Tag: language

Recent Posts

The language of foreignness

Last week I read an article on how our personality changes when we speak different languages and it reminded me of a conversation I had years ago. A good friend and I were talking
about our “mobile” life and the challenges of adjusting to different environments every time we moved. I asked her how she felt about having to function in a language other than her native one – she is a Spanish speaker in a German-speaking country. “I get by fine,” she said, being quite fluent in German, “but I am only an adapted version of myself in that language.” Somehow, switching to German managed to turn this lively, assertive, energetic Mediterranean woman into a much tamer, quieter, shy person. I thought of my own French or German persona and how different it was from the Greek one.

The image we project in different languages differs – especially when our level of proficiency differs among those languages. It is not unusual to be more reserved than our usual self when we don’t feel confident enough to express ourselves in a foreign language. My husband often says that his IQ drops by at least 30 points when he speaks French. I feel intellectually challenged when I try to function in a language that I don’t master. While I struggle to make a point and get frustrated when I can’t, someone who does not know me may assume that I don’t actually have a point to make.
The opposite can also happen, though more rarely: we may feel more confident in a language that’s not our own. Another friend of mine discovered that there was a language that fit better with her personality than her native one. Although she came from North America and grew up speaking English and French, after learning Spanish as an adult, she realised that she felt more herself, more genuine in that language than in the ones with which she was raised. So she gravitated towards everything Spanish – both in her professional and personal life – because in that context she felt more connected and more genuine.
When we move around a lot – unless we are perfectly versed in all the languages of the places we move to (which most of us are not) – language is a big part of the foreigner experience. While it might be fun to slip into different characters and switch between personalities depending on the language we speak, it also makes it harder for us to be our true selves all the time. Doesn’t this inability to feel authentic and genuine, make us feel even more foreign? Doesn’t it make adjustment more complicated and challenging? How do we deal with that?
I used to disapprove of people who moved away from their home country only to end up socialising with the same kids of people – from back home or from similar cultures. Greeks seeking out other Greeks; Francophones or Anglo-Saxons clustering together. Typical expats, in my condescending opinion, wasting a unique opportunity to enlarge their horizons and enrich their lives; stagnating rather than moving forward. Then I moved to countries whose language I did not master and, over time, I understood. When you are assembling and disassembling (and reassembling) your life multiple times over, in the process of reinventing yourself, you sometimes lose track of who you are – at the core. So there are moments when you need to be able to feel genuine; to be yourself; when you crave the comfort of authenticity. And for most of us (though there are exceptions, of course), despite our multicultural, multilingual upbringing and multiple exotic experiences, that can only happen in one language. We do not necessarily seek out people who speak our “comfort language” to that we can continue to lead the same life we led back home; we seek them because it feels good to be ourselves from time to time. In our nomadic life, that comfort is essential.

Let it snow

While I lived in Vienna, I was always self conscious about my German. Even though it was relatively fluent and accent-free, I would never be mistaken for a local; as soon as I opened my mouth, everyone knew. I believed that, in order to get things done or to be taken seriously, either I had to ask for help from a “local” or switch to English. So that’s what I did for eleven years. I never felt that I could be myself in that language and that was a major component of my foreignness.
Then we moved to Zurich. Since I do not speak Swiss German (yet), the next best choice for communicating was “High” German – that same language I was self-conscious about. My Swiss interlocutors clearly speak it better than I do; strangely though, I don’t feel as self-conscious as I used to. High German is not the language everyone grows up speaking here, and for me, that evens the playing field. I have yet to feel the need to resort to English. Who would have thought?
There is also the weather. Having been raised in a Mediterranean country and moved to Austria from California, of all places, I have had a hard time adjusting to Central European winters – and that’s an understatement. Vienna had too much snow, too many days (and weeks) with sub-zero temperatures for my taste. When we moved to Zurich, I was expecting more of the same. No one told me that, during my first winter here, snow would be so much part of the daily landscape for weeks in a row, that waking up to a winter wonderland day after day would eventually have no impact on me whatsoever (part of me still hopes this winter is unusual, but probably it isn’t). Compared to Zurich, Vienna looks almost Mediterranean. Do I like that? Not one bit. What did I do about it? I decided to buy a bigger snow shovel for my driveway and a more sophisticated ice scraper for my windshield. Who would have thought?
And then there is the bigger picture. After growing up and spending a big part of my adult life in big cities, I was in for a shock when I moved to Vienna: it felt so small! It took me years to get used to that. And now, I moved to Zurich, which is even smaller than Vienna, without even blinking. Who would have thought?
Is all this proof that one can get used to almost anything? That everything is relative? Or could it be that, with every move, I am becoming more adaptable and more open, more skilled at doing “the foreigner thing;” that I consciously choose to see the big picture and let go of all the little and not-so-little things that have made me miserable in the past; that I’m becoming good at the “if you can’t change it, embrace it” sort of thing?
I have not overcome my snow aversion for sure, but I have learned to live with it. And I do enjoy speaking German without feeling self-conscious – even when I’m back in Vienna.