I’m not the first person to ever wonder: am I a different person in a different language? Struggling to find the words to say how you feel and think is of course going to have some impact on the way you are viewed, but even when you’re fluent, that doesn’t automatically mean you express yourself in the same way is in other languages. Recently, we were chatting about how language barriers affect how we’re perceived in France and then I read this post by Patricia, an American who lives in France (and writes the fantastic blog http://www.kissesandcroissants.com/) about finding yourself in another language and it inspired me to write my own experience of growing up with different personalities in a different language.
The bilingual: English Anna vs Polish Ania
I grew up bilingual, speaking English and Polish. My birth certificate says ‘Anna’ but to everyone in the Polish family I was and am still ‘Ania’. Polish was the only way to communicate with my grandparents and other family in Poland, where I spent every summer, so it became as familiar to me as English. As a child I was just me, Polish or English I was the same person. I had friends in both countries, I was just as playful, chatty, shy, bossy, everything. My Polish toys spoke Polish, they had their own little Polish personalities and sometimes, if they met my English toys when they came for a visit, there’d be a bit of a language barrier and I’d have to translate. (only child=lots of imagination).
As I got older and English became my first language, the language I spoke with my close friends and the language I used to talk about boys and music and make up and all the other life-or-death matters one needs to talk about as a teenager. I not only found my Polish language skills deteriorating, but I found the disparity between my English self and my Polish self growing. Grumpy-teen-with-issues Anna started developing back-chat and sarcasm, while Polish Ania stayed polite and quiet, not able to really vocalise just how very hard it is to be a 14-year-old, while being unable to associate as much with teenagers in Poland who seemed to have different problems.
As I got over teenage angst and started to develop an actual personality I became sociable, chatty, still sarcastic, occasionally funny, my personality shaped more by the friends I had and the culture I was surrounded by on a day to day basis.
In Poland though I was often described as ‘nieśmiała’ which means shy, but if you translate the two words making it up – ‘nie’ and ‘śmiała’ – means not smiling/laughing. It doesn’t have negative connotations really but I’d always hated that word and I felt it was an unfair description of my personality and never felt quite as comfortable and confident in my Polish skin, because I couldn’t be the person I’d developed into.
Now that I’m older I think I’m able to be more myself in both but I’ll never be the same me in both, my British humour doesn’t work as well in Polish, just like I don’t really ‘get’ Polish humour.
The foreigner: Who is French Anna?
So now, I’m in France, and I am getting to the point where I can communicate well enough and I’m starting to wonder what my French personality will develop into? The self-consciousness that comes with saying things wrong or not being able to express exactly what you want naturally makes me a little more shy. But, unlike in Polish, sometimes in French I overcompensate. I smile a little more, I give opinions more. I don’t have the vocabulary or the nuances to be subtle so I’m not really. I just say what I think. War? Bad. Food? Good. Ok maybe not that simple.
Despite the fact that Polish is the stronger language I’m finding my French personality is actually a bit more like the real me. I form more arguments, I make (terrible) jokes and I think the key difference is the fact that a) the cultures of France and England are much more similar to each other and b) because we’re around people our own age a lot more and also a lot of other foreigners going through the same thing we are able to empathise with each other and develop together. I’m not quite sure who French Anna is yet but I quite like her and I’ll let you know how she turns out. Has anyone else experienced split-personalities in different languages?