, погоди!, and I think it would be difficult to translate/interpret our conversation into English without lots of explanations).

    One of my professors, who has been teaching Russian and travelling to Russia for more than 40 years, likes to say that he is “bicultural,” and that he becomes a different person when he speaks Russian. Yet he speaks both Russian and English with a Minnesota accent, and he acts like a perfect American given that he smiles all the time, talks loudly and is willing to shake everyone’s hand firmly. So, in a way, it can be rather hard to assume another cultural identity, even when you are speaking another language.

    Yet humans have tried to do just this for a long time now, and perhaps in the past it was a much more perilous venture than it is today. I like to recount Herodotus’s story of Scyles, a Scythian prince who fell in love with Greek culture. He tried to lead two lives: outside the walls of the Greek city of Olbia on the Black Sea he led the life of a Scythian chieftain, but inside the city he donned Greek robes, took part in religious mysteries and kept a Greek wife. However, his tribesmen eventually found out about his second life, and they believed that Scyles betrayed his Scythian identity by becoming Greek. He was killed by his brother.

    1. Funny, I didn’t feel that way about the UK at all. Maybe because I spent most of my time outside London, which is a pretty cosmopolitan city.

      I like the whole bicultural idea. I can definitely relate. 🙂 And thanks for sharing the story of Scyles. I was a history major, but I don’t know much about ancient history at all, so it was nice to learn something new.

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