It is a common belief that language interacts with our thoughts and even affects the way we think. But there is also a claim, that each language shapes a specific view of reality. This recently got into my mind while I was reading a book in German that I had already read in Greek. I acknowledged that I perceived the book slightly different. Then I thought to myself: Can our native language shape how we see the world and if so what happens when we speak two or more languages? Is it possible that while we change the language we also change our personality?
Language is our main tool for communication. From a universal point of view it is grammatical systems, vocabulary, syntax etc. These are some of the elements we come across in nearly every language. But there is more to it. Each language is unique and differs from the others. It is generally accepted that language and culture are closely related. Each culture has its own perception of the world and this perception is expressed with the language of the specific culture. This is also why some words are untranslatable, like for example ‘‘Schadenfreude’’1 (German), ‘’φιλότιμο‘‘2 (Greek) or ‘’sobremesa’’3 (Spanish). Language allows us to express ideas that cannot be expressed the same way or would be insubstantial in another language.
This concept was initially introduced by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf and was called linguistic relativity. This hypothesis basically describes that the semantic4 and grammatical structure of our native language determines our thinking and behavior, passing on our view of the world. It is nearly impossible to resist the influences of the spoken language, as it all happens unconsciously in the brain.
By learning a new language we are introduced to a new perspective and are able to see the world from a different point of view. Opinions and values of a culture are reflected on the spoken language, thus might lead to a ‘’clash’’ when we learn a new one and dive into a different culture. Different languages represent different ways of thinking. It is not yet clear why when switching language we act and behave different. It probably happens, because when speaking we try to adapt to the norms and standards of a culture, leading us to behave in a way that is common or conventional for that culture. So, in a way we create alter-egos (without even realizing) that fit better in the given sociocultural circumstances.
As a multilingual myself, I can say that it is absolutely true. I often have caught myself realizing that I can express my feelings and emotions better in Greek, as it is a more in-depth language. On the other hand, while speaking English I can be more sarcastic, but when I speak German I feel more introverted. I have also noticed that I even change the volume of my voice, my attitude or my body language, actions that happen automatically.
Preserving your own identity is important, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that changing personality while switching the language is a bad thing. On the contrary, it allows us to experience something new, to see the world with another pair of eyes and from a different angle. We get a better understanding of other cultures, which results in being integrated and accepted in them much easier. So don’t worry if you find yourselves troubled. It is a natural thing, so let it happen. You never know what personality you are about to discover.
1‘’Schadenfreude’’: pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune
2‘‘Φιλότιμο‘‘: a heightened feeling of dignity, honor and responsibility.
3‘’Sobremesa’’: the time spent conversing at the table after having shared a meal with someone
4*semantics: the study of the relationship between words and their meanings