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.


  1. Anonymous

    I totally agree with u! Although i am most proficient in french and english: there are expressions in my own mother tongue which i love to use and cant replicate so i seek people who speak it to go back to my roots

  2. Great post – and I definitely agree. My husband is completely fluent in Spanish (his mother tongue), English, and German, but he has commented previously that he can't 'be himself' in German. When I pressed him further, he said it was because he was never sarcastic in German, even though sarcasm is a huge part of his humor in English. I've also noticed that he becomes more vivacious and expansive when he speaks Spanish with his family than he usually is in English. Thanks for the post, it's great food for thought!

    1. Thank you for the feedback, Margaret! Different levels of proficiency in each language as well as different associations (memories, cultural references etc.) certainly play a role. Humour is a great example. What I find interesting is how we deal with all these multiple personas coexisting under one "roof."

  3. Lovely post, and I can very much relate to that.
    Although I grew up speaking Italian, I have found many years ago that English just captures me better. I feel like I can express myself better in English, and it's about being fluent or not, somehow. Something just clicks and I feel like I have more freedom of expression, which is so odd, but it is what it is.

    I have been told by a friend that I need to make more of an effort to "blend in" with the locals. I tried to explain to her that I don't choose friends based on their nationality, but on whether we get along and have similar interests. The language, though… I have to admit that definitely influences my choice of company 🙂

    1. Elisa,
      Thanks so much for your comments on this. Friendship is a lot about communication, so language definitely plays a role – at least for most of us. Blending in has many advantages, but so does being authentic 🙂

  4. Dear Katia,
    I really liked this article. We'd like to feature it and a few others on our site, a news and information site for expats living in Europe. How may I get in touch with you?
    Warm regards,

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