Language and Personality

A monolingual colleague was very surprised when I said that I feel and act very differently as a Spanish speaker than when I speak English, Russian or Ukrainian.

It shouldn’t surprise us, though, that achieving complete fluency in a language has an impact on behavior and self-perception.

Take, for instance, the issue of gesticulation. People gesticulate very differently in different cultures. Some do an enormous lot of it, while others do next to none. Once you start gesticulating differently or suppressing gesticulation, you involve your entire body in the act of speaking. We are our bodies, and it makes no sense to assume that the way one moves has no effect on how one feels.

Intonation varies greatly among languages and is usually one of the hardest things for a non-native to master. Once you change your intonation, you have changed the entire musicality of your existence. We all feel differently while listening to a lullaby as opposed to a military march. Why wouldn’t we register a change once we become the source of the music of our daily lives?

A language is a lot more than a dictionary and a book of grammar rules. People who speak different languages touch each other in different contexts and with different frequency. Some barely touch at all and maintain a physical distance during a conversation that is completely unnatural to people in other linguistic milieus. Pronouncing different sounds involves groups of muscles that might not even coincide among languages. In the early stages of language learning, we bring handheld mirrors to class so that students can see themselves while pronouncing unfamiliar sounds. “I’ve never done anything like this before with my tongue!” a student once exclaimed, provoking a burst of laughter from the rest of the class.

In order to pronounce a set of sounds, you might have to lift your chin in a way you normally don’t do. Try an experiment, and hold your chin an inch higher than usual. I can guarantee you are going to feel different as you do it. And that’s just one simple adjustment. Now think of what it would mean to switch into a completely new articulation apparatus.

Humans are not machines that deliver messages in different languages at the touch of a button. We are not a collection of different parts, some of which can be swapped out without affecting the entire organism. Everything in the human body is connected to everything else. And language – the very thing that makes us human – is at the root of everything we are.

A National Bear Hug

In the small but happy group of scholars I’ve been hanging with here in Spain, one is a self-avowed Communist, another a Vox supporter (the equivalent of our MAGA) and yet another is an extremely centrist moderate. There were three others but I want to concentrate on the colleagues I describe because it was unusually pleasing to observe their interactions.

The colleagues argued, yelled, waved their hands, and expressed themselves with complete openness. As we can well imagine, they did not agree on any of the issues we discussed, including abortion, gender quotas, taxation, trans, gay marriage, Marxism, race, Catalonia, Franco, etc. Everybody was very passionate about their beliefs but nobody was afraid of being denounced for their “harmful” words.

I actually asked the Vox (~ MAGA) voter what would happen if anybody snitched on him to the university administrator. At first, nobody understood the question and then the group burst out laughing. “Oh, my Dean would really enjoy telling that snitching loser to go [a string of inventive obscenities] himself. Or should I say ‘herself’ to protect the inclusivity obsession of our lefty friends?” Then the Communist tore into him, and the debate resumed.

I heard a lot during that discussion but one thing that was completely absent is the contemptuous attitude towards their own country that is so natural in the US. Nobody suggested that “this country is a mess” or “everything is falling apart”, even though things are “falling apart” in Spain a lot more than in the US. Everybody spoke of Spain with the deepest love and admiration.

After 4 hours of screaming at each other and disagreeing about everything, the colleagues joined in a long and happy bear hug. And I really wished we could do the same in America. The oft-expressed idea that leftist and right-wing Americans have absolutely nothing in common and that they “already live in what amounts to different countries” is absolute lunacy. People who say it are either liars or have no understanding of what being in a different country actually means. Americans have an enormous lot in common. And most of it is very good.

All that’s missing is remembering all we share and giving each other a gigantic national bear hug.